The late Bob Crampsey, in his biography of Jock Stein referred to a difference of opinion which he had with the great man at one of these sporting panel nights held at Dunfermline – both of them being members of the panel.
In response to a question about players who had worn the Hoops, Crampsey suggested that amongst those who gave him greatest pleasure to watch were Harry Hood and Charlie Gallagher. In the course of the debate Stein stated that you would not win a Championship with a team full of Hoods and Gallaghers. Crampsey acknowledge the truth of this, but countered by saying that it was equally true that you would not win a Championship without at least one such player in your side.
To his credit Jock accepted this, and we know from watching his teams that in most cases there was a mid-field craftsman, a player of real guile, for the want of a better word – a lock-picker. Some of these players were stars – I think of Auld, Murdoch, the two we have mentioned and Dalglish, but other players who might be viewed in the same light would include Vic Davidson and Brian McLaughlin.
What all of these had was skill in abundance. Some players are athletes exhibiting strength and power, while the very great seem to combine the qualities of the artist and the powerhouse, but it is true that the lock-picker often appears to be a player of slight physique although this often belies the truth in that they can dish it out when the need arises, but the general sense that one gets from watching them is akin to watching a swan, whose progress appears on the surface to be effortless.
In the 1960’s almost every team contained such a player. Spurs had the great John White, Rangers had Ian McMillan, Hearts and Hibs in turn boasted the talents of the mercurial Willie Hamilton, while Dundee and Aberdeen enjoyed the genius of Charlie Cooke before he joined Chelsea. Bobby Charlton was Manchester United’s icon and Johnny Giles realised that his talents were wasted there before joining Leeds.
I often think of that period as the last decade before tactics and organisation really took over the professional game. Systems and formations had been a feature of the game since before the war, but in the main there was till a lack of focus on coaching and structure at the expense of individual skill. While Stein may have been immortal for the way his team dismantled the Cattenacio of Inter Milan, if truth be told only the great teams really focussed on attack, the pendulum having swung to a point where lesser teams, well coached, could achieve a measure of success against the best. Each generation, and I mean in the life of football clubs 4-5 years, might produce an outstanding side such as Ajax with their total football, but the general trend was towards organisation and methods with individualism being the loser.
Stein may have won the battle, but I fear that Herrera won the war.
This emphasis on structure and team work rather than guile did not mean that the better sides did not have great footballers, but in most cases these had to fit into the team pattern. This was particularly true of that period during the late ’70’s into the ’80’s when European football was dominated by English teams, in particular Liverpool.
At their best they were like a well oiled machine, with the advantage of having a turbo charger in the great Dalglish, but they often simply ground teams down with team work of the highest order. The Arsenal team of that epoch had the genius of Brady, but they took pragmatism to a new level. So too did Nottingham Forest although Clough had the vision to see how a maverick such as John Robertson could enhance the corporate whole and he was given more or less a free rein.
I think that this approach has continued to the present day, and coaches are now seen as Demi-gods getting much of the praise when teams succeed, but too often carrying the can when they fail. As a result of the pressure which modern coaches are under, even at the lowest levels, the focus on industry at the expense of talent is heightened.
It is true that the biggest – ie. richest, or to put it another way the teams with the most debt – will buy the best players, but these have to fit into a structure or they are viewed as excess baggage.
Few players are allowed a license to play as free spirits – Messi is the exception which proves the rule, because even he works his socks off for the team.
To get back to our team and our playing staff. I fear that our unwillingness to fully utilise Paddy McCourt will in the end be costly.
There is a notion abroad that the Derry Pele is a luxury item – a player whose contribution is at best fitful and at worst non existent. I saw a criticism of his performance in last week’s debacle by Ron Cully in the Evening Times that he was ineffective, which prompted me to ask ‘what did they expect’?
It would have been unreasonable to ask even the great Lionel himself to come on for the last 15 minutes when a goal behind and somehow win the match against a team who have shown repeatedly that they can win from the position they were in last week.
But last week aside, Antony Murray spoke about the contribution which Paddy was making prior to the arrival of Commons. He had shown in the matches that he had played, that he was developing into a player who could not only provide a spark of genius but was also capable of doing his share of the donkey work – none more so than at Ibrox where he fully played his part in the win.
I recall an article in one of the broadsheets in the last months of WGS reign. It described a game against Hibs reserves in which McCourt had done nothing until mid-way though the first half. He got the ball and beat 5 Hibs players before scoring a wonder goal. The comment was made to the scribe by a member of the coaching staff – and Strachan was there – that he would disappear for the next half hour. Almost on cue with 20 minutes or so to go he repeated the magic wandering through the entire Hibs defence before lodging the ball in the net. The observation from our bench was ‘see that is what he does’
It occurred to me when reading the article that if I had a player who did little to nothing other than to score a wonder goal in each half, I would try to accommodate him in my team somehow. We limped to a Championship loss because we ran out of goals and inspiration in the last two games. McCourt watched from the stand.
I am aware that he has had fitness problems, but when he plays he always does something truly wonderful. In the win at Hibs recently much credit was given to Hooper and Stokes and deservedly so, but the best moment of the game for me was the move in which Kayal played Hooper in only for the striker to hit Brown when he seemed destined to score. Kayal was given much praise for the ball which freed Hooper, but in the lead up to that pass, Paddy drew 4 Hibs defenders to himself and threaded a pass through the eye of a needle to the Israeli setting him free to move on.
It is that sort of lock-picking moment that our team needs against sides who are prepared to pack their defence and hope to hit us on the break. He always does something of that nature, whether scoring or providing, but I feel he has also added industry to his game yet is given a bum rap by many critics – including a lot of Celtic supporters.
The one criticism I had of the Blessed Martin was that he criminally underused Lubo. This was underscored when we lost the cup final in the last minutes to a Lovenkrands goal when extra time was imminent. Moravcik was on the bench.
This was to be Lubo’s swansong and one has to believe that had he played even for a half, then there would have been no need for extra time, but we will never know. Neil has learned much from his mentor and I think he will be a great manager, but he will be a better one if he learns to trust genius.
Paddy McCourt is an exotic creature and it would appear that the hammer throwing environment of the SPL is not the place for such a player. I believe however that the opposite is the case, and if we put our trust in him he might well hold the key to a title win . In other words, he might well be the lock-picker we need.