Carl McHugh and contextual positioning

The more I watch football the more I am convinced that the game is more about character than it is about positions.

That prefaces the following statement: that I do not know if positions are everything or nothing in football. I veer from one conclusion to the other.

When I was a younger man positions were simple. Goalie, right backs, left wingers and so on. It was easy to look at the teams of the 1970s and put a man in a hole.

Easy but wrong. Because there was an increasingly level of subtlety to those positions. You can blame Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley if you wish. In Mexico in 1986 they played up front together for England and by no means were they both just “strikers”.

And so terms like “drop off man”, “goalgetter” and “in the hole” started and those are functional but following them as a train of thought takes you to a conclusions which is that in describing the positions in which Lineker and Beardsley played one was actually describing the tasks they performed.

Which rendered the need to talk about positions obsolete. There was a task to do on a football field of getting the ball in the area between the defensive line and the midfield and that was what Beardsley did. That he did it from “attack” rather than “midfield” is largely irrelevant because on the whole he was spending his time in that position.

Add David Platt to the England team following Beardsley’s (premature) exit and you have a player in the same position who is titularly a midfielder not a forward. Have Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard Jnr in your team and it may say that one is a striker and one is a midfielder in the Panini sticker album but both are spending 90 minutes in the same square footage of the field. That is a problem that England never mastered.

And so these tasks became described as roles which and the notion of positions was refined with more granularity. Words like “holding midfielder” came into the lexicon of the modern football supporter and that was no bad thing.

But the more that tasks were named the less importance on the fact that those tasks needed to be carried out was obvious. Someone needs to win a ball back in midfield and that is described as a “holding job” and rapidly came to seem like an option rather than a necessity.

Which is where I veer. If described in enough granularity positions are everything in football. If thrown around they are meaningless and ignore the importance of the tasks that need to be performed.

Wayne Jacobs talks about Phil Parkinson’s use of Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates at left back and does so with an authority. “Matthew’s right-footed and that causes a problem when you try to link up and get down the left wing. He is obviously tempted to drive infield. I’ve been really impressed with Carl’s attitude… however he is a centre half and sometimes if you come up against a real out-and-out winger, agility and movement can be an issue when you’re playing in that role.”

Which was obvious when McHugh faced Jamie Murphy of Sheffield United who exposed those flaws in his game away at the Blades. At home to Port Vale and MK Dons had wide players who pressed less and were happy to contain. This let McHugh perform a different set of tasks, ones he was more comfortable with, and thus did better at. From that we might conclude that the statement “he can play left back” is – in some way – contextual.

The development squad and a plan to improve the club

Blame it on Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the early 1990s the man who would bring the term bunga bunga into common usage was the flamboyant chairman of an AC Milan team which sported Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard as the allowed three non-Italian players.

UEFA and Serie A rules mandated that a club could only have three non-Italians and so the practice was that the Lira went to a chosen trio of outsiders. Clubs were defined by the foreign players they had and Milan were the Dutchmen, across the City Inter were German with Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme. It was a simpler time to watch football, and to be Silvio Berlusconi.

The future Italian PM announced though that Milan would be signing three more World Class non-Italians and – starting with the unfortunate Gianluigi Lentini – eight more Italians to create a second team which would play in European competition in the week. The one would be fresh for the weekend, the other fresh for midweek, and players would swap between the two teams.

And so modern squad football was born.

Bradford City’s own Phil Babb was a part of the emergence of the squad in the English game. in 1994 Babb and John Scales joined a Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans who already had the beloved Neil Ruddock at the heart of the back four and the maths did not match. Was Ruddock for the chop? Would Babb be out at left back (or up front, as he was at City)? What was Evans doing signing more than two top quality central defenders?

“Moving to a back three and wing backs” turned out to be the answer to the question poised by the question itself was illustrative. Growing up in the eighties my brother and myself could name the one to eleven of every team in Division One and that one to eleven was set in stone, seemingly unaffected as today’s line ups are by loss of form, injury and failing super-injunctions.

