Thursday 12 February ~

David Beckham is in the headlines for having equalled Bobby Moore’s record of 108 international caps against Spain last night. When Moore died Cris Freddi paid tribute in WSC 74 (April 1992) to a player regarded as England's finest ever defender

Sport makes some men handsome. Rephrase that: when you see certain players in repose, it comes as a surprise that they're not really good-looking. Glenn Hoddle, Gunther Netzer, Bjorn Borg. Mooro was probably top of the list.

An opening paragraph like that shows how much I'm struggling. Looking for an 'alternative view' all I could come up with was that he had a bit of a podgy face and difficult hair. Pitiful. Almost wished he had nicked that stupid bracelet: might've proved he was human. Alright, yes, we know about the failed country club, the mixed success at Oxford City and Southend, the confidence-bordering-on-arrogance that was just shyness in disguise, the break with Tina – but none of this is any of our damn business. Concern yourself with Moore the player and it's hard not to agree with everything that's being written.

Weaknesses? Well, leave him man-on-man with the very best and he'd struggle at times. In only his second game for England, against Hungary in the '62 World Cup, Lajos Tichy sidestepped him to score the opening goal. He let a long ball go over his head for Yugoslavia's Dzajic to knock us out of the European semi in 1968. When Sigi Held ran at him he gave away the penalty that put West Germany 2-1 up in Netzer's Match at Wembley in 1972. His famous attempt at a drag-back let Lubanski in for the goal that effectively knocked us out of the '74 finals (Mooro had scored an own goal in the first half). A week later, in his record-breaking 107th international, he was standing on the goal-line when Anastasi's shot went between his legs.

But most of this was at the top 'n' tail of his career. From 1963, when he became the youngest England captain ever, to about the end of 1971, he was everybody's idea of the greatest defender in the world. Voted best player of the '66 World Cup, he made two of Hurst's goals in the final, the first slyly (taking a free kick before the whistle), the second probably to needle Big Jack who was screaming at him to kick it into Neasden, each one with perfect long passes through the air. In 1970 he was even better: those famous tackles, never a mistake you can remember, no ill effects from heat, altitude or Colombian shysters.

Did it all the right way, too. He reached Dzajic, but wasn't sure he was outside the area, "and anyway that's not my way". He could've kicked pieces out of Pelé like they did in '66 but "it would have been an insult to myself". He kept faith with that through the Hunter-Storey era, for which we're all grateful; it's England's loss that his style of play didn't start a trend. We've been saddled with the double whammy ever since: Watson-Thompson, Butcher-Fenwick, Adams-Pallister, Keown-anybody. A pairing of Mooro and Des Walker would match anything produced by any other country anytime.

When dear old Walter Winterbottom gave Billy Wright 105 caps, for some reason it smacked of favouritism, sentimentality, something (this is being unfair to both, but you see what I'm saying). When Sir Alf gave Bobby Moore exactly 100, it seemed the right, hard-nosed decision. Two compliments sum it up: Brian Clough was desperate to sign him even when he had Colin Todd ("I'll put him at right back and tell him to learn from the master."), and the one thing any Scottish, Irish or Welsh player wanted to do, even if England won, was to put one over on Bobby Moore, or at least make him break sweat. So alright they managed it once or twice. So show us your World Cup medals.

He was a red rag to a bull in parts of England, too, especially on freezing nights up North when Ron Greenwood sent them out with mittens on. But even then he looked a class above anyone else – and that's the main thing when you're trying to decide on his place among English defenders, There are no other contenders. Perhaps Neil Franklin, though he didn't play in quite the same position, came closest in terms of style and dominance. To mention anyone else in the same breath – well, try it: Flowers, Hughes, Phil Thompson, Mark Wright...

And yet, come on, isn't it true that Bobby Moore was never quite the national folk hero he should've been? Respected, sure. Much appreciated when Pelé and Tostao were striking matches in Mexico, thanks very much. But while unspeakable anti-footballers like Stiles, Hunter, Holton, Tommy Smith and Tony Adams have been given cult status, Moore must've played it a little too cool for English tastes, too posh. Strange really, because he was as hard as any First Division defender in an era of very hard ones (ask Geoff Hurst, Shankly, anyone), and he liked a shandy or two: witness the expert, J Greaves, who credited him with hollow legs. Kept his accent, too. So we called him Mooro, we grieve loudly now he's gone – and we mean it – but as a player he wasn't quite loved.

Except, for what the hell it's worth, by the likes of me. We thought he was bloody wonderful, one of the very few reasons for being proud of English football at the turn of the Seventies. We'd watch him take the ball off Jairzinho's toes, hear the commentator say, "Moore, again" and get a genuine shiver down the back, a physical thing, to think that in a World Cup lit up by Brazilians, Germans and the odd dazzling Peruvian, the very best defender, by a street, was ours. I'm pleased as Punch I got his autograph.

His death seems, for want of another word, symbolic, the end of someone so closely connected with the Sixties, a decade looked back on with amused tolerance now, but one of the better ones: full employment and so much downright fun. Did Labour really lose the election because Germany knocked us out of the Cup? Probably. For us, it was the end of the world.

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