If your team is both playing a new system and losing regularly, you may feel inclined to join Neil Dawson's crusade for a return to traditional values
I’m upset. I've reached that first stage of old age – standing in pubs saying “Football isn't what it used to be.” And why? Because of the current obsession with 5-3-2 formations and bloody wing-backs, that’s why.
In the greatest display of irrational logic since Clive Sinclair stood up in his office and shouted, “I know – a battery powered one-seater car,” every lower division manager began the season convinced that this system would transform his heap of free-transfers and that £8,000 steal from Enfield into automatic play-off contenders overnight.
So, late this July, lower division footballers throughout the country nudged their F registration Ford Sierras into cramped council car parks anticipating pre-season training encompassing the obligatory big hill and Territorial Army assault course, only to be greeted with a tactical blackboard containing more squiggles than the Beijing phone directory.
Personally, I blame satellite TV, Football Italia and Euro 96. It’s one thing devising a system with young Continental defenders who have been playing it since they were in their respective clubs’ under 11 sides. It’s quite another thing when your full-backs are Barry and Nobby, two 33-year-old free-transfers from Bury and Scunthorpe, and you give them two weeks and a pre-season friendly at Yeovil to perfect it.
Imagine the pre-season instructions from the manager: “Right Bazza, you know the last few years I’ve told you to stick up the winger’s arse, show him the line, tap his ankles, stand on the goal-post for corners and, if we’re over three-nil up at home, to go on the odd overlap to keep the grandstand happy?”
"Well this year there is a change of plan.”
“What, you mean you want someone over 5'7" on the goal-post at corners?”
“No, I want you to play in a pivotal roll receiving the ball from one of our three rotating centre-backs and acting as a link between them and a deep-lying centre forward ending up the move by cutting the ball back from the by-line so that it can be finished off by one of our midfield diamond quartet.”
“OK boss, and do you still want me to take the goal-kicks when the keeper’s knee plays up?”
“Er . . . yes.”
And so it advanced around the country, a great cancerous growth on lower division football – gone the excitement that only a ponderous, flat back four on a muddy pitch can bring, gone the terrace-inciting moments of four midfield ball winners launching themselves at each other, and goodbye to the old-forward line of two enigmatic, anorexic, balding wingers, an oil tanker-like target man and his willowy sniffer partner who scored a hat-trick for West Brom in 1983.
Except these players haven’t gone, because their clubs can’t afford to replace them – they are still there and they are lost, running around in alien positions,withered eyes confused, longing to hump a ball down a channel and push up for an offside just like in the oilcan days, but instead trying to concentrate on keeping a proper Christmas tree shape. All the time not sure what one looks like because they’ve spent the last five Christmases travelling to a Boxing Day fixture at Darlington.
It is to these players that I give my simple message – revolt and smash the system, the terraces are behind you. Your manager can still only send eleven of you out – just revert to your natural positions. He can't sack you if you all stick together – the club has no money. And if he moans, stand your ground and name those teams that still play 4-4-2 (Manchester United, Newcastle, AC Milan etc) and how they regularly murder teams with wing-backs and laugh about it afterwards.
If we all stick together we can do it, we can overcome. We have no desire for fancy systems, squad substitutions and Czech strikers with surnames like the bottom of an optician’s chart. We want crumbling terraces, toilets you have to wade through and aging teams stumbling out to creaking tannoys playing The Final Countdown. Come the revolution, every side worth it’s salt will have reverted to 4-4-2, and we will be able to tell our grandchildren that we were there.
From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month