A team like Liverpool seemingly had no need for a spare defender – one sub, four four two and all – but soon the idea verbalised by Berlusconi would make the sort of questions that Evans face irrelevant. Within two years and in the run up to Euro ’96 Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United were signing Tino Asprilla when they already had Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Super Mac, Wor Jackie Milburn et al.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League using only fourteen players all season. The modern football squad demands eighteen per match and a host of others to insure that even the League Two player is not required to take the field with the sort of injury which was played through in earlier eras after which players retired at thirty, and could not walk.

So we have a situation where Manchester City have over forty players in their first team squad as an extreme example and most teams could put out something approaching Berlusconi’s two teams a week. If you are on the edges of one of those huge squad – and Bradford City’s is 21 strong at current assessment – then you seem a long way from the first team. Unless you get to do something special from the bench you are a long way from the first team.

So while the dozen and some who regularly feature in the first team focus on getting from game to game the players on the edges – especially the younger ones – should be focusing on improvement. Enter the development squad.

It seems to have come from Archie Christie who came to Bradford with John Still when the Bantams interviewed the entire Dagenham and Redbridge backroom staff for roles at Valley Parade. Something had powered the Essex club’s rise from non-league compound to League One club and it seems that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes believe that Christie is it.

Chief scout and he brings in some young lads from Falkirk which seems a sensible move but not an unexpected one but as Head of Football Development Christie’s Development Squad offers something new.

Wayne Allison approves and has been recruited to coach “The Developments” as they shall be hamfistedly dubbed with his aim on taking players who have signed professional contracts after their two year apprenticeships but are not in the first team picture week in week out, or who are falling in the limbo between young player and first teamer, and concentrate on improving them as players over getting them ready for matches as the first team squad do.

Squad sizes have increased massively in the last fifteen years, but the focus of training is on preparing a group of players for the next game leaving those who play ready, and those who do not having wasted that time. The Development Squad offers a chance to make better use of those players allowing the first team to focus on preparation, and the fringe on improvement.

Of course the idea could be a failure. Dag & Red’s success might be down to something else entirely, Christie’s ideas might not be relocatable, it all just might not work but for once Bradford City have come up with a plan to improve the quality of the footballers at the club rather than trying the tried and failed method of trying to buy in promotions or assemble squads on a season by season basis.

A plan on improving footballers is a plan to improve the football club and, in effect, the first time since the Premier League that Bradford City have had a plan to improve the club that might work.

When pre-season became interesting

At some point after the middle of the 1990s pre-season became a thing of interest.

Perhaps it is the rise of Sky Sports and the need for constant football, perhaps it is the public’s thirst for the close season to end as quickly as possible, perhaps it is clubs trying to spin out two or three extra big money games in a season but whatever has caused it pre-season in modern football has become much more of a big deal.

Looking at the likes of Guiseley who had Bradford City on the pre-season fixture list until recently the games against league opposition offer a chance of a pay day in excess of most league matches. Kendal Town play Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic and walking around the Westmoorland town one would struggle to miss this fact – that and the fact that Chas Hodges is playing in town soon – which is a marked contrast to the games within the regular season which pass without note in that part of the Lake District.

Certainly City’s return to action against Eccleshill United was eagerly anticipated with a good number of Bantams fans looking at pre-season as a welcome return to normality.

Turn on the ubiquitous Sky Sports News today and you will see highlights from pre-season matches up and down the land. Last year when Newcastle United lost 6-1 in pre-season to Leyton Orient then Sky’s talking heads damned the Magpies to a season of struggle in The Championship. They won it.

So in tone and in the minds of supporters and on the balance sheet pre-season seems to be interesting in a way which it was not previously. Pre-season matches happened for sure and occasionally they would be seen in the newspaper (as is my recollection) and talked about in vague terms by very few who seemed to have a mystic view of the new players on the first day of the season.

