As a member of various Facebook football nostalgia groups, I often manage to while away hours that could be more productively spent simply scrolling through postings and musings from fellow members.
These pearls of wisdom normally relate around the rose-coloured viewpoint that football and footballers back in the ‘good old days’ were inherently better in most ways to its current counterpart. As well as discussions relating to teams, players and matches in years gone by, topics invariably include debates regarding stadia, atmosphere, and ‘characters’ in football.
A reasonably regular bone of contention seems to be players (or teams) that were or are either over or underrated. These threads usually go along the lines of a member posting a generic question such as, “Who was the most under/overrated player of the ’80s?” or else slapping a picture of a particular player up accompanied by the proclamation: “Player XXXXX – arguably the most over/underrated player of his time,” etc.
Once lit, the OP then retreats from the fuse and watches it all go off as contributors fall over each other to react accordingly.
Although most discussions are kept civil, some do stray beyond the boundaries of acceptability. Those who really should know better by their age seem to take decided umbrage at the thought their opinion on a player who last kicked a ball three decades ago may not be the only one in the stratosphere.
Nevertheless, it can be amusing to watch from a distance, and it has got me thinking. Which players and teams do I consider to be either over or underrated from days gone by.
Well, let’s start with an ever-ready favourite, shall we? None other than Captain Marvel himself, Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson.
Talismanic leader of Manchester United in the reign of ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson and the early days of Sir Alex, Robson spent almost thirteen years ploughing through the United midfield, collecting trophies, caps, honours and accolades galore, and yet still manages to polarise opinion as to exactly what his legacy entails.
At one end of the spectrum are those who insist Robson was an extraordinary player who never got the recognition he deserved, while those at the other end of the proverbial see-saw consider him vastly overrated, overhyped and over trumpeted.
Between his signing for United in the autumn of 1981 and Atkinson’s departure almost five years to the day later, Robson featured in a United side that often flattered to deceive.
The fact that he was almost uncertainly their best player during this period is pretty much universally agreed, yet his influence on the side is still debated.
Bryan Robson has gone down in folklore as being ‘injury prone’. What seemed like large swathes of his career were spent on the sidelines coming back from his latest injury, and whether or not this label is a particularly fair one, it nevertheless has stuck with him.
He played at three World Cups for England and famously failed to finish two of them, being injured in Mexico in 1986 and four years later at Italia ’90. Each time England didn’t seem to miss him much it is fair to say, and, indeed, went onto enjoy relatively successful tournaments after initially struggling with Robson in the side.
Perhaps, however, this disparaging of Robson’s reputation due to perceived frailty is a bit unfair. He did play for United until he was 37 after all, and even then when he was finally prised out of the door at Old Trafford he still dusted off his boots as player-manager of Middlesbrough for another couple of seasons.
The fact that United under Atkinson when Robson was at his very peak didn’t win that much relatively speaking, is probably responsible for him being held in mixed sway by the neutral. Although United fans are universal in their acclaim that the man remains one of England’s greatest ever midfielders, others remain less than convinced.
Personally speaking, I think Robson was top-drawer but falls just below the level of the truly great. In my opinion, the Manchester United team of 1983-1986 should have won at least two titles and the fact they didn’t was in large part due to the injuries suffered by Robson at the time.
This combined with well-known ‘drinking culture’ at Old Trafford, of which Robson was an integral part, cements his place in the pantheon below all-time great.
The 1970s and ’80s was the period when football became more open and available to the masses. Although media coverage was nowhere near what it was to become in the ’90s even, let alone the current day, television highlight shows two or three times a week brought football into the homes of the vast majority of supporters for the first time.
This resulted in stay-at-home supporters becoming more familiar with players and teams and in turn becoming more able to appoint heroes and favourites.
Some players seemed to shine and be afforded higher status than others despite perhaps having less natural talent. Similarly, some players with perhaps a quieter or lower profile often slipped under the radar, so as to speak, and are and were not held to the same levels of reverence.
