Football is the sport I love the most. For over 30 years it has been the source of much highs and lows. Through it all it has always provided a talking point and much to evoke emotions.
One of the things I enjoyed thinking about in the run up to this series of tens to celebrate ten years of Among Friends is who would be featured on a list of ten of my favourite football personalities. At first it was going to be footballers themselves, but as I thought about it there were other figures that featured in my enjoyment of the game that were not footballers. I was thinking mostly about the managers. There are the media personalities who make the watching of the game fascinating – worthwhile mentions include Des Lynam, John Motson and others – but for the time being I just left it to the players and managers.
Also considering this list I wasn’t so much interested in the best players or managers. Success certainly helped, but really and truly these characters intrigued me by how they engaged with the game. Early on in my interest, I used to read up and study a lot about some of the characters I may never have seen live in action. Stories about them and their achievements elevated them in my eyes and made what they did of far greater interest than a lot of what passes for greatness today. As a result, it should come as no surprise that there are few names that are active in the game today in this list. That’s not to suggest that those were the days and it was so much better then, it’s just a personal reflection on how I found those characters fascinating.
So here are my ten favourite football personalities. This list is not in any order and is always subject to change.
Here is a good example of how this is a list of my favourites versus my perception of who the best is. If this was about who the best is, Kenny Dalglish would win that award all the time. I got into the game as KK had left the game. It was before he got into management and he was enjoying retirement in Spain. What I studied and discovered about Keegan made him a far more intriguing personality that Dalglish.
He was a great example of greatness and tragedy. He made the most of his quality of grafting and learning to establish himself as one of the best footballers of his generation. Certainly for almost a decade he was England’s best player. The whole heart on a sleeve thing was endearing. The success he got at Liverpool and then choosing to do something different and go abroad was intriguing. Then to return of all places to Southampton to leave his Mighty Mouse imprint there before finishing as the king of St James Park at Newcastle is just a story that was something that endeared me to him a lot.
Then of course there was that whole run as a manager at Newcastle United. As in the first time – not that second time. In fact much of anything he did in management after that Newcastle run is pretty forgettable. But there’s enough in that first run to make the legend of Kevin Keegan even bigger. The swashbuckling teams; the demand for more in the kitty to get better players; the rise to the Premier League; the agonising fight for the title; selling Cole; buying Shearer before that walk out. Beautiful stuff from a mesmerising football personality.
This guy is the key reason why this is not a list about footballers. I recognise great managers. It’s been a privilege watching some managers achieve amazing accomplishments in the game from what Sacchi and Capello did with that AC Milan team of the late ’80’s and early 90’s to what Ferguson did with United for a golden period and the achievements of Wenger with Arsenal in the domestic game for the first 8 years of his run. The Guardiola revolution and his aura from Barcelona to Man City via Bayern Munich is a recent phenomenon worthy of anyone’s consideration. It’s been great, but there was great and then there’s Mourinho.
It’s not because his style of football has been the best – that’s not been the case. It’s not because he’s been the most successful manager of all time – that is not the case. It’s not because he’s a charming, modest, self-effacing type – that is not the case.
It is because with him there is a whirlwind of intrigue about what he will do, how he will do it and what it will produce. Why that has been fascinating for me is that he was the first person to really upset the hierarchy of the Arsenal/United duopoly that dominated English football at the end of the last and the beginning of this century. Not only that but he did it his own way cultivating a win mentality that catapulted Chelsea from potential to probable. When he came, they hoped to win something, when he left they took it as their birthright to win. His capacity to win there and everywhere else subsequently made him compelling viewing.
As I mentioned earlier, he is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I have loved watching his story develop and I am not a Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid or United fan.
How do you play football. Growing up in England it seemed like the key to be acceptable playing football was to have the ability to run around a lot. There wasn’t much in the way of intelligence when it came to playing and winning the game. It explained a lot as to why England didn’t win anything after 1966. It was into this that I came across the playing career in the ’60’s and 70’s of Der Kaiser – Franz Beckenbauer.
Personally, whenever I played the game I always wanted to be Der Kaiser. Playing sweeper that way was cool. Here was a player who was smart. Here was a guy who knew that the best way to play the game was not about running around, it was about playing smart. There were the occasional running involved, but it wasn’t all over the place. He timed it well, he did it when necessary. He knew when to pass it short or long. His defensive play was not about physical aggression. He played with style and class.
That was great and then to cap it all off, the guy won. He won everything. That just took it to another level for me as far as him as a personality was concerned – he was a great player, he was an influential leader and he won everything. Was he arrogant – probably. Did he come off as aloof sometimes – possibly. The thing about it though is that it’s not boasting when you’re actually right.
His managerial stuff wasn’t all that interesting to me, but his desire to stay in the game and then become such a heavy figure behind the scenes of German football and especially at Bayern Munich was a big deal. Beckenbauer personified the pinnacle of the game in its intelligence and efficiency on and off the pitch.
