Friday, December 22, 2006

Mark Hughes

Sometimes you simply cannot avoid football cliches. Sometimes they say it all, so well, that you have to embrace them. Mark Hughes, or Sparky, as Man Utd fans know him, was never a great goalscorer. But he was most definitely a scorer of great goals.
The picture of him above sums it up - he scored a preposterous amount of volleys in his career, among them some astounding, acrobatic scissors kicks, bicycle kicks, and the occasional plain or garden variety volley whilst he was actually facing goal. My first memories of him are for his amazing volleyed goals, one scored for Wales against Spain in a World Cup qualifier (in 1985, I think) where he leapt into the air and scissor-kicked an outrageously high ball into the top corner from the edge of the box:

He saved Man Utd in the 1994 FA Cup final with a volley in the last few minutes:

He also had a propensity for screamers from distance and insanely brave headers. He was my favourite Utd player when I was a little kid, and I was gutted when he was sold to Barcelona in 1986. But that somehow just made it even sweeter when he returned in 1988 and went on to be part of Alex Ferguson's first title - and Double - winning team.

He had joined United straight from school in 1980 and made his debut in 1983. That United team, managed by Ron Atkinson, was a complex beast, full of class and talent with the likes of Arnold Muhren, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan, but also a team of big, scary warriors - the likes of Bryan Robson and Kevin Moran. Perhaps their scariest pairing was up-front : Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside. Both big, physical players, both young and technically gifted, both fond of a tackle in a typically bruising celtic manner. Hughes' strengths were obvious even then - he had phenomenal upper-body strength, and his ability to hold up the ball was better than any other forward of his generation. Tough enough to handle any rough treatment from defenders, he was aggressive enough to give it back. Throughout his career, when I read interviews with Centre-halves from various clubs they would name him as their most difficult opponent. Not because he would tear past them with the ball glued to his toe then rifle it into the top corner - though on a good day, he could do that too - but because he would chase them down, tackle them as hard as they tackled him, win more than his share of headers against them and generally never give them any time to relax.

Fans loved him for that, but his eye for a spectacular goal didn't hurt. He scored 37 in his first 89 games before the move to Barcelona, in which time Utd won the FA Cup, in 1985, the same year in which Hughes was voted PFA Young Player of the Year. He failed at Barcelona, his form deserting him, perhaps due to the more patient, technical nature of the Spanish game. Hughes physical gifts and bombastic workrate did not work as well in the Nou Camp as his new teammate Gary Lineker's sneakiness and perfectly-timed runs into the box. It took a loan move to Bayern Munich in 1987-88 for his form and self-belief to return. Alex Ferguson then brought him back to Utd for a club record £1.8 million, a bargain when you consider that he went on to score 82 goals in 256 appearances, win the FA Cup twice more, the League Cup once, and the League itself twice. Most satisfying for him was probably the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1991, when he scored both goals against his old club Barcelona, the second, the winner, a crushing drive from a seemingly impossible angle.

He also won PFA Players Player of the year twice in this period, in 1989 and 1991, and it is the high regard in which he was held by his peers that perhaps speaks most eloquently about what an honest, hard-working player he was. That first title-winning Utd side of Ferguson's was built almost entirely on strong personalities - men with backbone and fighting spirit. Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister, Robson, Ince, Cantona and Hughes were a fearsome line of footballers, willing to battle for results when the flair they usually deployed wasn't working. Hughes was Cantona's favourite strike partner, willing to do the dirty work and let Eric strut his stuff, but also capable of turning a game on his own with one of those spectacular leaps or diving headers. His distribution was always astute, and he and Cantona seemed capable of reading each others runs and movement perfectly. With Brian McClair as their third striker, that United side was able to outscore most opponents.

