Problems of pace

Manchester City’s dynamic Argentine Sergio Aguero whipped past John Terry like the wind to score in a recent English Premier League clash.

Chelsea's John Terry (second left) sits on the bench after being substituted at half-time during the game against Manchester City at the the Etihad Stadium.   -  REUTERS

Manchester City’s dynamic Argentine Sergio Aguero whipped past John Terry like the wind to score in a recent English Premier League clash. But, by and large, Terry’s shrewd positioning allows him to avoid being beaten with such ease. Football is after all a game in which speed can be in the head rather than the legs.

“Unless you’ve got pace, pace of some sort, you’re blanked in the game today.” Words, somewhat expurgated here, said to me a while ago by Mick Channon, the Southampton, Manchester City and England right-sided attacker, who certainly had pace in super abundance and emphatically knew how to use it. Whenever it brought him a goal, which it often did, he celebrated with a whirling of his right arm. By a bitter irony, after his retirement, he would become a highly successful race horse trainer, and was later crippled in a car accident and was condemned to move about on crutches. But was he wholly right in what he said?

The question now seems highly relevant, given the recent misadventures of John Terry. To general shock and surprise, having played in every single Premiership game last season for Chelsea, his one and only club (being that practically unique product, a Chelsea player who was actually developed at the club) he was brusquely pulled off the field and substituted at half-time in Chelsea’s humbling 3-0 away defeat to Manchester City. Accused by his flamboyant manager, Jose Mourinho, of lacking the necessary pace!

Terry, declared Mourinho after that game, was substituted because he wanted to play with a higher, more advanced, defensive line in the second half, therefore replacing the 34-year-old Terry with the much younger French defender, Kurt Zouma, who is certainly quicker. But it was pointed out that the current England centre back Gary Cahill — Terry has long since refused to play for his country after some controversially severe treatment — was no more effective than Terry.

The fact is that Terry has never been noted for his pace. What he does have is supreme tactical and positional sense, the ability to marshal and advise his own defence, to win the ball in the air at both ends of the field. The England defence has never looked remotely as sound since his departure. And though at least on one of City’s first half goals, the dynamic Argentine Sergio Aguero whipped past him like the wind, by and large his shrewd positioning allows him to avoid being beaten with such ease. Pace? Football is after all a game in which speed can be in the head rather than the legs.

One thinks of the remarkable Dutchman Wim Van Hanegem. Tall, powerfully built and anything but quick in movement, I rated him as the outstanding player on the field in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich between Holland and Germany. Yes, even more impressive than his teammates, the incomparable, inspirational Johan Cruyff, and the incisive Johan Neeskens, Van Hanegem’s superb left foot, his splendid passing, not least of the deadly through ball, made him perhaps even more effective than Cruyff at least on this occasion.

Go back to the 1970 European Cup final in Milan between his old club team Feyenoord and Celtic, and there too you find Van Hanegem as a strong influence; in a match when his team finished on the winning side. Surprisingly so to me, certainly, as I had made Celtic hot favourites on the night, but was there to see how wrong I had been.

Well after that occasion, I remember talking to John “Yogi Bear” Hughes, the bulky Celtic attacker, who told me that before that final, the famed Celtic manager, Jock Stein, who had led them to victory in the Lisbon European final of 1967, against Inter, thus becoming the first British team ever to win the trophy, had in his Milan team talk dismissed Van Hanegem as merely “a slow Jim Baxter”, referring to that once famously gifted Scotland left half. But as we know, there was nothing slow about Van Hanegem’s football brain and Celtic that night could never subdue or counter him.

Then what of Andrea Pirlo, now playing out his last years profitably in New York? England teams know all too well how deadly his passing can be, the master of the defence-splitting ball, which has tormented them with Italy both in the European and the World Cup Finals.

Pirlo, though he can score goals on occasion, tends to stay deep, where he is very difficult to pick up, the better to calibrate his lethal balls down the middle.

In such a category you might well choose David Beckham, who won infinity of caps for England. I am one of those who believe that they were far too many, not least when Fabio Capello as an indulgent manager so frequently brought him on as a substitute for the merest cameo appearances.

Here too, pace was never among his attributes, but there was no denying the remarkable power and accuracy in that right foot. I was fortunate enough to be at Selhurst Park, when he scored the right-footed goal against Wimbledon almost from the halfway line. On another occasion, playing this time for England rather than Manchester United, his perfectly struck free-kick in a World Cup qualifier against Greece (one of which in fact should never have been awarded for a non-existent foul) gave England a breathlessly late and lucky draw.

Beginning as an inside forward, he moved to the wing, where he never had the qualities of a natural winger. None of the speed, none of the classic winner’s ability to go past the opposing full back on the outside, reach the goal line and pull back the most dangerous pass in the book. I sometimes compared him to a howitzer, firing its shells from a distance. But when it came to free-kicks, and often to crosses, he was formidable.

Speaking of World Cups, how quick was Bobby Moore, captain of the England team, which won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966? On the face of it, he didn’t possess the qualities to make him the great player he became, voted ‘Player of the Tournament’ in 1966 and, in my view, still better four years later in Mexico.

Playing not as an orthodox centre half, but to the left of the actual stopper, he read the game impeccably, broke up endless attacks, and used the ball with great effect. Witness the free-kick with which he expertly set up his West Ham teammate Geoff Hurst for the first half goal against West Germany in the final.

Roll back the years, and you find one of England’s greatest players, that magical right winger Stanley Matthews, first ever ‘European Footballer of the Year’. His incomparable body swerve put infinity of left backs on the wrong foot, while he surged past them on the outside. Explosive over the ensuing first 10 years, after which he was beyond catching.