Oppenheimer / Neal / Smallwood

In the 2023 film Oppenheimer, there is a scene in which the eponymous physicist and inventor of the atom bomb utters the line that will be his epitaph, but he says it during an adultery with a Communist he meets at a party.

The themes of the movie are explicitly on display here: Oppenheimer, the character, will not commit to an idea even when he is smart enough to know the ramifications of that idea, and that is because he is just a normal man who likes things that normal men like, such as sex with Florence Pugh, and the fair allocation of resources in society.

In the discussion of this scene, there are three vectors of argument. One group endlessly posts the same Simpsons meme, another insists that if you do not like the scene then you have not understood what it is trying to communicate about this American Prometheus’ fallibility, another that it fails in the attempt to communicate Oppenheimer’s weaknesses and is just out of place, and bad, and derails a great movie about men who smoke while inventing things.

It is rare for anyone to accept that someone may have understood the scene, and what it was saying, but just not liked it. This is what I think about when I think about Richie Smallwood.


I visited my friend Jason’s website to watch the playing out of an argument about the colour of photographs. The argument felt like a time capsule from my life fifteen years ago, when I spent far too long worrying about the comments on this very website.

During those arguments I was told time and time again that I had to reflect views which I did not hold. My response then was too infrequently that the complainant should make a submission and if the argument was strong I’d publish it. The argument was never strong, but at the time seemed like it was the most important thing that had ever happened in the history of the world.

On following the argument about the chromatic scale of photographs, I read on to lengthy discussions about Richie Smallwood and a problem that he represents at Bradford City. Jason’s views are his own, as are the writers of various comments that are more or less graded on a level of nonsense, but in totality they suggest a way of looking at football with is at best out of date, and at worst a perversion of reality.

A Situation

To sum up The Smallwood Situation: His critics say that he does not do enough, that he does not pass forward enough, that he does not break from midfield enough, that he needs to score more, that he did not think about the consequences of creating the atomic weapon before handing it over to the Military, and that he has bad hair.

I would suggest that the reality of that situation is that Smallwood plays the role that Mark Hughes gives him in the City team. It is a role which involves ball retention, providing a pivot from defence to midfield, and pushing forward-moving attacks away from the centre of the field. I would say that objectively Smallwood plays that role very well, but that the remit of that role is the point of contention.

When Ryan East exited this week for a loan move to Rochdale there were screams from the Man-Baby land of Facebook that East should be given a chance to provide killer balls from Smallwood’s midfield role while being more dynamic going forward. If that were the case, East would not be doing a better job than Smallwood, because Smallwood is doing the role which Hughes asks of him in the way he asks.


Football has an evolving meta, and thirty or forty years ago it was probably the case that the players more defined how teams played than they do now. Glenn Hoddle, when slotted in the England team of Sir Bobby Robson, played his role in a certain way and Peter Reid played it another and by picking between the two Robson was picking how he wanted the game played.

The shape of that England team, of most teams of that era, largely stayed the same while personnel altered. When Reid got old, Everton turned to our own Stuart McCall to replace him, having fairly similar qualities which they wanted to see continue in the team. Had they signed Hoddle then they would have been changing how Everton played.

That approach to football changed incrementally, although the day that Roy Evans at Liverpool signed John Scales and Phil Babb – informing the Press he would not be selling Neil Ruddock, and would instead be having the option to change system they played – was as good a Jornada del Muerto moment as any.

You Fear Jazz

It is true to say that footballers play in the way that they are instructed to do so, in order to have interplay with other footballers who play in the way they are instructed to do. Football is not jazz, and while there is improvisation, it is set within constraints.

The number six role – often not played by people wearing six in the UK, but oddly played by City’s six Smallwood – is far from a mystery to City fans given that it was the one which the iconic and aforementioned McCall largely played, or would have played were he on the field today.

If Ryan East were to get the instructions Smallwood has, and then start spraying the ball and charging out of position, that would be a bad thing in a way which should not need explaining to anyone who watches football. Smallwood is in the team to do the things he is doing, which Hughes believes need doing, and which need doing. And he does them well.

However, people do not like that he does them well, because they do not like that those things need to be done, so they put him on trial for being a Red, or something.


What benefit is there of a discussion about Richie Smallwood which ignore these realities? What virtue is there for castigating a man playing the position he is assigned to do, and playing it well? Why indulge the group of people who would rather that the reality of football was this world of fantasy?

