Centre forwards – a dying breed

The classical orthodox centre forward has long been under threat. Go back as far as the marvellous Hungarian team of the early 1950s who smashed England’s unbeaten home record against visiting foreign teams in November 1953. 6-3, and what do you find? Scorer of three Hungarian goals that afternoon at Wembley was the deep lying centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti, operating magisterially behind the formidable spearhead of Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas.

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud was in sublime form against Olympiakos.   -  AP

Scarcely had the smoke cleared on an article by a well established football writer suggesting the death of the centre forward when up popped the big Frenchman Olivier Giroud with a hat-trick in Greece against Olympiakos in the European qualifiers which saved Arsenal from elimination, with a splendid and surprising 3-0 victory despite missing a host of stars, including the brilliant and prolific Chilean Alexis Sanchez. And Giroud, almost in the tradition of Arsenal centre forwards down the years, as we shall see, surpassed himself in this game, after having never fully gained the confidence of his fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger, not to mention having been booed by the crowd while playing not long since for France at the Stade de France.

Giroud, 29, and 6 foot 4 inches, is classically built in the manner of a true centre forward.

As for his three splendidly taken goals, the first was a slashing header which tore between the post and goalkeeper Roberton. The second was a perfectly executed side foot from an excellent pass by the little Costa Rican Campbell, showing the bright form he had shown a couple of seasons ago when a guest with Olympiakos; and this after Giroud had just had a painful fall. The third was a coolly taken side footed penalty.

And I’ve kept thinking of Jack Lambert in the 1930s. A big, fearless Yorkshire-born centre forward who could, back in the 1930s, never convince Arsenal’s legendary manager Herbert Chapman, however many goals he scored, and there were plenty. Including Jimmy Dunne, a name suddenly evoked from the distant past as a direct result of that astonishing late bloomer, 28-year-old Jamie Vardy, achieving a dazzling run of scoring for Leicester City in 11 consecutive games. Not quite enough though, it was pointed out, to reach let alone eclipse the record established by Dunne playing in the old First division in season 1931/32.

The burly Dunne, an Irish international who had fought in Ireland’s Revolutionary War and actually imprisoned by the new Government in the 1920s, was a remarkable character. I have always recollected the story long ago told to me by George Raynor, the little Yorkshire-man, who managed Sweden 10 years later.

When as a very young right winger, just signed by Sheffield United, and asked where he came from, he replied with the name of his native village, Holland. Dunne, mishearing this, approached Raynor, seized his hand in his own large hand, saying “So you come from Ireland do you, son? Put it there, if it weighs a ton!”

Now to the Chapman-Arsenal connection. For Dunne was one of several expensive and hitherto successful centre forwards who Chapman brought to Highbury in a vain bid to replace Lambert. The major irony being that it was only in the year Chapman died, in 1934, that Arsenal finally and dramatically solved their centre forward problem when they bought burly Ted Drake from Southampton. The following season, 1934/35, he scored no fewer than 42 goals for the Gunners, as champions. Later he would get all seven in a demolition of Aston Villa at their own Villa Park.

As a subsequent manager, he was the first ever to lead Chelsea to the Championship of the First Division in season 1954/55. And he was England’s centre forward in the notorious battle of Highbury against Italy, in November 1934, the trouble starting when early in the game a kick by Drake — who always swore to me it was accidental — broke a bone in the foot of the notoriously rugged Italy-Argentine centre half Luisito Monti, forced him off the field insisting, “He kicked me deliberately”. Mayhem ensued after, as he hobbled off. Thereafter the violent Italians felt they were retaliating.

As for Vardy himself, he recently slightly displeased the England manager Roy Hodgson, who had been using him on the left flank, by saying he hoped to play for England through the middle. In the event Hodgson changed his tune and seemed ready to permit Vardy to play as a centre striker in the two recent games against Spain and Switzerland, but alas, he was injured and missed them.

There can be no doubt that this season Vardy has been a phenomenon. With his dynamic pace, his good control, his courageous determination to go it alone — though his unselfish pass to a colleague which brought Leicester a goal denied him his 12th were laudable — he is an exhilarating figure who surged past defenders till thought to score.

But nowadays there are so many clubs which play with a single striker or centre forward, whose chances of scoring are proportionally limited, and who all too often receive the ball with their back to the goal. The description of Target Man has been with us a good many years now. Implicit in it is that the centre forward thus delineated will probably play with his back to the opposing goal, his function being as much to bring other advancing players from midfield into the game rather than to get any chances to score himself.

Yet surely the classical orthodox centre forward has long been under threat.

Go back as far as the marvellous Hungarian team of the early 1950s who smashed England’s unbeaten home record against visiting foreign teams in November 1953. 6-3, and what do you find? Scorer of three Hungarian goals that afternoon at Wembley was the deep lying centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti, operating magisterially behind the formidable spearhead of Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas.

Come much more up to date when France won the World Cup in 1998, it was very much despite not having an effective centre forward. Thierry Henry, who’d become a formidably effective one with Arsenal, then being an outside right. While more efficiently still, Spain have played effectively with no recognised centre forward, using midfielder Cesc Fabregas to steal in from behind the frontal attack.

“Real” centre forward can come in varying shapes and sizes. Dickie Dean, that formidable pre-war header of a ball who once scored 60 goals in a season for Everton, was a big fellow. Hughie Gallacher of Scotland, Newcastle and Chelsea among his clubs, was sturdy and small in those pre-war days, but hugely effective.

Yet how could anyone call Chelsea’s powerhouse of a striker Didier Drogba in recent years anything but a traditional centre forward?