Hughes second departure from United, in 1995, was due to his age. He was 32 at the time, and Ferguson wanted to build a new, younger United squad, so he was sold to Chelsea in a clear-out that also included the sale of both Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. Hughes enjoyed something of a renaissance at Chelsea, scoring 25 goals in 95 games between 1995 and 2000, and helping the club win the FA Cup in 1997 and the Cup Winners Cup in 1998. He then spent a few years wandering from Southampton to Everton to Blackburn, sometimes using his physical presence and experience in central midfield, from where he was probably the key player in the 2002 League Cup final as Blackburn beat Tottenham 2-1.

The newfound maturity and leadership he displayed on the pitch may have grown out of his new role as a manager, as he had taken over as Wales Coach in 1999. He rejuvenated the Welsh squad and brought them closer to a major tournament than at any time since 1986 - when they had narrowly lost out to Scotland - by securing a play-off spot against Russia, which they lost, 1-0 over two legs. Hughes then moved to Blackburn as manager, where his relative success has positioned him firmly for the job of coach at his old stomping ground whenever Alex Ferguson decides he has had enough.

However successful he may be as Coach, his attitude and skill as a player is unforgettable :

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Liam Brady

Liam Brady may well be the greatest Irish footballer ever. There is a small pool of contenders for that title, perhaps four once we exclude George Best on the grounds that he was from Northern Ireland, and not the Republic.
There is Liam Brady, and there are Roy Keane, Paul McGrath and Johnny Giles. Brady was probably the most skilled of the four, perhaps the only true magician to ever play in the Ireland team. Gifted with a sublime left foot, Brady was a creative midfielder, a Number 10 who actually played wearing Number 7, and the talisman for Ireland, Arsenal and Juventus in the late 70s and early 80s.

He went to the same school as me (as did the current Irish Prime Minister) but when I attended, the rumour always was that Brady, easily the pupil's favourite past-pupil, had been expelled. It was a Christian Brothers School, very seriously G.A.A (meaning it enthusiastically promoted Gaelic games and tried to dissuade pupils from playing "English" games like soccer), and back in the 60s and 70s, that may even have resulted in disciplinary measures being taken against anyone who preferred to play football over Gaelic Football or hurling. But Dublin is a city in love with football, and in the 60s and 70s it produced a stream of players who thrived once they had moved to England. Brady came from a strong football family - his brothers played for QPR and Millwall, and his uncle had played - and was spotted by an Arsenal scout playing for St. Kevins Boys, a Dublin schoolboy institution. He signed for Arsenal in 1970, aged 15, and made his first-team debut at 17.

His game was built on his passing. He had a lovely first touch, and he was one of those midfielders who never seemed rushed, who always seemed to find himself in space, and who rarely gave the ball away. His long passing was as good as his short, and altough he obviously favoured his left foot, he did not really have a weak foot - he could pass and shoot with his right too. His skill demanded that every move passed through him and so he dominated games. Irish players generally possess a combatativeness and hunger in the challenge that helps them settle quickly in the British game, and Brady was no different. Though he had a slight build, he was sharp in the tackle, nipping the ball off opponents and covering a lot of ground for a ball-playing midfielder. He was the best player in an otherwise mediocre Arsenal side between 1974 and 1980, and was voted PFA player of the year in 1979, the same year in which Arsenal won the FA Cup, beating Man Utd 3-2 in a famously thrilling final. Brady, or "Chippy" to his teammates, started the move that led to the winning goal, of course.

He is also fondly remembered by Arsenal fans for this goal, scored against Spurs in a 5-0 win, typical of his class and mastery, but also illustrating his nice tackling :

But he grew tired of what he perceived as Arsenal's lack of ambition. In 1980, Arsenal played Juventus in the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, and Brady enjoyed what he later called his greatest ever game in Turin, where the Italians were defeated 1-0. In the first leg at Highbury, Marco Tardelli had been sent off for repeatedly fouling Brady. Arsenal lost on penalties to Valencia in the final, but Juve had been impressed enough to buy him for £600,000 and make him one of their first foreign signings after the Italian game was opened up to imports. Brady had almost joined Man Utd for £1.5 million, in what would have been a British record transfer, but he felt he needed a new challenge beyond the English game.