Steve Gardner turned up as an unknown on the opening day of one year with the words “He looked good in pre-season” offered by a City sage who had seen such things. The sage was considered rare and some what obsessive – like people who go to more than one date on a band’s tour – while extrapolations about Gardner, as with Newcastle, turned out to inaccurate.

At City the change over from a pre-season which was the preserve of the dedicated and the players probably occurred around the time that Chris Kamara was manager and City played Newcastle United in which Peter Beardsley and Tino Asprilla weaved majestically and a high quality Middlesbrough side in a two day period and then went on (again, if I recall) to play Santos of Brazil in a game which saw the only – to date – overhead back heel volley goal.

Compared to that the reality of the season seemed something of a let down. The circus had come to town and then left us with some reality where Norwich and Swindon – not Newcastle and Santos – were the opposition.

Peter Taylor managed Southend at the start of that period and Gillingham around the middle but perhaps it is his experience a England u21 manager which shapes his thoughts on how preparation games should be treated. He talks about how the Bantams could have played some big teams at Valley Parade – Premier League Burnley played at VP last season – but for the newly laid pitch but it is clear that Taylor sees these matches as build up to Shrewsbury Town on the first day, no more or less significant than any other training session and certainly not wasting the fresh grass on for a few extra quid.

So City have no big name on the fixture list – Rochdale are the highest placed side we face – and a swathe of games against low opposition including North Ferriby United who City play at one on Saturday afternoon. Taylor talks about the games in terms of being build up, fitness getters, and while supporters can watch the manager does not see them as being spectacles. His threat to take his team home at half time at Eccleshill says all you need to know about how Taylor prioritises.

Not for him an evening watching Beardsley and Asprilla run rings around his players. Not for him bowing the knee to boys from Brazil.

So a City squad of around twenty-two will be split into two teams of eleven with the aim of fitness not performance. City are without Michael Flynn (Groin), Tommy Doherty (Calf), Luke Dean (Broken leg) and Jake Speight (Broken promises) but Tom Adeyemi will make his debut following his arrival on loan from Norwich City and have Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris looking to earn contracts.

The game kicks off early for those who fancy a trip to Grange Road but one doubts that anyone will be encouraged to slam in an overhead backheel.

England and the Spirit of Sir Bobby

Before the days of frustration seemed to overwhelm English football in the mid-1990s when the clichés of losing to the Germans and overpaid players under performing started to loom large in the popular mindset there were two World Cups in which are said to have excelled.

I recall them as halcyon days myself. Whatever I will say about my parents I will never criticise the slap dash attitude to bedtime that meant that unlike many of my schoolmates I was allowed to stay up until two or three in the morning watching as much of the Mexican World Cup of 1986 as I liked and saw everything up to and beyond The Hand Of God.

When the Italian World Cup of 1990 came around I’d finished my GCSEs the aforementioned parents were on holiday in Bulgaria and I had nothing to do in the summer except watch football. They were glorious days that ended in Rome, on penalties, with Gazza’s tears and Sir Bobby’s clenched fist of regret.

If only, it seemed to say.

Those days are recalled as a silver age by England FC. Not Moore and co in 1966 at Wembley but the next best thing with unfair exits at the heart of the mythology of both. A far cry from Fabio and a team which struggled to put three passes together in a row in South Africa.

Perhaps not. In 1986 the English started against Portugal – do not let the name scare you these were a third rate European nation then – and a win was expected but did not come. Indeed I can recall clearly seeing the ball sweep in from the close side and be finished untidily at far post by a rather portly looking chap with a moustache. England had threatened in the game I recall but ended with nothing at all.

Then came Morocco – a place that at the time I associated more with a cartoon Mole than football – who were the minnows of the group a fact illustrated by the way that they had two players to a sticker in the Panini album.

