England's playmakers

Jack Wils here... England's only playmaker of repute has been out injured the whole season.-AP

Why, after so many years of “scheming” excellence, has the supply in England so grievously and expensively dried up? When England is waiting to see another Gascoigne or a Hoddle in vain? Yes, Chelsea's Frank Lampard, as he showed recently in Barcelona, can occasionally produce the inspired pass, but he's hardly in the tradition of Brooking, Hoddle and Gascoigne, writes Brian Glanville.

Poor Jack Wilshere, poor Arsenal and poor England. The precocious 20-year-old playmaker hasn't alas been able to kick a ball all season for club or country, thanks to an injury which simply will not mend. For Arsenal, his club, he has plainly been irreplaceable. But for England? Can it be so embarrassingly true that in the absence of Wilshere there was simply nobody to take his constructive place in the squad for the European Championship finals in Ukraine and Poland?

The answer depressingly appears to be yes. When Roy Hodgson, England's newly appointed manager, announced his 23-man squad, there was no sign of what used to be called a schemer, meaning, in bygone parlance, a player, in the old Italian saying, “capable of inventing the game.” In other words, of doing the suddenly unexpected with an inspired pass.

Yet there is a long tradition of such creators in English football, and it petered out only quite recently. Paul Gascoigne was a salient example of the kind. Off the field, his behaviour could all too often seem anything but rational and intelligent; drink has played an all too large part since his retirement from the game and in his sad decline. But on the field, it was supremely and sometimes superbly another matter. Give him the ball and it would often seem that he had somehow managed to “photograph” the field as a great playmaker can; the ball would almost instantly be winged on its way to a colleague in space; sometimes with a perception not vouchsafed even to the spectator.

Before Gazza, there was Glenn Hoddle, who in fact had, as the England manager, the melancholic duty of telling Gascoigne, in training camp before the World Cup finals of 1998 in France that he was to be dropped from the squad. Gazza had been drunk on the golf course. Tears were shed, furniture was smashed, but Gascoigne was out.

How bitterly ironic that it should be Hoddle himself who dropped Gascoigne, for Hoddle had been the outstanding “schemer” of the England team in his time, a master of the insidious right footed, defence splitting long pass. Not at all the mindless long ball, without true target, favoured by mistaken members of England FA's coaching establishment. Yet after he had made a splendid debut for England at Wembley, capped by a spectacular goal, Ron Greenwood, of all people, dropped him from the next international with the bewildering words, “Disappointment is part of football.”

Greenwood, who as West Ham United manager, had turned the club into what became known as an academy of arts and sciences. Yet Greenwood it was, immediately after being appointed England's manager, who dropped from his initial team none other than Trevor Brooking, an inside forward who was the very constructive essence of West Ham's football. Preferring in Brooking's stead, inexplicably, the workaday, Liverpool player, Ian Callaghan. It seemed on Ron's part almost like a betrayal of trust and principle. I suppose you could say that he had passed his meridian, that he was dragged out of retirement to replace the disgraced Don Revie who had run out on the England team to make money in the Middle-East, when it was on tour in South America.

The word the Italians use for a playmaker is ‘regista', the self same word which describes the director of a film. A good many years ago, however, the word was that a single ‘regista' was not needed. Any outfield player could supposedly do the job. A little bit like the old British Army saying, that every Tommy, or private soldier, carried a Field Marshal's baton in his knapsack. Except, of course, that he didn't; there has been just one such example when Field Marshal Robertson in the Great War rose from the ranks and never lost his Cockney accent;

Time passed in Italy and it gradually grew clear that not everybody or anybody could be a ‘regista'. Even when ‘Total Football', as played by the West Germans and Dutch, became the vogue in the 1970s, how significant it was that among the highly versatile, interchangeable talents, such as Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, big, burly, none too quick Wim Van Hanagem stood out in midfield with his shrewd insights and his glorious left foot. Indeed, I remember making him the man-of-the-match when Holland played West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final.

In which the Germans themselves had a notable playmaker in Wolfgang Overath, succeeding, at inside left, the flamboyant Gunter Netzer.

Today, how England could use such a talented, subtle and influential playmaker, as little Luka Modric of Croatia who has done so well in London for Spurs. Not to mention the glittering Barcelona and Spain pair of Xavi and Iniesta, elegant on the ball, elusive to a degree, gloriously original and effective in their passing. Why, after so many years of “scheming” excellence, has the supply in England so grievously and expensively dried up? When we are waiting to see another Gascoigne or a Hoddle in vain? Yes, Chelsea's Frank Lampard, as he showed recently in Barcelona, can occasionally produce the inspired pass, but he's hardly in the tradition of Brooking, Hoddle and Gascoigne.