At the time it was unusual for British or Irish players to go abroad, but it is indicative of Brady's class that a club of Juventus' stature was interested in him and of his intelligence that he was so eager to go. The only recent English player to succeed on the continent had been Kevin Keegan, who had led Hamburg to a Bundesliga title and European Cup Final. But the German game resembled the English game in its pace and physicality, whereas the Italian game was slower and more tactical. Brady may have suspected that given the technical quality of his style, he would fit in perfectly.

He quickly became Juventus' key player and pivotal to them winning the Serie A title for two consecutive seasons, scoring 13 goals in his 57 games. Near the end of the 1982 season, there were rumours that Michel Platini was to be the clubs big Summer signing, and given that he played in the same position as Brady - and even had a similar style - and that his presence would mean there were more than the Italian limit of 2 foreigners at the club, Brady feared for his future. He was informed that he would be sold in the close-season, but even with this knowledge, Brady took the crucial penalty in the final game of that season away to Cantanzaro and Juventus won 1-0, pipping Fiorentina to the title by a single point.
Brady moved on, first to newly-promoted Sampdoria (82-84), then to Inter Milan (84-86) and Ascoli (86-87). He finally returned to London to play for West Ham until injury forced him to retire in 1990. In Italy, he is remembered as one of the best foreign imports ever to play in the country, and one of the few players from the British Isles to succeed in the Italian game.

He was unlucky to play for Ireland during a long poor spell for the teams international fortunes. Despite the quality of players Ireland exported to the English game, the Irish team was forever narrowly missing out on qualification to the Major tournaments, generally at the hands of a bigger Football Nation. Twice in the 1970s, once with Brady in the side, Ireland were closely eliminated by the USSR. For the 1982 World Cup Qualifiers, Irelands group included Platini's France, a Holland in the process of rebuilding, a young and dangerous Belgian team and Cyprus. But this was possibly the greatest ever Irish team in terms of sheer talent, with players from most of England's major clubs represented, including the likes of David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton, Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Mark Lawrenson and Tony Galvin, all of whom played for either Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs. Ireland lost two matches in that group, one of those a 1-0 defeat in Brussels when a goal was controversially disallowed, the other in Paris. The final match was against France at Lansdowne Road and Ireland won an amazing game 3-2, only to miss out on qualification to the French on goal difference. That French side would reach the semi-finals in Spain and two years later became European Champions.

When success finally did come to the Irish team, Brady was reaching the end of his career. He played in the qualifiers for the 1988 European championships, but his relationship with new manager Jack Charlton was strained. Charlton liked his Ireland side to play a pressure game, pumping long balls directly towards tall strikers and constantly harrassing the opposition when they had the ball. It was ugly, but it worked against continental teams who were used to being given time and space to play their football. But it wasted Brady's talent for moving the ball fluidly and imaginitively and for bringing his teammates into the play. Nonetheless, Brady was too great a talent for Charlton to ignore, and he played in the qualifiers until his way with a sharp tackle got him sent off in the final game against Bulgaria, earning him a suspension for the first two games of the tournament. As it happened, Brady was injured playing for West Ham shortly afterwards, and his injury would have ruled him out anyway. He played his last game for Ireland in a friendly against West Germany in 1989, before qualification for the 1990 World Cup had been secured. There was always the sense that Charlton was glad to see the back of him, and indeed he substituted him early in that match, for which Brady bitterly resented him. Its a horrible irony - and not unlike that of George Best with Northern Ireland - that Ireland's greatest ever talent never got to play for his country in the greatest tournament.

