As Matthew Le Tissier calls it a day, Cris Freddi looks back on some of the other players who have been almost great, but not quite, in his tricky position
So goodbye then, Le Tiss. Thanks for the sequence of great individual goals that season. If you’d got yourself injured there and then, we’d have called it a really big loss, someone who had the makings of a great player. Instead, they’re saying you didn’t have enough ambition to leave an unfashionable club. I think that’s bollocks personally, but we all agree that something went AWOL in the last few years.
It started going downhill when Hoddle picked you in that makeshift nonsense that lost a World Cup qualifier at home to Italy. You remember: McManaman but no playmaker, Ian Walker letting in Zola’s shot. No wonder you looked a bit lost that night. Mind you, eh? If your header hadn’t bounced just wide with their keeper stranded, it might not have been your last cap and there would be a few more eulogies around now. Instead, there’s the sense that you’ve already been gone for some time.
Let’s try to keep your pecker up by saying you weren’t the only player of your type to go out like this. And it’s not the skill v workrate debate: this is about your position on the pitch. A lot of talented players have disappeared in the hole.
We can go back to Len Shackleton as a starting point. I knew someone who knew someone who actually saw Len do that trick of flipping a sixpence into his top pocket with his shoe. He scored a goal against world champions West Germany in 1954 and didn’t play for England again. See: you are not alone.
Nor was Shack. Ronnie Allen also scored in that match and didn’t win another cap. Earlier in the year, he’d headed a goal in England’s win at Hampden, then scored twice to win West Brom the FA Cup final. But he didn’t go to the World Cup and won only five caps, his deep-lying skills rejected in favour of Nat Lofthouse’s more direct approach.
That’s been a recurring theme with this kind of player. Coaches generally prefer someone who fits a mould: out-and-out striker or obvious playmaker. If you’re a mixture of both, it’s easy to regard you as neither fish nor fowl and leave you out. They usually have to build a team around you, and not many coaches have been brave enough to do that – or lucky enough to buy a Cantona on the cheap.
No wonder you can be inconsistent to the point of dividing loyalties. Take the 1970s batch, for instance. I know, I know, they’re a cliche now, all those style gurus who won only a few caps each. Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, Frank Worthington. But they’re grist to this particular mill, especially as some of them played in the hole or thereabouts. For example: Duncan McKenzie and Charlie George.
McKenzie made the England squad in 1974, they liked him at Anderlecht and Brian Clough bought him. But his other half wouldn’t have, and I’m with him on this one. Peter Taylor thought McKenzie was “a footballer who ought to be on the halls… he’s almost impossible to slot into a team. There seems to be a blockage in his mind which makes him retain the ball when it ought to be released.”
George won the League title with Arsenal and Derby, sealed a Double by scoring the winner in an FA Cup final and hit a European Cup hat-trick against Real Madrid. But that’s the thing with these players: you tend to highlight certain moments rather than describe a whole career. George played only 65 minutes for England and blew his chances under Clough.
Dennis Bergkamp’s career, it’s true, has been generally successful but with downbeat episodes. He missed that semi-final penalty against United, was a mas- sive disappointment at Inter and didn’t score in his last 17 matches for Holland, including a disappearing act in the semi-final of France 98.
Meanwhile Eric Cantona, a god at Old Trafford, didn’t do it in Europe, where teams simply posted a man in his territory just in front of their back four. And even Roberto Baggio wasn’t trusted early on. Despite his sweet goal against Czechoslovakia in Italia 90, he was dropped for the semi-final, which Italy lost. Further back, Joaquín Peiró scored for Spain against England and helped Inter win the European Cup in 1965, but was forever in and out of both teams.
Which all goes to show what a difficult position this is to play in. Ask Youri Djorkaeff about his shocking 1998 World Cup. Anyone who can do it consistently is at a premium. Hence Peter Beardsley and Teddy Sheringham still playing for England at 35, Nigel Clough winning 14 caps even though his feet couldn’t keep pace with his brain, and Johnny “Budgie” Byrne winning his first while he was in the old Third Division. If he hadn’t had weight problems and a bad injury, West Ham might have had a fourth player in the 1966 World Cup final.
It’s such a hard job that too many of this type get labelled as entertainers – and that’s simply not what it’s about. This is an athletic sport, not a bloody circus. Rodney Marsh’s grotesque lack of fitness cost Man City the League title in 1972, and he found his right level by playing a brand of cabaret football with George Best at Fulham. The real aces in the hole did it under pressure time and again and were therefore some of the greatest, and most entertaining, players of all time. Cruyff, Maradona, Platini, Nandor Hidegkuti, Flórián Albert, late period Pelé.
The rest, the Le Tissiers, only show you glimpses of that kind of influence – and ultimately you have to accept them for that and not make further claims on their behalf. You were probably born out of time, Matt. They might have loved you in the Thirties, at least on the Continent, with all those ball-playing strikers. And even in today’s money, we all agree you deserved more than those eight caps (at an average of 32 minutes each), which is one fewer than Geoff Thomas. Fingers crossed the same doesn’t happen to Joe Cole.
From WSC 184 June 2002. What was happening this month