August 16, 2011 § 2 Comments
by Ian King
The scene was Molineux, Wolverhampton, on the 5th of January 2003. The Third Round of the FA Cup was reaching its conclusion, and the television cameras were focussing their unyielding gaze upon the match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United. It was a match that was ripe for an upset of some description. The atmosphere at Molineux – even though, with its open corners and one stand twenty or so yards from the pitch, it is hardly designed for it – can be fearsome for such matches. At the time, it had been getting close to twenty years since Wolves had last played in the top division of English football and every match against higher opposition was an opportunity for the club to prove its credentials, having spent much of the previous decade labouring under the “sleeping giant” label applied to it by the press after Jack Hayward, the “Golden Tit”, first pointed his udders in the direction of a place in the Premier League. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
To have missed seeing the 1958 World Cup through the tragic accident of being born twenty-five years too late is one thing. But to not feature, having played regularly for Wales in the preceding ten years, is quite another. Yet such was the lot of Alf Sherwood — “King of the Sliding Tacklers” — who won 41 caps from 1946 to 1956, but missed out on the national team’s finest hour. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
Billy Meredith is intimately bound up with the early history of football in Manchester. He inspired both Manchester clubs to their first honours – first City’s FA Cup win in 1904, then United to the league title in 1908 - having scored twice against Newton Heath in 1894, the first of the fixtures that would become the Manchester derby.
He was, by all accounts, a hero to the northern Edwardian working class, who turned out in their thousands to watch him play no matter which side of the city he was representing. Yet he was a controversial figure too: his transfer to United from City was triggered following an allegation (always denied) of bribing an opponent. City refused to oppose the suspension passed down by the FA, and in response he exposed the club’s practice of regularly violating the £4-a-week maximum wage. Meredith, along with three other players, was sold to United at a knock-down price.
A willowy and quick outside-right, Meredith played with a trademark toothpick poking out from under his moustache, having been forced to abandon chewing tobacco following complaints from kit staff. At a time when English football was designed for dribblers, Meredith was the very finest, and the Manchester Guardian eulogised his “consummate ball control and trickery”. He was also, at least during his first spell at City, a prolific scorer, notching 129 goals in 339 games. While the goals dried up somewhat after his move across town, where he played as a more traditional winger, he retained his exceptional technical ability and creative instincts throughout what would be an exceptionally long and fruitful career. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 17, 2010 § 1 Comment
Lining up next to the garlanded and feted John Charles in the centre of the All-time Wales defence, one might think that Fred Keenor would be a touch overshadowed. Not only was Charles a multiple title-winner, but he was one of the most technically gifted players of his (or arguably any) generation. Whereas Keenor was noted even by his own team-mates as both unreliable in possession and unable to shoot. Still, his full name appears to be “tough-tackling Fred Keenor”, and it doesn’t appear to be possible to get through a sentence about the man without “committed”, “dedicated”, or “inspirational” rearing their intangible heads.
Like so many of his generation, his football career was first interrupted, then nearly ended, by the First World War. On July 16, 1916, two weeks into the Battle of the Somme, he sustained multiple shrapnel wounds, and was invalided to Dublin for months of convalescence. But he recovered, and joined his hometown Cardiff City, who were playing at that time in the Southern League. Election to the Second Division was immediately followed by promotion to the First, and throughout the 1920s Cardiff, under Keenor’s captaincy, established themselves as one of the strongest sides in the league. Indeed, in 1923/24, they finished runners-up to Huddersfield Town thanks to an goal average differential of 0.024.
They also acquired a redoubtable Cup reputation, reaching the semi-finals in 1921, then going one better and losing in the 1925 final. Following the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United, Keenor promised that “one day soon our followers can be sure that Cardiff City will bring that cup to Wales”. And he was right. In 1927, Keenor captained Cardiff to a 1-0 victory against English aristocrats Arsenal, the first and only time the FA Cup has been taken beyond England’s borders.
Keenor played for Wales in the first ever schoolboy international, a 3-1 loss to England in 1907, but had to wait for his full debut until 1920. Playing at right-half in one of the unofficial Victory Internationals, he impressed in a 2-1 victory over Wales’ imperial overlords, the first such win for 37 years. He went on to win Home Championships in 1920, 1924 and 1928, but perhaps his finest hour in a red shirt came on 25 October 1930.