But he was the country's most successful footballer before Roy Keane, and the first to succeed on the Continent, where so many others from the British game would fail. He also scored this winning goal, his ninth in his 72 internationals, against Brazil in Dublin in 1987. I was at that match, and even then there was a sense that he was the best we had ever had, and maybe would ever have, and the crowd celebrated this goal accordingly :

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Michael Laudrup

The World Cup in Mexico in 1986 was the first one I was really old enough to appreciate. I have memories of Spain in 1982 - I watched at least one of Northern Ireland's matches and the Brazil-Italy game, probably the best game I'll ever see though I wasn't to know it then. But I was seven in 1982, and though I liked football, it wasn't quite a passion in the way it became in subsequent years. By 1986 I was hooked. 1986 was the first time I bought a Panini sticker album - we filled it, my brother and I - and the first time I read about foreign teams before the tournament. I knew who Ruminegge was. I knew Platini and Boniek and Zico. I had some idea of which teams were expected to do well in the competition. There were a few players from my club involved - Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside - and I wanted them to do well. 1986 is probably also the year my love of Argentinean football began, with Maradona's incredible genius.

I knew Denmark before the tournament. They had been in Ireland's qualification group and had beaten us - handily - 3-0 in Copenhagen and 4-1 in Dublin. They had an exciting attack-minded team, fluid and full of movement and with goals coming from all across their midfield and forward line. They were fresh from appearing in the semi-finals of the 1984 European Championship, where they went out on penalties to Spain. Their fans were fantastic and not unlike Ireland's would be some years later - loud and colourful and seemingly just happy to be there. They called their team "Danish Dynamite". Their forward pairing was the most explosive element of that team. The experienced Preben Elkjaer led the line aggressively, winning high balls and chasing down defenders. Supplying the guile and vision was young Michael Laudrup.

Denmark had been drawn in their first World Cup in the "Group of Death". Every tournament has one - a group with no obviously weak team. This time the other three teams were Germany, Uruguay and Scotland. Denmark could expect to come maybe third out of that group, behind the ever-impressive Germans and Enzo Francescoli's Uruguay.

But Denmark won the group, at a stroll. They beat all of the other teams, including a 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay featuring this goal by a then 22-year old Laudrup :

That match was on past my bedtime, probably. During that summer I would get up and watch highlights of football matches played at 1am the previous day. Thats was how I saw that goal and became aware of Laudrup. That was also how I became aware of Denmarks departure from the tournament, beaten again by Spain, 5-1. But that Laudrup goal against Uruguay made a big impression on me. I loved dribblers back then. It seemed to me to be the way football should be played. Get the ball, beat a man with a feint, beat another with a jink, do it again. So obviously, Maradona was a god to me. But that World Cup introduced me to some other great playmakers from less fashionable countries than Argentina - Laudrup from Denmark and Enzo Scifo from Belguim.

Laudrup could dribble brilliantly, of course, his ability to flick the ball from one foot to the other with equal dexterity baffling a succession of defenders, but his game was based more on his ability to pick out an outstanding pass. His first European exposure came when Juventus signed him from Brondby in 1983 and immediately loaned him out to Lazio. He had been bought probably as a replacement for Michel Platini, but Platini was in the peak form of his career, and eventually Laudrup was brought back from his loan period - after two years - to play alongside the Frenchman in place of Boniek. Juventus have a reputation for playing powerful, efficient football and Italian pragmatism usually only accommodates one playmaker, but the Platini-Laudrup combination won Serie A in 1986. When Platini did retire in 1987, Laudrup was unable to dominate games the way his illustrious predecessor had done and Juventus had a couple of years without the success the club was accustomed to.

When Johann Cruijff took over as Coach of Barcelona he set about building his so-called "Dream Team". Only three foreign players could play at any one time alongside homegrown players such as Pep Guardiola and Goikoetxea. Cruijff placed the temperamental Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov up front, with the cultured Ronald Koeman in defence. In between he needed a player who recalled his own playing style, somebody to pull the strings and make things happen. Laudrup was such a player. The Dream Team lived up to its nickname, winning La Liga four times consecutively between 1991-1994 and winning Barcelona's first European Cup at Wembley against Sampdoria in 1992. To bolster an already strong team Cruijff bought Romario, and he and Laudrup struck up an immediate partnership, Laudrup supplying the ammunition for the Brazilian's unfaltering finishes. Romario called Laudrup the best player he ever played with, and with characteristic modesty, said that he was the 5th best player of all-time, behind Pele, Maradona, Romario himself and Zinedine Zidane. This pass is something of a Laudrup trademark, since perfected by Ronaldinho - the player looks one way and moves the ball the other :