The AC Milan that swept all before them in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s coincided with an interest in Italian football that I had never experienced before. I was vaguely aware of Graeme Souness having played for Sampdoria, but I wasn’t that clued up on Italian. Then Paul Gascoigne went to Lazio and Channel 4 jumped all over the Football Italia craze and I got to enjoy a lot of Italian football, which was very different to English football. The pace was different, the style of players was different. They played the game a lot more methodically.
I was fascinated by that and AC Milan were my team. More than any other player over the last three decades that defined AC Milan was Paolo Maldini. If I was a Man Utd fan it would be Ryan Giggs on this list, but I’m not and to be honest as much as I admire Giggs, it’s Maldini I really respect highly for his longevity at a big club. That and his execution of the art of defending was masterful to watch both at left back and centre back. It was that versatility and unruffled nature at the back that made me sit up and pay attention. Franco Baresi was a great defender and it came across as if Maldini studied the guy carefully and then adapted his street-smart ways to his own silky smooth ways. There was something graceful and effortless in his displays.
His style of captaincy too was one of the ways that I appreciated the model of leading by example. Where others in this country like Tony Adams, Roy Keane and Terry Butcher really let their authority tell with a glance, a verbal barrage as well as their gutsy style, Maldini was a leader of men who was consummately composed in possession and focused out of it. Watching his performances really made me wonder why this country didn’t learn from his style of defending that was as much about positioning and timing as it was about knowing how much you could clatter into the attacking player.
What is the game of football all about? Two teams face each other with the aim of scoring more goals than the opposition. That required a solid defence to stop goals going in and a prolific front line that would put the goals in at the other end of the pitch. In between that there was the issue of regaining possession of the ball and using it wisely to maximise opportunities to score goals.
In the late 1980’s the method of going about this task in England was rather dour and glum. Some proposed the best way to go about scoring goals was to hoof the ball as close to the opposition penalty as possible with as little tact and intelligence as possible. In the midst of all that as my interest in the game was growing there emerged a player of finesse, flair, intelligence and cunning that blew away all those notions of success in the game. Sure, Liverpool were already a top side when John Barnes joined them, but when they added Barnes to the mix they went up another level in terms of style, guile, excitement and entertainment.
Mesmerising runs past defenders, sweet curling shots from all angles nestling in the opposition net, beautifully timed passes dissecting defences and giving chances to his colleagues further forward. Barnes on the pitch meant the game was a must see. Even on the worst sort of pitches, this player could turn something on and make a chance out of nothing. It remains one of the great tragedies of the game that the national side could never get the best out of him in the same way Liverpool managed it. This was because Dalglish was canny enough to know that there’s no point chaining this guy to just go down the wing and cross it in. The Liverpool team may not have been exactly completely dependent on Barnes with some other outstanding players in the side, but Barnes was sure nuff the jewel in the crown. If you man-marked him, he would relish the challenge and take the man all over the pitch tiring him out before half-time. If you put two men on him, that released another talented colleague to wander into the space he created. If you zonally marked him he could turn on the pace and trickery to turn that upside down.
I don’t think I’ve come across a better player that I enjoyed watching more than Barnes in the English game. Possibly only Suarez would be a competitor for that title at Liverpool, but even then there was something about Barnes that made him someone I loved to watch even more. It is a pity his quality at his peak was never displayed on the European stage, but there’s enough of a love I have for him in his domestic displays to ensure he remains one of my favourite players. He and one other player did more than anyone else to get me interested in the game by how I watched them play.
So John Barnes was one of two players that got me interested in football more than anyone else. That other player I still argue is one of the most underrated players in the game. Peter Beardsley played the sort of game that really captured my interest. Here was a striker who was at his best doing the dirty work and emerging with a shot or a pass that could turn a game on its head.
Game intelligence is not something that English players were particularly known for at any time over my time observing the game. It was all about the stamina, the strength, the effort, the running and so on. That left them open for cannier sides to just pick them off and beat them mentally. Beardsley, though, he had his head on. He could see the game, pick up the ball in any position and know instinctively when to kill off a match, when to step up the pace, when to drive the game forward, when to stop the momentum of the other side. His off the ball movement was a delight to see, here’s a player who truly appreciated that it wasn’t always about just running, it was about how you could disrupt the other team’s best laid plans and in so doing open the game up for a team-mate to exploit the chaos.
Technically superb, tactically excellent, as for longevity it remains one of the biggest mistakes Souness ever made to sell Beardsley when he did because he would go on to perform at the highest level for years to go both at Everton and particularly at Newcastle United.
It still baffles me why people refer to how he looks as though that’s the key thing to be aware of in a game of football. I was far more interested in the beauty of the game he played and the joy it gave me to watch him once more take a lost cause and go looking for a winning response. What’s also the measure of the man and relates a lot to why he was so underrated is the work he did in the background to lay on the plate the headline-making efforts for others. That’s why players like John Aldridge and Gary Lineker scored so many goals and were made to look so good. Beardsley made me take comfort in knowing the game is not about the great saves and the great goals scored – it was as much about the creator of all of that.
These ten figures left a substantial imprint on my enjoyment of the game. They greatly influenced what the game means and how it can be enjoyed for me today.
C. L. J. Dryden