The refusal of the English League to release their Welsh professionals for a fixture against Scotland meant that Keenor travelled to face a full-strength Scotland team as captain – and only established international – of a team of semi-professionals and amateurs drawn from such footballing powerhouses as Llanelli Town, Cardiff Corinthians, and Newport County. Hope did not abound, and the Wrexham Advertiser meekly reported that “the only Welsh hope was that the Scots would be merciful”. But Keenor and the Ten Unknowns first stunned Ibrox by taking a sixth-minute lead, then delighted a nation by managing to hold out for a 1-1 draw. In the words of the Mirror, ”Wales Deserved More!”
Let’s give the last word to Keenor himself, who, speaking after the 1927 Cup final, managed to sum up the curious blend of pride and insecurity that defines Welsh football: “For the honour of Wales,” he said, “and to show some of the fashionable clubs that we can play the game as well as them”.
Give ‘em hell, Fred.
August 28, 2010 § 4 Comments
When attempting to evaluate a player that you’ve never seen, and where video footage is sketchy, you’re relying on those who came before you. Statistics can only help you so far, and piecing together a valid assessment from secondary sources is a risky business: you’re at the mercy of past prejudice and fashion, less able to diagnose misrepresentation or exaggeration, constantly in danger of unwittingly repeating and so magnifying somebody else’s mistakes.
Despite all of which, I am confident in saying that John Charles is the greatest footballer ever to play for Wales. The secondary sources are just so good.
Example the first. In 1958, Wales qualified for the World Cup, their first and only appearance at a major international tournament. Charles – world-class at centre-half or centre-forward – was at the heart of the finest Wales team of them all as they progressed to the quarter-finals, where they met eventual winners Brazil. The only goal of the game came from the 17-year-old Pele, and Charles was missing, having been injured against Hungary the game before. Years later, Pele wrote “It was a very close game, and who knows what would have happened had Charles been fit”. Brian Glanville was happy to go further, stating that, had Charles played, Wales would have won.
Example the second. In 1997, Juventus celebrated their centenary. Their fans were asked to vote for their greatest foreign player and – ahead of Michel Platini, Zbigniew Boniek, or then-recent signings Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedved, or even his own strike partner Omar Sivori – they chose Charles. His arrival in Italy had revitalised a moribund team, and his 93 goals in 150 games, along with the lethal partnership he formed with Sivori, delivered three league titles across five seasons. He subsequently became the first non-Italian inducted into the Azzurri Hall of Fame.
More testimony. Denis Law called him the greatest no. 5 he’d ever played against, as well as one of the best strikers. Jack Charlton rated him higher than his own brother. Danny Blanchflower said that he could never hope to play as well. Bobby Robson placed him alongside Maradona. There comes a point when you have to simply believe what you’re told, and for a player to be idolised across two countries by almost everyone he encountered is as unprecedented as it is persuasive.
While his finest moments at club level came up front, he generally played at centre-half for Wales, and so he does in this all-time team. 38 caps is perhaps too small a number for a player of his talents, though release for internationals from Juventus came only intermittently. (The telegram above is dispensation for the 1958 World Cup.) But perhaps the most impressive statistic about Charles’ career is that despite being a 6’2″ 14-stone centre-half/centre-forward – and despite playing quite a few of his 700-plus games for Leeds – he was never once cautioned. All hail the Gentle Giant.
August 27, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Neville Southall won his first cap for Wales in 1985, keeping a clean sheet in a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland. He won his last – a record 92nd – fifteen years later, though in rather less impressive fashion, being taken off at half-time having conceded three against Turkey in Ankara. Wales went on to lose 6-4.
Ample of moustache and latterly frame, Southall was blessed with astonishing reach and reflexes, as well as complete command of his penalty area. He was noted for his single-minded dedication and professionalism, often training the morning before matches, and whilst with Bury was once (so the story goes) asked to train on his own as his shot-stopping was demoralising the strikers. At club-level he is revered as a legend by Everton fans, integral to the great 1984/85 team that won both league and Cup Winners Cup.
Welsh football being what it is, the high points of his international career were few and far between, but he can look back with pride at the clean sheets he kept in competitive victories over Spain (3-0, 1985) and a newly-unified Germany (1-0, 1991), two of the finer results in modern Welsh football history. He also played in Wales’ 1983 1-1 draw with a Socrates-led Brazil team, and a 1-0 win over England in the last Home Championships, 1984.
Like so many other Welsh goods and greats, he never represented his country at an international tournament – and the fallout from Heysel robbed him and a fine team of a crack at the European Cup – but his talent, moustache, and air of unflappable decency ensures that his claim on the all-time no. 1 jersey is secure.