A valid tactic
20 March ~ A long ball is hoisted up Hedge End Rangers’ Norman Rodaway Ground, just off the M27, during a Puma Engineering Hampshire Premier Combination League fixture. The opposition defence fails to deal with it and a goal is scored. How do the conceding team react? With contempt. Some shake their heads, others speak their minds – "All they can do is hoof it" – perhaps forgetting it has produced the purpose of the game: a goal. Some will tell you grassroots football is nothing but kick and rush, but in my 15 years spent playing on Saturday afternoons I’ve noticed teams are pretty vocal about their disapproval of it.
Trying to play an intricate passing game is to any team’s credit, if they are actually able to do so successfully. Otherwise it serves as merely an exercise in exposing your shortcomings. Strangely, this possibility doesn’t seem to be a sufficient deterrent for everybody.
I’ve seen and played against more and more teams who insist on faffing about taking short goal-kicks and passing among their back four, irrespective of the number of goals this style of play helps them to concede. If there is a "right way" of playing surely this is not it. I’m not asking grassroots coaches to dust off the manuals of FA coaching guru Charles Hughes, or to follow the lead of Dave Bassett, who while Wimbledon manager would allegedly "dish out bollockings" to anyone playing a square ball. It’s just there is more to admire in the game than short passes. Watching Spain pass the opposition to death during last summer’s European Championship confirmed that to me.
The performances of Oldham Athletic’s Matt Smith against Liverpool and Everton in this season’s FA Cup were a refreshing change. The sight of a tall, athletic man throwing himself at crosses stirs my soul every bit as much as Sergio Busquets recycling the ball back to Gerard Piqué because there’s nothing on in front of him.
Andy Carroll is a similar player in some ways to Smith. He was left to defend his goalscoring ratio in the Daily Mail. Rather than a lack of goals, it is the way they’ve been scored which his critics seem to object to. He replied by saying he scores more goals with his feet than his head. A goal is a goal so why does it matter how he scores them?
Perhaps when we reap the benefits of the £105 million splashed out on the St George’s Park National Football Centre, and the coaching in the UK has improved beyond our wildest dreams, we will have all forgotten about long balls. If that doesn’t come to pass there will still be grassroots teams who shun long ball tactics for a passing game. Even if some of them are as clueless at doing so as they are defending against a long ball. Mark Sanderson