Do you ever see a picture of a player and come up confidently with half a dozen names for him? Matt Nation knows the feeling, especially with one former Arsenal man

A recent article on European Union expansion  highlighted the problems Slovenia faces in trying to convince people that it is who it says it is. People who try to point it out on a map usually end up putting their finger on Serbia & Montenegro. The flag gets confused with the Russian one. Even George W is convinced Slovenia is half of what used to be Czechoslovakia.

May my children’s children disown me, but I can almost understand where Mr President is coming from. Just as Texas’s finest, in the confines of his own manor, wouldn’t confuse Louisiana with Missouri, I had no problems identifying the lower-league players I used to watch regularly. I could tell Steve White from Paul Randall before they started wearing names on their shirts. However, with my first-hand experience of top-flight football restricted to wistfully pressing my nose and hands up against the TV screen, there were a lot of players who seemed to be just, well, the same.

It’s not a case of lookalikes. It’s obvious you’re going to mix up, say, Peter Nicholas and Barry Horne. Both Welsh, are both balding, are both imbued with the sophistication of a group of office workers photocopying their backsides and are both ringers for that bloke who used to visit your mother when your father was on nights and mend things that weren’t broken.

I’m talking about players whose names were little more than a common noun. It was usually midfielders. Like dog-owners who look like their pets and shop-owners – butchers and piemen especially – who bear a striking resemblance to their wares, midfielders seemed to merge into one. Take David Howells: as a schoolboy, he was a free-scoring forward. Compact, muscular and darkly handsome, he was the player in his school team who could make the ball sit up and clap like a seal at feeding time. Then he signed for Tottenham, turned pale and gawky and, before you could say “a man’s true character is reflected by his behaviour on the sports field”, he became the triplet brother of Steve Sedgley and Tim Sherwood. If there had been an identity parade of Spurs midfielders from about 1990 onwards, I’d have said that they were all Howells, even if Howells had been missing from the line-up.

However, the worst culprit was a striker. Winston Churchill claimed “an empty car stopped outside No 10 and Clement Atlee stepped out”. Similarly, there was a peg in the Arsenal dressing-room under which Martin Hayes used to sit. Records show that he played, and scored, quite a lot but, for the impartial observer, Hayes, like John Cusack in Identity, could have been everybody. Although I’ve never seen a picture of Hayes, he will always be 5ft 10in, 11st 2lb and look like the first bloke your sister brought home. For me, Hayes was Iain Allison was Kevin Richardson. The only reason I knew Hayes wasn’t Perry Groves was because Groves was every forward who went on loan to Southampton.

God knows what games between Arsenal and Chel­sea must have been like. Nowadays, these matches feature 22 of the best known faces in European football – not even Ray Parlour gets mistaken for that tatty-haired bloke who never quite made it at Forest – but then it was easier to distinguish between the contestants on Fifteen To One than to tell the players apart. A Chelsea midfield of Bumstead, Spackman and Nich­olas might as well have consisted of one, six-legged player (in fact, with Joe McLaughlin and Colin Pates constantly banging the ball 50 yards up the pitch, the midfield might as well have consisted of nobody at all). It’s no wonder both teams had to import foreigners to pack the midfield; they spent 15 years with about six players each on the pitch.

But when the boots have been hung up and the haulage contracting business has gone bankrupt, Hayes will come into his collective own. Whereas Bergkamp, Henry and the rest of his successors will be remembered only for outstanding individual displays, Hayes will remain etched in the memories of people who never saw him play and possibly have never heard of him. And you’re a long time finished. May Hayes laugh into his old ages – every last one of them.

From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month

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