However, the presence of three such high-profile foreigners in Barcelona's ranks meant that the three had to be rotated. Laudrup was left out of the starting line-up against AC Milan in the European Cup final in 1994, Barcelona lost 0-4, and Laudrup left, moving controversially to Real Madrid. In his first season Madrid won La Liga, ending Barca's period of dominance. Laudrup would only stay for one more season but impressed Real's fans and players so much that he was voted the 12th best player ever to play for the club by Marca in 2002. Raul called him the best player he has ever played with, above the likes of Zidane, Figo, Redondo and Ronaldo. When he left Madrid he floated for a while, playing in Japan and for Ajax before retiring.

If he had been born in South America or in one of Europe's traditional football powers, then Laudrup would be held in higher regard than he is. He was the classic Number 10, exceptionally technically gifted, a great passer, dribbler and capable of fabulous long-range shooting. Platini once praised him as one of the most talented players in the history of the game, lamenting only his lack of selfishness which meant that he scored too few goals. But there is something intrinsically Scandinavian in Laudrup's love of an assist, his appreciation of his team-mates, and ability to find them with some seemingly impossible balls.

He did not help himself in terms of how posterity views him : In 1992 he was involved in a dispute with the Danish coach, Richard Moller Nielsen, over the teams tactics, and quit during qualification. When Denmark were summoned at the last minute to replace a disqualified Yugoslavia at the European Championships in Sweden, his younger brother, Brian, also a gifted playmaker, took Michael's position as Denmark won the tournament, shocking Holland and Germany to do so. When he returned to the Danish squad, they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and were eliminated early from Euro 1996. In France in 1998, Laudrup enjoyed a last hurrah on the international stage, playing as Captain alongside his brother as Denmark reached the quarter-finals where they were eliminated narrowly, 3-2, by finalists Brazil.

The game before that, where Denmark had routed a fancied Nigeria side, featured two typical examples of Laudrup's vision and unselfishness in the passes for the first and third of Denmark's goals, and is a good clip to finish with :

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fernando Redondo

Most of the players I have a fondness for - the ones I loved most as a boy, the ones I enjoy watching most now - are attackers. Its is no coincidence that many of the greats of the history of the game were natural Number 10s. Maradona, Pele, Platini, Cruyff, Zidane, Puskas and Baggio all played in the space between midfield and forward line, shaping attacks with clever angled passes, explosive dribbling and intuitive misdirection. The player in that position can, if possessing sufficient skill and tactical acumen, utterly control a game. He is the conduit through which each of his teams attacks must pass. When it goes well, he gets all the praise and all of the glamour.

But the modern game, where players are fitter and faster and stronger, has made it more difficult for these conjurors to practice their art. There is less time on a football pitch now than at any time before, less space. Speed of thought must be even quicker, ball control more acute. The modern midfielder is a powerful athlete, capable of covering miles at high speed in every game, and a jack of all trades - he must be a good tackler, a perceptive reader of the game, capable of passing long and short, able to dribble if the need arises and apt to break into the box to score a goal. Players like Steven Gerrard and Michael Ballack typify this new breed, while the traditional Number 10 slowly dies out except for the odd abberative child genius - Wayne Rooney qualifies, as does Yoann Gourcuff at AC Milan (Bordeaux this Season). Only in Maradona-worshipping Argentina is there a concerted effort to promote the playmaker in the classic mould as a workable part of a modern squad. Accordingly, Argentina have produced an astounding number of high-quality Number 10s in the last two decades, most of them cursed to live with "Next Maradona" status from their youth-team debuts for their country. A list of such names would include Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Andreas D'Alessandro, Javier Saviola and the two main rivals for the title of the newest new Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi.

