In the first of a series on aspects of how the game is played today, Philip Cornwall considers how the improvement in defensive coaching has taken away much of the sting from corners – unless you're lucky enough to be playing West Ham

My earliest knowledge of the hazards of corners came playing for Maids Moreton C of E, back in the 1976-77 season. After a sound spanking by Pad­bury, Mrs Benson told her primary school charges that rather than pass across the face of our own goal, it would be better to put the ball out for a corner.

This had the unforeseen effect in the rematch that anyone remotely close to the goal-line whacked the ball behind, leading to what would have gone down as a re­cord number of corners in a North Bucks schoolboy friendly had Opta been on hand. However, we did cut the margin of defeat, as corners were not really that much good to eight- and nine-year-olds. I never thought it would happen, but increasingly in recent months I have been drawn back to this lesson from my one experience of representative football. My reluctant conclusion is that the corner kick is almost as much use at the highest level now as it was for Padbury back then.

When Howard Wilkinson was appointed Sunderland boss, it was reported that in the 30-odd England games at various levels for which he was coach, his teams conceded just one goal from set-pieces. Only two of these games were full internationals, so perhaps free-kick routines were unpolished at more junior levels; but what about all the corners?

In late November, 95 corners in eight Premiership games one Saturday produced just one goal; another Saturday, one goal came from 58 corners in six games. Opta were every bit as absent at First Division games in 1976-77 as they were at schoolboy friendlies. But I don’t think it’s just a nostalgic illusion that corners led to goals week in, week out.

Fans still get excited by the winning of a corner, though. We know that they do lead to goals, and seem unaware of how just how rarely that is the case. So what has happened to draw the sting? Though the written rules about corners are much the same as they were then, the unwritten rules have shifted: nine times out of ten pundits will point out a clear mistake, such as the weak punch, dropped ball or failure to apply mo­dern tactics. Consider Liverpool’s trio against West Ham, a day after Sunderland scored two of their three own goals against Charlton from corners.It’s a lower division kind of goal, one you should not concede.

Placing men on the posts, for a start, is now obligatory. If the rest of your marking goes awry, you have still appreciably narrowed the target and put pressure on the opposition to aim closer to the keeper.

A decade ago, WSC’s series of Overused Football Facts included “it’s impossible to defend against the near-post flick-on”. So don’t allow the flick-on in the first place. Mark the first man front and back. Fans enjoy a series of corners when the ball is turned behind again and again, but if the corner-taker is failing to get the ball past the first man, there really is little danger.

From time to time comparisons are made between the physiognomies of players in the 19th century, when the pitch dimensions and the number of personnel were determined. Bigger goals and fewer players are suggested as ways to redress the balance. Such issues are exaggerated at corners.

The target from the corner is a corridor a few square feet wide. A ball must either dip over the keep­er, or be far enough from him that he cannot come off his line to claim the ball successfully but close enough for the attackers to have a clear sight of goal and the chance to beat his reactions. That corridor has grown progressively smaller and more distant.

Goalkeepers today are taller, with longer reach, and are far better protected by referees than previously. The ball a keeper can’t catch or punch is much higher or further out than was the case in the 1970s. In 1977, Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton, Alex Stepney, David Harvey and Jimmy Rimmer were all between 5ft 11in and 6ft. Paul Cooper of Ipswich was 5ft 9in! Today, Fabien Bar­thez at 5ft 11in is appreciably shorter than most of his rivals. A ball over the keeper and under the crossbar is that much higher, and harder to keep down. Though outfield players were smaller in the Seventies, they were also lower relative to the crossbar.

I used to consider short corners an admission of inability to score the conventional goal. While this may be partly true – a reflection of a diminutive forward line, perhaps – they also represent an attempt to break out of the regimented defensive patterns that now dominate. The corner is football’s equivalent of charging a trench. Any tactical shift to acquire an attacking advantage is soon negated.

The taker of a short corner can be caught offside if the men on the posts move up on cue. The low-to-the-near-post routine used to great effect by Darren Anderton and Teddy Sheringham became too well known. Defences remain on top.

Corners do still make headlines. Manchester United v Bayern Munich, for instance. At the World Cup Eng­land scored from two – but the second one was a goal­keeping blunder, and for all David Beckham’s skills, how many others has he created this way for England?

There was a lot of fuss over the award of a corner to Liverpool against Arsenal in late January, leading to Emile Heskey’s equaliser. But Arsenal’s initial dispositions were fine; it was in the broken play afterwards that they were caught flat-footed. Earlier, Patrick Vieira put the ball in the net but only after pushing his marker away; Pascal Cygan made the header but hit the man on the line; Heskey was just wide at one end, but Pires was alert on the post, then saved his team when Jerzy Dudek dropped a routine ball. The defences were in control.

There were no other goals from corners in that round of matches. When they are scor­ed now, treasure the moment: such goals are a dying breed, being threatened with extinction by defensive coaches who could even teach Mrs Benson a thing or two.

From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month

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