Hot shots

There is much talk about long range experts across the years, which brings to mind the question whether it is easier to score now with those plastic covered balls than it was with the leather balls of the past?

When Cristiano Ronaldo recently scored that astonishing 39-yard right-footed kick for Manchester United against Porto, there was much talk about long range experts across the years. I myself found my mind going back decades, when I was a young Arsenal fan, recalling two goals they scored at Highbury back in 1946 and 1947. And I asked myself and others, can it be easier to score now with those plastic covered balls than it was with the leather balls of the past? Ostensibly, the current type of ball weighs no loss than the old laced up leather ones, but I do feel that this is begging the question.

The point being that the old leather ball on those muddy pitches all too common before comparatively recent technical advances, would inevitably gather moisture and mud, and would thus significantly increase its weight. Which reminds me of the first of those remote goals, scored for the Gunners against Bolton Wanderers by the romantic figure of Dr. Kevin O’Flanagan. An Irish General Practitioner and a formidably all round athlete who played both rugby and soccer, even on consecutive days, for Ireland.

Against Bolton, some 30 yards out, be it noted that before he took that free kick, he carefully wiped the mud off the ball with his sleeve. He then put it down and blasted it into the net. That was in the autumn of 1946 when Arsenal were struggling.

Forward to August 1947 and the beginning of what would, for them, be a triumphant season in which they’d regain the Championship they had last won back in 1938. Ronnie Rooke was the protagonist here; an extraordinary figure, now well into his 30s, who’d — to his own surprise — been bought on the cheap from Fulham the previous season for £1000 and a couple of modest reserves. He immediately helped the Gunners out of trouble by heading the only goal of a home derby against Charlton. But in August the formidable opposition came from Manchester United. I watched that game, in which Rooke, who had a formidable left-foot and looked as if he were carved out of the side of Mount Rushmore, took a pass from his right-winger and instead of returning the ball ran on in an inside-right position past three men before blasting a tremendous left-footed drive into the top right hand corner of the United goal. He got 33 that season.

Of course, when it comes to the art of exploiting long range free-kicks, no one can rival the Brazilians, unless it be the likes of Diego Maradona with his amazing left-foot. Pele, however prolific, was never in fact a free kick specialist but his distinguished team-mate in the 1958 World Cup finals, the famously creative Didi, was. And indeed it was one of his so-called ‘Falling Leaf’ free-kicks which gained them a precious victory in Rio against Peru to take them to the Chilean World Cup, which they won, again. But I am thinking more of the likes of the thick-thighed left-footed Roberto Rivelino. His free-kicks could certainly swerve with the best of them, but power was of the essence, whereas Didi relied on sheer subtlety.

I saw Rivelino equalise against a Czech team which had surprisingly taken the lead against Brazil in Guadalajara in Brazil’s opening 1970 World Cup game. The ball flashed past Victor the Czech keeper and Brazil went on to win in a canter.

The European Cup final of 1968 in Amsterdam, between Real Madrid and Benfica, the holders, which I was also lucky enough to see, featured an absolute bombardment of both goals in which the Portuguese would run out winners on bombshells, 5-3. Ferenc Puskas, the Galloping Major, the famed Hungarian, finishing on the losing side despite scoring a first-half hat-trick. One of the goals being lashed in with tremendous power by his feared left-foot. Alas for Real, however, Benfica had their own bombardiers.

Mario Coluna, converted by the wily coach Bella Guttmann from inside-left to left-half, drove in a searing left-footed shot to level the scores early in the first-half at 3-3. Cavem, another left-footer of renown, banged in a long distance goal, himself. Real went down fighting.

Bobby Charlton in his England and Manchester United days was renowned for his long range shooting; with either foot. He was, in fact, a naturally right-footed player who worked commendably hard and well on his left. One of his most spectacular goals for England came in the World Cup game against Mexico at Wembley in 1966. Mexico were defending in depth, the crowd was chanting, “We want goals!” when Charlton, way out on the right, stuck a shot of enormous power into the far top corner of the Mexican goal. On his debut for United he’d concealed from his manager, Matt Busby, that his right ankle was injured, so keen was he to play. So he went on and he scored two goals with his left.

Not to forget the 30 years with which Holland’s Arie Haan beat Italy’s Dino Zoff in a vital World Cup 1982 match in Buenos Aires. Zoff reached the ball but couldn’t save it. Later, on a Sardinian holiday beach, Haan opined that he should have done!