Less-heralded than the Number 10, but just as important to the way Argentinean teams play their football, and also threatened by the modern midfielders need to be a great all-rounder, is the Number 5. In the Argentine tradition, the Number 5 shirt goes to a central midfielder rather than a defender. The last great Argentine Number 5 was Fernando Redondo. Redondo was a defensive midfielder, but not quite in the vein of a Makelele or a Keane. Instead, he was a deep-lying playmaker. He broke up opposition attacks with sharp tackling and set in motion attacks of his own with crisp, short passing. He didn't race forward and break into the box. He didn't score many goals. He didn't cover every blade of grass for 90 minutes. But he could control a game like no other central midfielder I have ever seen. He played with his head up, always reading the movement of the players around him, always aware of where his next pass was going. The Argentine football character is founded just as much on steely, often brutal aggression as it is on sublime skill, and Redondo was as combative as a ball-winning Midfielder must be. His tackling was hard and he was a big man - a formidable physical presence in the centre of the pitch, around which his team revolved. His technique was extraordinary and he was a flashier Number 5 than his most recent heir in the position, Javier Mascherano - he showed a control and understanding of a football comparable with most of the Number 10s listed above. Playing right at the fulcrum of a team - in the heart of midfield - requires a different personality than that needed to operate in the "hole" behind the forward line. Quiet players such as Zidane and Riquelme can thrive further up the pitch. But in the heart of the battle, the congested central area of the field, squeezed and stretched between two sets of defenders and attackers, the central midfielder must display a big personality, the will to dominate his own team as well as the opposition. Redondo needed to be able to destroy and create in an instant, to orchestrate and bully his team-mates and to see the bigger tactical picture at all times. All of which he did, beautifully.

But he under-achieved, given his tremendous talent. He spent his first years as a professional in Buenos Aires with Argentinos Juniors, then spent four years at Tenerife before moving to Real Madrid. Finally playing for a Big club, he won La Liga twice, and the Champions League twice. He was probably Madrid's most important player in their 1999-2000 Champions League campaign, dominating Roy Keane at Old Trafford in the quarter finals in a manner seldom seen. His backheel to set up Raul is just a moment of genius :

After that triumph, Madrid, amazingly, sold Redondo to AC Milan. Madrid's Ultras literally rioted at the news.
His two seasons at Milan were blighted by injury, and he rarely played. He refused to accept wages from the club, believing that, as he was giving them nothing, then they should give him nothing. These injury problems were what led to his premature retirement in 2003. The mixture of stubbornness and an uncommon sense of personal principles suggested by his stance over wages is perhaps what ruined his International Career. He reportedly refused a call-up to the 1990 squad because he disagreed with the teams defensive tactics. And he would not play for the team when Daniel Passarella was coach because he refused to play anywhere other than central midfield, altough the Argentine press speculated it was because Passarella demanded that all his players cut their long hair, and the ever-stubborn Redondo refused.

He only played 29 times for Argentina and appeared at only one World Cup, in America in 1994, where he was probably his teams most consistent player. That squad had the potential to win a tournament lacking a truly great team. It had the strong spine needed to win a World Cup, with Ruggeri playing in his third World Cup at the centre of defence, Redondo running things in front of him, a seemingly rejuvenated Maradona prompting the forwards, who were the legendary Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia. But Argentina, after a great start, were sent reeling by Maradona's expulsion on a doping charge, and were knocked out in the game of the tournament, 3-2, by Romania. This lack of World Cup exposure is most likely the reason that Redondo's recognition factor is not commensurate with his talent or stature within the game.

In Argentina, his importance is acknowledged. The emergence of a startlingly talented young defensive midfielder in the classic Argentine mould at Boca Juniors over the last few years saw the youngster accorded the Number 5 equivalent of the dreaded "New Maradona" title. Fernando Gago has been dubbed the New Redondo. As if that wasn't enough to live up to, in 2007 he moved to Real Madrid...

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