The minutia of the game – played in the early hours – eludes me but the major moments are burnt into the mind. Bryan Robson – who was a one of a kind player in his day – went off injured clutching the shoulder Sir Bobby Robson had begged Manchester United to allow him three months off to have an operation to fixed and about five minutes later Ray Wilkins was sent off for what some might call throwing the ball at the Referee although others would say that were the round thing to have hit a snail on the way to the man in the middle then it would have stopped so weak was the hurl, clearly not a red card offence but a red card was given.

I remember half time in our house but only when I’m talking to my therapist.

One point from two games and England where nowhere. The fans who had paid to go to Mexico were demanding that the FA or even the Thatcher Government pay for them to get home and most certainly for for Sir Bobby Robson to be sacked. Having failed to qualify for Euro 84 it seems that Bobby – or Booby Robson as he was christened back then – and England would part company not long after.

Peter Beardsley was thrown into the side and Gary Lineker got a hat-trick against Poland and then the rest soon became a glorious history that does not record the pressure that Robson resisted that would have had him take the ageing Trevor Francis over Beardsley nor does it recall how and why Robson arrived on his pairing of the two, of deploying the uniquely useful Steve Hodge to do the running with Glenn Hoddle did not.

Robson – Sir Bobby – found his team after two games because his plans had to change.

Four years later Robson was a dead man walking. He had handed in his resignation from England and in the run up to the finals had been exposed as having an affair. Euro 88 had been woeful with England losing all three games and the pressure had told on the England manager.

The opening game saw Gary Lineker give England a good start with a scruffy goal but Jack Charlton’s Irish side ground the game down into an unattractive slug fest in a nasty wind and the game finished 1-1. A week later and during a 0-0 draw with Holland which saw England put in a good display also saw Bryan Robson once again be injured out a tournament.

The quality of that Dutch performance is understated and a strike from Stuart Pearce bulged the goal but was ruled out for being struck from an indirect free kick but there was a confidence that came from that display in 1990 which can not be said to be here in 2010.

Nevertheless there are three commonalities. Firstly that England had two draws in the group from the first two games and secondly that neither Robson nor Capello’s side had been behind at any point. Lineker and Steven Gerrard gave leads which were pulled back in the first games before goalless draws in the second.

Thirdly after two games – and to use a phrase which became popularised after the semi-final which resulted – the players went to the manager and “had a word

The England players had decided that the team – as it was – lacked fluidity being a 442 with Peter Shilton in behind Paul Parker, Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Pearce; Paul Gascoigne and Steve McMahon partnered in the middle of flank pair John Barnes and Chris Waddle; Lineker and Beardsley up front. They told Robson that they wanted to move to a three at the back formation – adding Mark Wright – which would allow Parker and Pearce more freedom.

The machinations of the change are lost in football history. Butcher was injured when Wright played and scored against Eygpt but by the time the second round make with Belgium took place and David Platt scored his king-making late goal England had switched formation away from Robson’s choice to what the players wanted. That flexibility proved the making from the man to the legend.

England’s players enjoy a full and frank discussion with Fabio Capello enjoying the full public backing of his captain John Terry – who we recall got nothing of the sort from his International manager – who it is said are keen to see the Italian change from the 442 which has brought him so many honours to a 433 that includes Joe Cole on the left of a three up front.

It remains to be seen the results of such a suggestion. Sir Bobby Robson was able to be flexible to the needs of the matches ahead of him and the demands of the squad and in letting the players make the decision for him he signed over an ownership of the team to them. Invested in the selection perhaps Robson made the result matter more to his players because they felt more of an authorship of the team.

Perhaps the spirit of Sir Bobby – involved in advertising this World Cup – comes in the manager handing over some responsibilities inside the camp to his players? Capello’s high-handedness is a long way from that put very much what was wanted after “Stevie and Frank” and the regime of McLaren which was seen as too close to the players. Often the solution to the last problem becomes the current problem.

Indeed it remains to be seen how these first two games of the 2010 World Cup will be recalled. Portugal and Marocco, Ireland and Holland are but footnotes in bigger stories and it is not so much the result of the meeting, but the match on Wednesday and any that follow it which will dictate how Capello’s story is to be told.

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