Good enough and big enough

Lionel Messi, whose goal scoring record for Barcelona is prolific and astonishing, joined Barcelona as a fragile adolescent from his native Argentina and though they built him up as he climbed quickly through the junior ranks, he never became more than slight and slender. By Brian Glanville.

As a boy, Jamie Vardy was rejected by his local club, Sheffield Wednesday, on the grounds that he was too small. For a good many years to come, as he bounced from one obscure non-League club to another, it looked as if he was doomed to a marginal, mediocre career. He worked in factories and found himself play for GBP30 a game for little Stockbridge Park Steelers, who he helped climb into the Northern Premier Division: which is seven rungs below the top of League football. While there he was involved in a brawl in a public house — he insists he was just trying to defend a friend — was convicted of assault and forced to wear an electronic tag and observe a 6 p.m. curfew. Which meant a very quick departure from the dressing room after he had played in a match.

“I’m not proud of what happened but it happened,” he says now. “I’ve turned my life round.” Which emphatically he has! Neil Aspin, then manager of Halifax Town, once member of the Football League but now a mere Northern Premier League club themselves, spotted Vardy and his promise and with some difficulty persuaded his chairman to shell out GBP15,000 to acquire him. Aspin had been warned about the young striker’s character, but brushed such advice aside.

“It was a big gamble for us,” Aspin now admits. “He turned up for training and he was running around the track and he didn’t have the right running shoes. He didn’t look like a footballer, but as soon as they saw him play, everyone knew he was special. He had unbelievable pace off the mark, he could play either side, chased back and worked so hard. He never caused me any trouble and was popular in the dressing room.” Thanks in large measure to Vardy, his pace and his goals, Halifax won the Northern League and sold Vardy to Fleetwood, members of the Conference, the competition just below the Football League.

Eventually the deal would be worth half a million pounds when Halifax had received their share of Vardy’s eventual transfer to Leicester City in 2012. “I always thought he was good enough to play in the Championship,” says Aspin. “But he had to make the step to Fleetwood, where he took the Conference by storm.” 34 goals in just 40 games and Vardy enabled Fleetwood to gain the Football League, Then to Leicester City for a million pounds, and promotion last season from the so called Championship to the Premiership. And the sensational destruction of Manchester United.

By now five feet 10 inches tall, Vardy and his speed tore a fallible United defence to shreds, enabling promoted Leicester with Vardy’s two goals and a somewhat luckily gained penalty-kick to turn a 3-1 deficit into a startling 5-3 victory.

“If he’s good enough he is big enough,” is an old football saying, and seldom could it have applied more appropriately than to red-headed Alan Ball. The son of a tough footballer Ball Jr. as a lad was brusquely and insensitively rejected by Bill Ridding, then manager of Bolton Wanderers, with the words, “You’d make a good little jockey.” To Ridding’s shame and doubtless embarrassment, Alan made a great deal more than that.

Dynamic, ubiquitous and elusive as inside forward, he joined Blackpool and was a teenaged star, described by some journalists as “a ball of fire.” Alf Ramsey picked him for England, and he was arguably one of the best and most influential players on the field when England won the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany.

Curiously enough, in a team which came to be known somewhat derisively as ‘Alf Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders’, Alan did his greatest damage in extra-time on the right wing, where with his pace and dash he completely dominated the formidable defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger. When in extra-time, Nobby Stiles sent a long ball out to Ball on the right flank, Alan thought, he said later, despairingly, having run so much already, “No, I can’t, I can’t!” But in the event, he could, speeding past poor Schnellinger once again, reaching the byline and putting the ball back for Geoff Hurst to drive it against the underside of the crossbar. Did it cross the line? The linesman decided it did, and England were ahead. To this day, that goal has been disputed, especially in Germany. But there was no disputing Alan Ball’s part in it.

Today, look at the prowess and the insidious brilliance of two light little men, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Barcelona, where now he has as a team-mate another brilliant little man in the Brazilian Neymar. Messi, whose goal scoring record for Barcelona is prolific and astonishing, joined Barcelona as a fragile adolescent from his native Argentina and though they built him up as he climbed quickly through the junior ranks, he never became more than slight and slender.

This has been no obstacle to him. As we know, he eagerly came off the relative safety of the right wing to become an all purpose goal scorer, operating just behind the central attacker, gliding into dangerous positions to strike menacingly at goal, somehow teasing his way past bigger, baffled defenders, who simply cannot prevent him passing them. Catch him if you can.

Perhaps Messi hasn’t been able to achieve the ultimate achievement to excel in a World Cup. In South Africa in 2010, Diego Maradona, no giant himself during his remarkable playing days, stuck Messi out on the left wing, where he was so much less free and formidable. In Brazil, recently, he tended to look tired, though even there he had his inspired moments.

As indeed did Neymar, who weighs not much over a mere nine stone. But his supreme ball control, not least when he moves out to his favourite left wing, his sudden and unexpected spurts and turns, his fearlessness, make him a torment to opposing defenders. How sad it was that brutal challenge, playing against Colombia for Brazil, should put him out of the World Cup.

Go far back in time, to 1928, and you find the so called ‘Wembley Wizards’. The remarkable Scottish forward line which thrashed England 5-1 in which the tallest man was outside right Alec Jackson at five foot and seven. The other was Dunn at inside right, Hugh Gallacher, a superb if undisciplined centre forward, Alex James, who would become the great general of Arsenal’s attack, and flying left winger Alan Morton, known as the ‘Wee Blue Devil’. The England defence was outwitted, out paced and humiliated. Those five were indeed big enough and more than good enough.