Clever footballers

Footballers are often considered as dimwits but in some cases it's far from the truth. Many accomplished scholars and thinkers have actually graced the game.

Responding pungently to a strange Swedish study which postulated that “leading footballers are actually incredibly clever,” a pungent columnist insisted that British footballers are stupid to a degree. Where does the truth lie? It is beyond doubt, as the columnist emphasised, that foreign footballers who come to play in England tend by and large to be a good deal better educated and generally brighter than their British equivalents; essentially a cultural matter.

Hard for one to forget what a member of the Italy squad in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup remarked to me: “We have no Utopian ambitions.” There is also the matter of what constitutes a so called “football brain” as opposed to an ordinary one. Among footballers of limited intellect, the jaundiced columnist mentions Gazza, alias Paul Gascoigne, and there you have the perfect illustration of the dichotomy between one kind of brain and another. Arguably, Gascoigne was one of the most talented and exciting English footballers for decades. He was strong; he had supreme technique, a glorious right foot with which he was adept at scoring spectacular goals from long range free kicks. Above all, perhaps, he had the extraordinary ability virtually to “photograph” the game so that when a ball came to him, he knew exactly what to do with it, who of his team was placed where and where his instant pass should go.

Yet off the field his life became a disaster, and should you try to interview him, it was a lost cause. I well remember an abortive attempt to do so in a London hotel where the players of Newcastle United, his local and original club, were staying overnight before a League game. It was a hopeless quest; Gazza's attention span was absolutely minimal. Ask him a question and he would mumble the vestige of an answer, then disappear far across the room.

He was self destructive to a degree and in the most literal sense. In an FA Cup final at Wembley, he committed the most appalling foul on Charles, the Nottingham Forest full back, doing huge damage to his own right knee and putting himself out of the game — by then he was with Spurs — for the best part of a year. When at last he recovered, he was sold to Lazio and departed for Rome, where his often puerile practical jokes and generally undisciplined behaviour hugely endeared him to the Lazio fans.

On one occasion, when an Italian television journalist tried to interview him outside Rome's Olympic Stadium before a match, he belched into the microphone. “To understand why Gascoigne did this,” declared Walter Zenga, once an Inter and Italy goalkeeper, somewhat pompously, “we would have to get inside Gascoigne's head.” Were we to do this, I wrote in a Sunday newspaper, we would find on one side a remarkable football brain, and on the other, shades of what the great American comic said on screen to his fellow Marx brother, Chico, “Barabelli, you've got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.” Gazza's life, alas, would descent into drunken episodes, assaults on his long suffering wife, the squandering of great sums of money, threats of imprisonment which was narrowly avoided, a doomed attempt to revive his playing career even in China, equally ill-starred efforts to manage obscure football clubs. But ever since his departure from the game, England has failed to find any player like him.

Yet Gazza is surely an extreme case. I am one who has known dozens of British footballers over the years, and many of them have been very intelligent indeed, even if, being as that columnist points out, they are almost without exception working class boys of limited education. Not always, though. As even the jaundiced columnist admits, two leading Liverpool players of the early 1970, Steve Heighway, a swift Irish international winger, and Brian Hall, had University degrees. So did Steve Coppell, who had one in economics from his local university in Liverpool, and became not only an outstanding, versatile outside right for England and Manchester United later managing Reading with salient success.

The columnist has also to admit that Ian Dowie, a Northern Ireland international centre forward who played for and later managed a string of clubs, was an aeronautical engineer with the requisite degree; sneering at Dowie's physical appearance hardly diminished his prowess.

Then, what of Terry Venables, an England international and later England's manager. Gordon, an established novelist once brought in by Chelsea to teach their teenagers, of whom Terry was one, told me how he asked them all to go away and write a short story. Terry came back with a story so accomplished it reminded Gordon of the celebrated American writer, Damon Runyon (the show and film of Guys and Dolls was based on his stories) but Venables replied that he had never heard of him. Later, Gordon and Terry collaborated in detective novels featuring a policeman called Hazell and Gordon admitted to me that once Terry withdrew from the project, he was at a loss to continue.

Rodney Marsh, once a team mate of Terry at Queens Park Rangers where he excelled as a virtuoso of a centre forward had the sharpest of humour, the liveliest intelligence both on and off the field. Footballers aren't always dim.