Philip Cornwall was far from alone in idolising a traditional English centre-forward in 1986, even if his choice was unusual. A lot has changed since, starting with Gary Lineker

Wayne Larkins has long been one of my favourite footballers. Though if he crossed your consciousness at all it was probably as a Northamptonshire and (occasionally) England batsman, my cup runneth over when his winter off from the county I support became a move to my non-League home town side, where he made a striking impression.

Not least because he looked the part. Not an athlete, exactly, but the one professional sportsman around – with bubble perm to match. If you’ve lost a World Cup final (and will go on to score the winning run in Eng­land’s first win against the West Indies for 16 years), then Holbeach United hold few fears. His penalty area presence was unlike that of his peers: he didn’t always score but he had the confidence to miss, something a successful professional life in a sport where one mis­take can end your day must imbue. So, in two seasons in the mid-1980s, Larkins helped what was already a winning side be­come a dominating one. And gave the illusion that what we were watching at Ford Meadow was not that far removed from the professional game, a view bolstered by Buckingham Town’s one trip to the FA Cup first round. Sadly Larkins was cup-tied when Orient came to Town, but the narrowness of the defeat gave the impression that if he had been playing the outcome could have been different. He looked as much a striker as those Orient fielded and when a cross came over not that far removed from those higher up.

This, mind, was in the run-up to a World Cup that England approached with Mark Hateley as the established striker. As WSC 3 recorded, Brian Glanville asked in the Sunday Times on June 8, 1986: “Of Line­ker, it seems plainer than ever that he is a talented club player who cannot take the great step up to international football.” England played Poland on June 11, a game Gary readily admits changed his life. It also led to changes in what we perceived a striker should be.

Lineker has often been singled out as different. The thought that went into his career moves; his willingness to learn languages when he played abroad rather than importing his mates to keep him company; the way he went about establishing his post-football career, choosing a column on a Sunday broadsheet (at a time when that held a degree of novelty in football circles) and moving to present, rather than simply pundit (the former being a far harder job, as John Barnes currently demonstrates in excruciating fashion).

But on the pitch Lineker was different, too. Not just that he was never booked, though that does imply that physical confrontation was not a key part of his make-up. Yes, he was a penalty area operator. Only one of his 48 goals for England came from beyond the 18-yard line. But his game was based on thought, rather than power. He was a penalty area absence, rather than a presence, slipping away unseen, making endless runs in the hope (especially at Tottenham) rather than  ex­pectation of reward, out-thinking the opposition.

Supermac, Mark Hateley, Larkins at his level and so many others were like that deer in the Far Side cartoon, with that target on his chest. “Bummer of a birthmark, man,” runs the caption. But the old-fashioned centre-forward relished it: you can’t miss me but I’m coming through anyway. Lineker sought to shy away from at­tention on the pitch, not shrug it off. And through his six years as his country’s leading forward he changed perceptions of what to expect.

In Lineker’s last season in England the leading strik­er for the league champions was Lee Chapman; but Lineker had made a “Chapman for England” cam­paign mercifully impossible. Instead, however different Alan Shearer and Michael Owen have been as England’s subsequent striking linchpins, the attempt has been made to brand them the “new Lineker”, not just by crisp manufacturers in the latter case.

Of course overseas strikers make a huge impact now, on the game and on perceptions. Think of Ruud van Nistelrooy, forever testing opponents’ nerves by occupying a blind spot, offside, forcing them to turn, to be off balance, to think too hard and too often. He has power, presence and pace, too, but Van Nistelrooy is playing a mental game with his opponents in a way that was largely alien to the British game 25 years ago.

Thierry Henry, meanwhile, a converted winger, tor­tures rather than teases his victims. He is all but unclassifiable, creator as well as scorer, a footballer in a sense that Hateley never was. Henry is so unusual, in fact, that it is best to leave him out of the discussion.

Some of the changes were enforced. The kind of physical challenge on goalkeepers that Andy Gray could still get away with would bring an instant whistle these days, as Shearer found out to England’s cost against Argentina in 1998, for instance. Some came about as a result of the restrictions on others: the nimb­ler forwards have been helped immeasurably by the outlawing of the tackle from behind and referees cracking down on the kind of challenges with which British centre-halves traditionally greeted potential faint-hearts or slowed down the fleet of foot.

Pace is ever more important. It is a constant frustration to Owen, Van Nistelrooy and Henry that they are called offside when replays show that they were not, but they have been helped by the change in the laws that gives them the right to be level. Mathematically this should have made minimal difference but linesmen used to want daylight one side of a defender not to flag, now many require it the other side before they will call an infringement. Strikers have also been given the benefit of the doubt in these situations, in the instructions to linesmen if not always in practice.

They have been helped, too, by the shift away from intention in foul play. Once upon a time a defender could expect the benefit of the doubt in the penalty area if he remotely shaped to play the ball; today, though some tumbles are simply dives, many that are howled about come when defenders have been lured into false tackles and missed with a lunge at a vanishing ball. Under today’s laws the amount of contact and the in­tent do not matter: play the man in the box and it’s a penalty.

To trick the poor, lumbering defender requires brains as well as speed, of course. Neither were exactly features of Wayne Larkins’ play and it didn’t matter. Today, a striker with neither should be as much a  mus­eum exhibit as Larkins’ tache and perm.

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month

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