When giants walked the Earth

You could hardly escape Andy Carroll this weekend. He was on the front page of The News of the World on Sunday morning when someone mixed up the phrases “In the public interest” and “interesting to the public” and by the next morning he was on the back too.

The target man Newcastle United forward is expected to feature in Fabio Capello’s England squad for the friendly with France which represents something of an “uppy downy” kind of time for the forward who quiet out shined opposite attacker Marouane Chamakh.

The French forward Chamakh is a strange sight. Tall and strong but able to take the ball into his body the 26 year old is something of a French Alan Shearer – we have heard that phrase before – and is there to add a bit of muscle to Arsene’s Arsenal.

Meanwhile, at Valley Parade, we have James Hanson who scored twice in the weekend cup defeat having come back from an injury which hampered the start of the season with a point to prove. Hanson is able in the air and gives defenders little chance to settle – his red card was rescinded after the Burton Albion win but he was in the think of the action all afternoon – but his hammered strike against Cheltenham showed his talents.

One has to wonder what Huddersfield Town – the club he was associated with as a youngster – did not see in Hanson although City’s neighbours have passed up on previous Bantam forwards. They had seven games out of Bobby Campbell and got three goals out of him.

Bobby Campbell was a centreforward more of legend than fact but looking past the stories for a second – and only a second because the stories are wonderful – then Campbell was a muscle striker who could hit a ball with what seemed to be immeasurable power.

Legend has it that Campbell’s time at Huddersfield was ended when he took the junior squad for a jog as a part of a punishment in training and – in true Campbell style – that jog included each player getting into the driver’s side of the manager’s Ford Anglia and dragging muddy boots out of the passenger side.

One doubts Hanson was involved in anything such as that before his time in the Co-op between The Terriers and The Bantams and obviously when City came to offer a second chance he took that with two hands but one doubts his style of play has changed. It has, one might say, come back into fashion.

Ten years ago football’s forward lines seemed to have lost their big men. Dean Windass – City’s forward of the day – had Campbell’s gruffness but not his style of play and he was partnered with the slight Benito Carbone. The Premier League was won by Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole and there was not a target man in sight. Niall Quinn went out to pasture at Sunderland and Kevin Phillips new partner was a more able footballer, and certainly not a big fella.

The big forward at the top level had dropped out of fashion. Of course there were Jon Mackins, Drew Broughtons and Shequi Kuqis wandering around the game but often they were considered classless – Broughton still is – and soon dropped in favour of a forward with a little more guile. Naturally a big lad who has that guile prospers but how many Didier Drogbas are there? Not enough for everyone to have one although in League Two every team seemed to have someone who was six foot eight and it took the Bantams some time to realise that a Matthew Clarke or a Luke Oliver was needed to keep the defensive line strong.

So defenders became used not to battles in the air and trying to win the ball but to trying to anticipate and steal by stealth. Defending at the top level – and further down – has become a more intelligent affair about second guessing the path of play and about anticipation.

Enter Hanson, enter Carroll, enter Chamakh. They play a game that says to defenders “you know where the ball is going, I know where the ball is going, now lets see who gets it” and because – in words that would be used in comparison to Bobby Campbell – defenders have gone soft the cannot defend against the new generation of target man.

Hanson battles the beefiest of League Two defenders and comes out on top which Carroll will be facing the French back four soon. For a time these target men rip through defences like giants stalking the Earth.

As for the progress of James Hanson, Bobby Campbell would be impressed, and so am I.

How good is James Hanson?

When a shelf stacker and Guiseley forward put a couple of goals past Bradford (Park Avenue) on new year’s day two years ago one has to wonder if the people at the other Leeds/Bradford game asked the question “How good is James Hanson?”

For sure he had – by all accounts – dominated the Park Avenue defenders but – like Hanson – they were part times and while the Guiseley looked good he did not stride the field like a Colossus. Eventually Mark Ellis had a whisper to Stuart McCall who took him to Bradford City where he became top scorer in his first season.

When watching England beat Hungry on Wednesday night most of the discussion around our sofa was on the young players called up by Fabio Capello and the ramifications of that. There was a contention – by yours truly – that Newcastle United’s much coveted Andy Carroll should have been given a call up. Others thought that (amongst other things on a lively night of discourse) a player could not be judged as good enough for the England side if he had not been proven good enough in the Premier League.

So the question formulated that if Carroll might be considered good enough on the basis of a season not competing against the top class of English football how good could Hanson be?

Rewind to Hanson’s first season at Valley Parade and one recalls on many occasions turning to those around and exclaiming with an amazement that “that guy just does not lose headers!”

Indeed Hanson – when fit and on form – is uncanny in his abilities to rise high, win the ball and feed it accurately to his team mates. Ball winning was a Barry Conlon thing but Barry did not win as often, nor did he head it as accurately, nor did even he put in the effort of James Hanson and when watching last season’s player of the season very few would have put the limits on him that were placed on Conlon.

Conlon – it was said – had to have his best game to be as good as the rest of the side and “good enough” for League Two. Hanson – thus far – has not come up against a League Two defence where he did not enough the balance of play. Long may his superb attitude continue because – at the moment – one doubts that League Two is poising different problems than that game with Park Avenue.

Then came Nottingham Forest a team that – were it not for the randomness of the play-offs – be in the Premier League and the squad to go with it. Hanson – a half time sub – enjoyed as good a return against the twice European Champions as he did against League Two sides, and did in his non-league days. He won more in the air than one would expect against a League Two side, let alone a side who have pretensions for the Premier League.

So how good is James Hanson? Tongue in cheek one might say that if Andy Carroll might wear the three lions then why not give Hanson a call up? If one does not believe that having played in the top flight is essential for England honours – and Steve Bull‘s five in thirteen suggest that a player who has not been at the highest level can offer something to England – then perhaps the national management should be looking at the League Two players who impressively play up when facing a side from a higher division. Scalability in football play is a rare concept.

Returning to the question in hand – and not suggesting that he should be partnered with Wayne Rooney next game – how good is James Hanson?

Certainly he has proved himself able at levels lower than League Two and at League Two itself. His first game against a higher opposition did not curtail his progress so perhaps all one can say is that so far we have yet to see a ceiling on his abilities.

Perhaps though for an answer to the question we need to look not at ourselves, but at the stars. The younger stars of Nottingham Forest that is who were used that night and that manager Billy Davies described as having things come to easy to. Davies’ criticism that a young player has the big car and the nice house too early at his club and as a result they lack the hunger makes a sharp contrast to the two City goalscorers on the evening.

As Davies bemoans the BMWs that his teenagers drive Hanson and fellow goal getter David Syers and men of the match Jon McLaughlin Steve Williams know that a failure will take them back to the days of part time football and a day job. If they ever drive a BMW it is because they have rewarded themselves for a lot of hard work by replacing the broken down Skoda.

There is something utterly refreshing about watching Hanson, Syers, McLauglin and Williams play. When asking how good one of these players can be then the answer is something of a cop out – they can be as good as they want to be.

At present there is a debate on McLaughlin and if he is “good enough” as if this were a binary situation and one which should the player kick back and stop making the effort that has put in him in the position he is in now he would remain at the level he is now.

It is an excellent attitude which has brought them into league football and that same attitude that saw them as the core members of a team which beat Nottingham Forest. Maintain that attitude and it is hard to set a limit on what they can achieve, lose it and they will stop being “good”.