The times, we were told, almost a decade before I was born, are-a-changing. Despite his appearance at St James Park, I’ve never really been a big Bob Dylan fan, but folk who are, assure me he is a timeless genius who spans generations of social change. Mind, Jimi Hendrix’s version of All along the Watchtower is jaw-droppingly awesome, in the ears of this little Newcastle United supporting, sometime guitarist.
Footballers have changed a lot over the last twenty years, never mind fifty, morphing from the generally sturdy and solid, some with pace, into the ever faster, highly athletic and powerful specimens of today, who are maybe more easily knocked off the ball.
There are loads of reasons for the apparent fragility: it could be partly because they usually run faster than the players of years ago, hence get genuinely knocked off balance; and partly because they know that if they let gravity do its job, they will win a free kick, which has a particular percentage chance of being converted into an area of high impact and… doesn’t sound much of a laugh to me.
But the aspect of football that lights up a match for me is the skill; whether that’s a trick and a turn, a la Peter Beardsley, a Gazza surge, or a last minute run onto a header from Les Ferdinand. We’ve seen some stunning players over the years who could set a game alight with a brilliant moment.
Could they do it in the football climate of today? Could any modern footballers cope with a robust tackle from someone like Steve Carney, who took few prisoners? Watch clips of football from even twenty years ago, and it’s slower; and when you look at the space afforded to the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s, it’s safe to say that the closing down was not what it is today.
Good footballers also learn as their game changes. Alan Shearer was a great example of learning how to adapt following speed-sapping injuries. Ryan Giggs developed from someone who could run very quickly but with an inconsistent final ball, into an outstandingly reliable performer. Imperceptible changes in the way players read the game that might not produce a thirty yard volley, but do prevent the other team from breaking quickly, are another aspect of improvements resulting from experienced coaching and support.
It’s very difficult to compare the generations. Pitches now are better; football strips are lighter; strength and fitness work, coupled with nutritional understanding (no Greggs or ‘supporting’ of S&N before a match) have all added up to footballers in better shape than they have ever been. Imagine how fit previous generations could have been if they hadn’t needed a half time tab.
But does all of this make for a better footballer? How does this affect Newcastle United?
Take Christian Atsu. The lad can shift. He can find space. He can pick out a head by the goal… unfortunately, it’s frequently some poor blighter behind it. Or twenty yards past it.
This isn’t a downer on Christian Atsu. He can learn. He can practise. And Atsu is not the only one who could develop into a player we want to nurture instead of replace with a new, shiny hero from a box.
I want someone from this team to define the memory of the season. Dwight Gayle? If he can reproduce his scoring touch next season, maybe. What will it take? David Beckham used a golf course to hone the accuracy of his passing. Worth a membership, at least. I’m pretty sure Beckham would have coped in the modern era, but not just because he was a genius; more because like Shearer, Beardsley and Giggs, he was willing to learn.
For all our need to strengthen the squad, and competition for places, should drive up the quality of our players, I want to see someone from the team emerge as a timeless hero. Something to mark this promotion by. They don’t have to have a trick, or salmon-esque leap. They just have to be in the right place (Newcastle United) at the right time (now, and next season), and create that spark.
That feeling in your stomach telling you, yeah, I’m going to tell the world about this one. I saw them before they were famous.
Even Peter Beardsley and Bob Dylan were unknown once.
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