Death of the long ball

Published : Feb 04, 2010 00:00 IST

Trevor Brooking, the FA head of football development, has said that the long ball game has got to become a thing of the past. Over to Brian Glanville.

Hallelujah! There is good cause in English football for celebration. The tyranny of the long ball, for so long disgracefully supported by the coaching section of the Football Association, is dead. No less a person than Trevor Brooking has told us as much. Trevor, now the FA head of football development, was once, of course, one of the outstanding English playmakers of his day, tall, strong, balanced, a superb passer of the ball. And when he cared to put the mind to it, a ferocious shot. I, still in my mind, have a vivid picture of the ball being stuck in the top corner of the Hungary net in Budapest, the consequence of one of those shots. An East Londoner through and through, Trevor played for no other club throughout a long and splendid career than West Ham United for whom, in a Wembley Cup Final, he headed, untypically, the only goal, against Arsenal.

Now, coinciding with news that the FA’s National Football Centre will open at last at Burton-on-Trent in the Midlands, Trevor told us, “The long ball game has got to become a thing of the past. We have to get them playing the way Brazil and Spain play, with more intricate passing.”

Of course, we should, you might have thought that such sentiments and preferences would be taken for granted. Not a bit of it, alas. For many years, under the dead, dictatorial hand of a jumped up schoolmaster called Charles Hughes, the whole FA coaching scheme was oriented towards the use of the long ball which Hughes and his misbegotten coaching disciples elevated into a kind of religious credo. Such theories, Hughes trumpeted, could not be denied, couldn’t be scientifically disproved.

All the evidence was there, and it pointed to the sheer superiority of the long pass, with theories which featured such absurdities as POMO, alias The Position of Maximum Opportunity. Hughes insisted he had all the relevant statistics to prove his point.

And such theories were eagerly embraced and put into practice by the manager of Watford, Graham Taylor, who, for several alarming seasons, made them work. His team, banging long passes often to a giant centre-forward who could then flick the ball on, made astonishingly swift progress from the depths of the fourth division to second place in the Championship, and a runner-up achievement in the FA Cup Final. Hughes’ theories, which, as we shall see, were in fact not his own, seemed ineluctably proved. One English club after another slavishly and mindlessly followed Watford’s long ball methods. Just a few of us journalists, especially Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail and myself, as football correspondent of the Sunday Times, strongly criticised and rejected such methods: to the fury of Taylor himself. But there even seemed a real danger that they would be embraced by Bobby Robson as manager of the England team. Already they had been rigorously applied to the England youth team, and the under-21s which Taylor managed in the European tournament held in London where his team, favoured to win, fared wretchedly.

The truth being that such theories were no novelty at all. They dated all the way back to the 1950s when an obscure retired Royal Air Force officer Wing Commander Reep — no pilot, he worked out a scheme which he called Match Analysis. Which he illustrated with a plethora of squiggly diagrams — no computers then — in the old and alas long defunct News Chronicle daily.

These pseudo scientific methods were enthusiastically embraced by none other than Stanley Cullis, former Wolves and England centre-half, now their much esteemed manager.

I remember sitting in front of him at a game in Luton when he spent the first-half ridiculing his team’s close passing tactics — “Tip-tap, tip- tap!” only to purr his way through the second-half when Wolves began to make their passes long: “Thump, thump, thump, thump”. Wolves did very well indeed for a while but they met their Waterloo well and truly in the European Cup when Helenio Herrera’s Barcelona came to Molineux and, never mind the mud, thrashed them 5-2. Nevertheless there really seemed a danger that Bobby Robson was falling under the malign aegis of Charles Hughes, and would, in time, subject the full England team to such excesses. Much to the displeasure of Taylor and Hughes, I campaigned against such idiocy.

So much so that when one of my younger colleagues interviewed and tape recorded Hughes, he declared, “Glanville will be brought to justice!” And Taylor, managing Watford, marched into the Queens Park Rangers Pressroom early one season and assailed me. “You’re a liar. You write lies!” Wholly baffled, I later discovered he was referring not to my long ball antipathy but to a minor criticism I had made three years earlier in a magazine about his dispositions in a youth international in Tel Aviv! When Taylor was eventually and ludicrously made manager of the England team, his stewardship was a fiasco and England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals.

Taylor’s guru was not Hughes but Reep himself. Having absorbed and promulgated Reep’s dubious ideas, he eventually sacked him as an adviser to Watford. Reep protested to the club, only to receive the reply that they had nothing officially to do with it: his agreement was with Taylor himself. Since the chief executive of the FA at the time was the feeble Graham Kelly, nicknamed “Kelly The Jelly” by me, Hughes was able to do pretty much what he liked, with Kelly’s approval. Even when, as in one notable instance of obduracy, he poured scorn on a former Norwich City winger who had been shamefully dealt with at an FA coaching course. Hughes’ letters at this time were a study in arrogance and self-delusion: but younger coaches followed him like sheep.

The truth is, however, that for many generations, long ball tactics have always lurked in the psyche of English soccer. Back in 1932, when the brilliant Austrian Wunderteam gave England a fright at Stamford Bridge, Jimmy Hogan, then their gifted coach, told me he took his men to watch Chelsea play Everton the previous Saturday, and they were appalled by the way both teams constantly booted balls up the middle to two famous centre-forwards; little Hughie Gallagher of Chelsea and big Dixie Dean of Everton. So Hughes, Taylor and company were perhaps only plugging into a mistaken English football tradition. But now, ding dong, the witch is dead! Or so, at least, we must hope.

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