THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

24 May ~ It is a little-known fact that Bertie Bassett was an unused substitute in the 1984 FA Cup final. The following year he reprised his role as 12th man in the Cup-Winners Cup final. In 1986, he finally looked destined for a leading role when he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup semi-final. It was not to be. Bertie was overlooked once again, failing to make the team for that year's final. He was destined to be remembered for his role as an understudy: a willing and able replacement; a versatile character actor appreciated by his peers, but an understudy nonetheless.

The Everton team of the 1980s was packed with excellent footballers who were each specialists in their given positions. Neville Southall was the world's best goalkeeper; Kevin Ratcliffe was a centre-back with style and bite; Kevin Sheedy's left foot crafted some of the most memorable goals in the club's proud history; Peter Reid was a central midfielder who tackled, harried and passed to his heart's content. The list goes on: Paul Bracewell, Trevor Steven, Gary Lineker, Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray.

They are all players who are remembered for being responsible for the most successful spell in the Merseyside club's history. And yet no Everton supporter would deem the list complete without the inclusion of Alan Harper, also affectionately known as Bertie Bassett. His ability to play in all sorts of positions gave Howard Kendall the luxury of naming his strongest line-up for the club's biggest games knowing his substitute had every position covered. It also gave Harper a reputation as football's best utility man, and an iconic nickname to boot.

In the days of teams having only one substitute, a versatile No 12 was a luxury many managers sought. Consequently, utility players, while never quite essential, were perhaps valued more than they are in the modern game. After all, who needs one Jack on a bench when you can name seven masters? Versatility is still valued by managers, particularly those with limited budgets, but they are different than they were in the 1980s. Like most things in football, they are not quite as stoic.

Appropriately, the role of the utility man has taken more than one guise over the years. The game has rarely offered legendary status to men of versatility. John Charles is one such exception. The Welshman, a talisman for both Leeds and Juventus, was unique in many ways, not least in his ability to play at both ends of the field. He was masterful footballer, elegant of touch and graceful in both the finish and the tackle.

The trend for centre-backs playing at the opposite end of the pitch peaked in the 1990s, when Dion Dublin, Chris Sutton and Paul Warhurst made their solid careers noteworthy with goalscoring sprees. Dublin and Sutton cost over £30 million in transfer fees, with Sutton briefly becoming English football's most expensive player when he moved from Norwich to Blackburn in 1994.

While Warhurst's striking prowess was not sustained over as long a period, his impact as an emergency striker for Sheffield Wednesday was startling and jolted the club to the 1993 FA Cup final. His later spells back in defence and, as a sort of compromise, in midfield for Blackburn Rovers and Crystal Palace, confirmed his utility-man status.

There is something very straightforward and perhaps a little British about centre-halves using their physicality to influence games at the other end of the pitch. Unsurprisingly, the European game tends to offer a more sophisticated approach to flexibility. The football philosophies of Ajax and Barcelona make versatility a basic requirement. Total Football dictates that players are more effective the more positions they are comfortable in. Both academies base their schooling on ensuring players are comfortable all over the pitch, a concept that ensures Gerard Pique is able to drop a shoulder and round a goalkeeper and Andres Iniesta is as comfortable receiving balls from Victor Valdes in full-back positions as he is in front of the the opposition's goalkeeper.

Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 with a fluid 3-3-3-1 formation that required every player to cover every blade of grass. That remarkable team was ripped apart by clubs who were cosseted by wealthier leagues. But many of the players initially struggled to become accustomed to the rigid formations employed by their new teams. The only way to stop that Ajax team was to sign them up; they were truly potent from all areas and would, had they been given more years together, be considered equal to the current Barcelona team.

In July 1995, Chelsea welcomed Holland's most successful non-Ajax man, Ruud Gullit. Glenn Hoddle's proclamation that Gullit would play as a sweeper caused intrigue. His stay at the back was not as successful as both men had envisaged, but his success as a deep-lying central midfielder brought many plaudits. Gullit, who was renowned as a forward of the highest calibre, proved to be more than that. He was, quite simply, a footballer of the highest calibre.

Why should versatility raise so many eyebrows? Most right-backs probably began as a junior team's star striker. Carles Puyol did. A later incarnation as a marauding full-back preceded his transformation into an iconic centre-half. Football is littered with players who are on record as having started life in very different positions to the ones that made them famous.

Perhaps English football is finally warming to the idea of versatility as an attribute rather than a quirky accessory. Two of England's most promising prospects have used this change of mentality to their advantage. Phil Jones began the season as Manchester United's standout performer. Unperturbed by competition at centre-back he has popped up at full-back, wing-back and in midfield.

Jack Rodwell has spent the majority of his game time for Everton's first team in positions other than the centre-back slot in which he won so many plaudits at youth level. When he reverts to his favoured position, his experience in many areas will help him become a master of one.

It is encouraging to see English players making the most of their genuinely general football talent. The ever-changing game will demand a new breed of utility player. All the signs are there: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo score previously unthinkable numbers of goals from new starting positions; 4-6-0 is already a workable formation in the modern game; full-backs are morphing into their teams' most threatening attacking options.

Football will soon demand that players can play in all sorts of positions. Top clubs will be out to find them. Everton's local rivals may well have an unexpected advantage when it comes to uncovering the new breed of utility player, for Liverpool's head scout is none other than Bertie Bassett. Jon Sellick In Bed With Maradona

Comments (1)
Comment by Janik 2012-05-24 16:42:59

"There is something very straightforward and perhaps a little British about centre-halves using their physicality to influence games at the other end of the pitch. Unsurprisingly, the European game tends to offer a more sophisticated approach to flexibility."

Jose Mourinho picked Robert Huth to play centre-forward on occasion. Tony Pulis hasn't tried this (yet).

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