‘English game isn’t kick and rush’

Gary Pallister at a promotional event in New Delhi. The former Manchester United player is of the view that the large presence of foreigners in EPL hurts the English team.-

“I think Premier League football is some of the most exciting football in the world. I don’t buy into the idea that England doesn’t have good teams,” says former England centre-back Gary Pallister. By Priyansh.

“Football is atmosphere. The crowd, the whole environment and England is much bigger than here (Holland), much better. Yes! But you have right- and left-backs who can’t control the ball. That’s so unbelievable.”

“I once saw Barcelona versus Manchester United: 4-0 to Barcelona! Who were those big guys in the United defence? (Gary) Pallister and (Steve) Bruce. Oh yes! And every English team has its Bruces and Pallisters! They never learn. To see Romario against Bruce and Pallister. Oh, it was gorgeous! That is the only weak thing in English game: the centre-backs! But don’t change it, I like it!”

The largely continental dislike for English “kick and rush” football finds a voice in former Dutch forward Jan Mulder’s conversation with David Winner, in his aesthetic work on Dutch football: Brilliant Orange.

Gary Pallister, perhaps the most English of all centre-backs, would shake his head in disgust were he to be confronted with these lines. At six feet four inches, he continues to be an imposing figure even after quitting the sport as a player 12 years ago.

Many would argue the Pallister-style centre-back is being rendered obsolete by the tactical development of the game. The ball-playing defender — a defender who does not just win the ball but also possesses the vision to initiate an attack — is the most coveted of all nowadays. But really, doesn’t the term “ball-playing defender” lead to only a vague understanding of such a player’s role? In fact, if we were to leave the British shores, we would find an Italian word which does more justice to this kind of centre-back — libero .

Perhaps, the staidness of ‘ball-playing defender’ sums up an English lack of football imagination that has been apparent on the international stage. The national team has been found out on the international stage, time and again, by superior counterparts who have focused their energies more on the technical side of the game than the English.

Pallister belongs to an era when the England side had finally begun to acknowledge its inferiority on the global stage. The centre-back, however, does not agree with the pejorative ‘kick and rush’ description of English football.

“You go and watch Manchester United and Arsenal. I don’t think it’s ‘kick and rush’ football. Yes, we’ve had our fair share of teams who’ve played like that. But I think they are basically talking about the physicality of English football. It’s played at high intensity. A lot of teams abroad play at a relaxed tempo. But I think Premier League football is some of the most exciting football in the world. I don’t buy into the idea that England doesn’t have good teams.”

However, Pallister is in no way an advocate of the EPL. He firmly believes the large presence of foreigners in the competition hurts the English team.

For those who have seen Pallister play, his strong-headed ways wouldn’t surprise them. A tough central defender under Sir Alex Ferguson at the peak of his career, the 48-year-old had different priorities in the beginning.

“I was a centre-forward till I was 15. By chance, I became a centre-half and, probably, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t think I was going to make it as a forward in professional football. I came late into the game, I was 19. I fortunately had the desire to better myself and that took me all the way to Manchester United and England,” Pallister says.

Pallister’s illustrious performances at United saw him pocket four Premier League and three FA Cup winner’s medals. He was also part of the team that won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991.

By the time he left United in the summer of 1998, he had played 317 times for the club. Pallister reckons, though the motivation to do well with the team came from Sir Alex, the players were a driven lot too.

“Hard work was one of Sir Alex’s greatest gifts. (Actually) It’s not a gift, it’s something you have to force yourself to do. After winning a league title, you forget about it when you come to work next season. The manager drums this into you, time and time again. If you don’t buy into it, you don’t stay too long at the club.”

For a player who experienced many injuries towards the end of his career, Pallister now looks enviously at today’s footballers who enjoy the benefits of a greater emphasis on fitness and conditioning. “Footballers are in fine shape now. They’ve got six packs and can run all day. The game’s getting better and quicker,” he says.

Looking back, Pallister does feel he could have played more for England if not for fitness issues. But then, some hard facts dawn on him and the regret dissipates.

“It was a difficult start to my England career. I travelled around the world and didn’t even play. I wasn’t even on the bench. So, it got frustrating. There were some good centre-backs around then like Tony Adams, Des Walker et al. But still I’m proud that I represented my country 22 times.”