Football stands as escapism, a thing to do at the end of the week to blow off steam, and in that context it earns a romantic nod to the idea of individualism, but the grind of football between Monday and Friday is not unlike any other job for the people who do it, and has realities which can be ignored by others but are crucial to those involved.

Football isn’t wish fulfilment for footballers, and managers, players, and those who pay their bills cannot afford to live in the world of make believe. Oppenheimer is played by an Irish actor called Murphy pretending to be a Scientist. The Trinity test is special effects. The film stock changes from colour to black and white to make a point. It is a thing created by hard working people who deal in realities.


Why was Peter Shilton the England goalkeeper and not Ray Clemence? Clemence played for the best team in the country, Liverpool, and was one of a number of players who wore and won for the Reds but seemed to be second choice at International level.

If Mick Mills was better than Phil Neal, then why was Mick Mills not playing for the Champions? If David Johnson scored with such regularity for Liverpool why was he not playing for the national team especially as, when he did, he seemed to score too?

These questions animated my mind in its opening decade. There are answers to all of those questions too, but they are not found in Shoot Magazine or Roy of the Rovers, or asking your Dad or a Teacher for that matter. They are relieved through bas-relief, often, and without being spoken, and the truth is sometimes uncomfortable.


Football is a thing which can be known. There is a “there” there and there is something to be studied, and learned, and understood. There are people who analyse tactics and people who read statistics and increasingly people who write football philosophy.

Jonathan Wilson, to name the most celebrated, is not a Magician and one does not have to learn a new language to read his work. It is accessible to all. Michael Calvin’s books are an authentic version of the docusoap of All or Nothing, and Welcome to Wrexham. Tifo assume that the people who are listening are doing so because they want to hear discussion that goes deeper than having to point out that having a player who is good at ball retention in a role which requires ball retention might not be a bad thing.

The irony of football is that as a nation we spend so long talking about it, but seem to be opposed to understanding it to the point where we are enthralled with the idea that there is something wrong with those who do. We are a people who have had enough of experts.

In Action

On a podcast in which former footballers talk about being former footballers Steven Davies – once of City – told a story which he felt proved that his former manager Phil Parkinson was a “real geek”. In the story Davies called Parkinson on a promise the manager had made to play him, and forced Parkinson to change his stated team to include him.

Davies giggles as he recalls this story and enjoys the moment of speaking something which was hitherto unknown, but in doing so revealing more. It is not possible to know if Parkinson was delighted that Davies had shown that level of desire to try force his way into the side, or if he was caught out by Davies’ quote cunning unquote, or if it was exactly as Davies described.

Those who watched Davies could tell him why his five goals in twenty-five games did not give him a starting place in anyone’s team. The truth is in bas-relief and not fully formed, but not difficult to make out. Davies is a mood of football as emotion, and as a good laugh, ruined by those who would put down structures and read statistics that stop great lads, and top bantz, and giving yer all for da boyz.


So for all the ink spilled over the game it ends with people arguing about if a black and white photograph on a website is pretentious, if a player who is doing the role he is given should be dropped, if people really did put overmuch emphasis on the name of John Eff Kennedy when they said it in conversation.

When those arguments are indulged, and I’m indulging them here, credence is lent to them and it allows the framing to be moved. What is the point of talking about football if discussion has to be framed around assumptions we know to be wrong? Why talk about what a movie means if we frame movies as documents of fact only, and reject any symbolic meaning?


Richie Smallwood faces competition for his place in the team from Kevin McDonald, and the single pivot in front of a three could change depending on many factors, not least of which is a relenting of adding time at the end of games. Hughes could change the way that the role is played, and have different demands of the player in the role, which might change who is selected.

What probably will not happen is that Mark Hughes drops his captain for doing what he is told to do, and adds someone who looks at the role of moving the ball while keeping possession as a chance to hit sixty yard passes over the midfield line.

What you have, dear readers, friends, and editors, is three options: You can educate yourself in why that is, you can wilfully ignore it because you do not want it to be true, or you can obfuscate it or allow it to be obfuscated for bad reasons.

It is possible to watch the scene in Oppenheimer, understand it, and not like it because you don’t think it achieves the aims it presents.

It is possible to watch Bradford City, understand the aims that Mark Hughes has, and judge the team, and the players in that team, against how they achieve those aims.