The goalkeeping situation in English football in the 1970s and ’80s, for example, is an interesting one to look back on in terms of public perception.
This era is considered one of high quality with standout names such as Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence taking most of the plaudits, but with honourable shout-outs going to the likes of Pat Jennings, Phil Parkes, and Paul Cooper.
That said, the lasting legacies of these men differ considerably.
Shilton is seen as the granddaddy of all goalkeepers of this period, but is this label deserved? His longevity in the game certainly affords him a high status, but was he truly that much better than his rivals?
His international cap count was twice as good as the man who was considered his major rival at the time, Ray Clemence, but would anybody really argue that he was twice the ‘keeper?
Could it be that he was somewhat overrated at the time and many other ‘keepers undervalued? For example, Joe Corrigan might have earned a lot more caps in another era than the nine he garnered between 1976 and 1982, while Jimmy Rimmer actually won two European Cup medals and yet his name is scarcely mentioned in debates or conversations regarding great goalkeepers.
Moving on, if we look at some of the great sides of days gone by, there always seem to be certain players who were and are considered ‘unsung heroes’. These are the players who perhaps didn’t grab the spotlight or plaudits in the same way that some of their playing colleagues did.
If we take the great Liverpool teams of the ’80s and earlier as a case in point, players such as Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, and Graeme Souness are rightly heralded as all-time greats, but not so much long-serving compatriots such as Ronnie Whelan, Sammy Lee, Jim Beglin and Steve Nicol.
A case could even be made for suggesting that Kevin Keegan’s contribution to Liverpool is sometimes undervalued due to the legacy left by the man who replaced him at Anfield.
The same could be said at near-neighbours Everton, where players such as Kevin Ratcliffe, Paul Bracewell, Derek Mountfield and Pat Van Den Hauwe tended to slip under the radar while the likes of Andy Gray, Gary Lineker, Graham Sharp and Neville Southall were attracting the majority of headlines.
And what of club sides themselves? The Liverpool teams of that era are still held somewhat in reverence while others who challenged are, if not exactly, forgotten, certainly not held in the same esteem.
The Everton team of the mid-eighties was a wonderful one which has passed into Goodison folklore. Yet outside of that certain blue corner of Merseyside it perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it warrants. What was arguably the best – and almost certainly the most successful – Everton side of all time finds itself having to fight for recognition in halls of fame.
Why is this?
Perhaps the fact that Everton’s greatest ever period also coincided with Liverpool remaining at, or almost at, their very peak means that some of the gloss was lost from Everton’s triumphs and achievements.
Alternatively, maybe it is the long lingering feeling that football, in general, was in the doldrums at that particular point in time.
Whatever the reason or reasons, a good case can be made for the argument that Howard Kendall’s sides of that period were and are undervalued.
Of course, it could also be argued that the Liverpool team of that period is over-hyped in terms of how good it actually was. At first glance, that could seem rather a contentious and bold statement as after all the 1983-84 Liverpool team won English football’s first major treble of league, League Cup and European Cup, and two years later the league and FA Cup double was secured.
A closer look at those two campaigns though shows that rather than sweeping all before them Liverpool rather limped over the line each time.
In 1983-84 the Anfield men took 13 games to win the League Cup for example, while also only taking 17 points from their last 10 league games yet still taking the title. While the league two years later was secured largely courtesy of Everton falling away badly at the season’s end and dropping five points in their last four games.
Another side that perhaps suffered the same fate as Everton in being overlooked in the legacy stakes is Ron Atkinson’s entertaining West Bromwich Albion team that challenged for both league and cup honours without ever bringing home any silverware.
The same is probably true of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town teams of the same period that did win a couple of cups but came so close to winning much more.
Football is an emotive topic for debate at the best of times and it is the very fact that we all have different opinions and viewpoints that make it such an enthralling and beguiling one.
Many a long afternoon or evening has been spent debating the merits of days gone by, and long may this trend continue.