Of centre-forwards

Gonzalo Higuain... teenaged phenomenon.-AP

It is good to know that centre-forwards still emphatically flourish; they deserve better than to be turned into lone strikers, carrying a burden which a two-man attack — which once upon a time used to be three, or even four — is not forced to shoulder.

When Thierry Henry of Arsenal recently headed a spectacular last gasp winning goal against Manchester United at Highbury, a sports columnist was moved to rejoice in the continuing existence of the true centre-forward; the kind of player who can do such things. Fair enough, even though it be true that Henry does some of his best and most dangerous work when he moves out to the left wing.

It so happened that a couple of days later, I found myself down at the Fulham training ground, talking to Vincenzo Montella whom, in a notable coup, they had just signed on loan from Roma and who had already obliged with a flurry of goals. When I mentioned that this season he had played only sporadically for Roma, he replied that they were now operating with a single striker in Francesco Totti, a player whom he admired and with whom he had struck up a positive partnership. But with just one striker deployed, there was no more room for himself. Hence Fulham.

Nowadays many clubs, far too many in my own view, tend to play with a single striker; it is seen at international level as well. Does that mean that the centre-forward as such is dead? A single striker, after all, is expected to cover the whole of the front line, moving out to the wings as well as operating in the middle. That sports columnist mentioned such titans of the number nine shirt as Tommy Lawton and Nat Lofthouse, both Bolton-born, both England players, both so formidable when the ball was in the air. As indeed was Lawton's prolific predecessor at Everton, Dixie Dean, scorer of a record 60 goals in one First Division season in 1927-28.

The apocryphal story was told, in Liverpool, that one day when Dean met the Liverpool and Ireland goalkeeper, the celebrated Elisha Scott, Dean nodded, and Scott threw himself flat on the platform!

Go back to the 1982 World Cup finals, and whose half a dozen goals won the tournament for Italy, Paolo Rossi, quite a little fellow, like Montella himself — 20 times capped for Italy — but a supreme opportunist, even with his head. He couldn't, of course, score headers with the magisterial leaps of a Lawton or a Dean — fabled as being able to hang in the air — but, as he showed in that Spanish World Cup, he could nip in ahead of a defence to exploit a head high cross.

The fact being that the greatest centre-forwards don't have to have been very big, though height and strength have obviously been an advantage. When Dean was in his prime, so was Scotland's much-travelled leader Hughie Gallacher, short and sturdy, a scorer of infinite goals with foot and head, centre-forward of the famous Scottish Wembley Wizards attack which thrashed England 5-1 in 1928 in which the tallest of the five forwards at outside-right was Alec Jackson, scorer of three of the goals, who stood a mere five foot seven.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has joined Real Madrid this season and refused to play in Holland's team under Marco van Basten, arguably one of the finest centre-forwards of all time, is nothing if not a classical number nine. And the inspiration of all Holland's centre-forwards has been Johan Cruyff, the very incarnation and preceptor of Total Football it is true, with all the implicit versatility, but still a classical centre-forward, able to function and score from the middle with shots, or the occasional header.

What of the phenomenon of the supposed deep lying centre-forward? This season, at half-time at Stamford Bridge, Roy Bentley, 82, made a slow, handsomely applauded lap of the pitch. It was plainly not forgotten that Roy was the inspiration of Chelsea's first-ever League Championship, 50 years after their foundation, and it would be another 50 years before at last they won it again. In that season he scored no fewer than 21 of their goals, yet he was an innovator, often dropping deep behind the front line to forage for the ball and use it to start attacks. Just, in fact, as Nandor Hidegkuti had so successfully been doing for Hungary not least on that historic November day at Wembley when he tore the English defence to shreds with three of the six goals whereby Hungary smashed England's unbeaten record against foreign teams.

You could, I suppose, say that Hidegkuti was not truly a centre-forward at all, but two weeks earlier, at Wembley, big, powerful Sweden and Milan centre-forward Gunnar Nordahl, who could do all the things with foot and head that your traditional centre-forwards could do, had thrown the England defence into confusion when playing for a pick and mix FIFA team, which deserved better than a 4-4 draw.

Real Madrid have, indeed, long been famous for their centre-forwards. Alfredo Di Stefano, for me the second-best player of all time after Pele was that and so much more, Total Football incarnate before it was ever invented. Then came Emilio Butragueno and Raul. Now there is the teenaged phenomenon Gonzalo Higuain, a product of Argentine football with French nationality who has just arrived at the Bernabeu. Good to know that centre-forwards still emphatically flourish; they deserve better than to be turned into lone strikers, carrying a burden which a two-man attack — which once upon a time used to be three, or even four — is not forced to shoulder.