That big match temperament

WHEN England's team manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, picked two young strikers for the squad to face Holland in a friendly match in Amsterdam, there was some surprise. One was big Michael Ricketts of Bolton Wanderers, a revelation this season, scorer of a profusion of goals on coming into the Premiership, putting far behind him his difficult early days, his struggle to affirm himself at modest little Walsall, where he blossomed into an effectiThe other young blood was Aston Villa's 21-year-old Darius Vassell, something of a contrast with the big, muscular Ricketts, a smaller man but very quick and on his day a lively opportunist. Again, it was quite a surprise to see him picked. I myself had seen him at Villa Park making a vigorous and incisive start, but fading away as the game went on. How would he, too, fare in this game even if it were a friendly?

The answer was that Ricketts failed, Vassell flourished. He even scored England's very spectacular goal. Was he offside? He might well have been, but the referee didn't think so, and his superlatively acrobatic bicycle kick was gloriously worth a goal. Playing largely wide on the right, not to be fair his ideal position, he was centrally placed when he got that goal. But Ricketts had looked sadly nervous and uncomfortable, his first touch alarmingly crude; a sure sign of uncertainty.

So, were we to assume that he lacked what is known as the Big Match Temperament, while Vassell quite emphatically has it? And is it something innate or something which in time can be acquired? Which lead on to the next question; how much time can an international team give in these days of such high pressure and intense competition?

One thinks especially of Stanley Matthews, one of the greatest of all footballers, a phenomenon whose career lasted till he was over 50 at his initial club Stoke City, and who at the ripe "old" age of 41, at Wembley, ran rings round Nilton Santos of Brazil, supposedly then the finest left-back in the world.

Stan was 19 years old when he played for England against Italy in what came to be called The Battle of Highbury in November 1934. After only 90 seconds, in a clash with England centre forward Ted Drake, the notoriously violent Italo-Argentina centre-half, Luisito Monti, broke a bone in his foot and limped off in intense pain. The Italians "retaliated" furiously. England squeezed through 3-2 against the 10 men.

Writing in the Daily Mail, its then sports columnist, Geoffrey Simpson, wrote scathingly that Matthews had "displayed the same faults of slowness and hesitation" he had allegedly displayed in a recent Inter League match. Perhaps, speculated the hapless Simpson, "he does not possess the Big Match Temperament." Matthews! Who would be an England star fully 20 years later in the Swiss World Cup against Belgium.

Since Italian boots and elbows were swinging lethally that day at Highbury, it was hardly a day to judge any England player, not least a slight winger such as Stanley who relied on his wonderful skills, his magical swerve, his sudden acceleration up the touch line. Over the many ensuing years, Matthews did indeed have a variegated time of it with England, clearly mistrusted as a brilliant maverick by the unimaginative selection committee. But however often they discarded him, at least they tended to bring him back. Even in 1950 when, at first absurdly excluded from the World Cup squad for Brazil, he was eventually recalled at the 11th hour. We can still wonder whether, had he been included in England's fatal second game at Belo Horizonte against a scratch United States team, would they have been spared that sensational 1-0 defeat?

Gordon Smith, another outside-right of talent, was a contemporary of Matthews. During the Second World War, he excelled with his Edinburgh club, Hibernian. He was the great new hope for Scotland's international team which had been having a disastrous run against England. Yet, every time he was picked, he failed. Chance after chance was he given. Time after time he seemed traumatised, failing to do the things he did so excitingly in club football. Indeed, not till, as a veteran, he was deployed against Hungary in Budapest in the summer of 1956 did he belatedly come to life and show for Scotland the skills he'd so often and so excitingly displayed in club matches.

Age, or youth if you prefer it, doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the Big Match Temperament. Pele, at 17, was explosively effective for Brazil in the 1958 Swedish World Cup, scoring with cool command no fewer than five goals in the semi-final and final. Years later, in the 1998 World Cup in France, teenaged Michael Owen's ebullient performances ridiculed the doubts expressed about him by his grudging manager, Glenn Hoddle. And Diego Maradona at 17 would surely have flourished in the 1978 tournament in his native Buenos Aires, had his supposed mentor, "El Flaco" Menotti, only been bold enough to give him his chance.

But as Stanley Matthews' career shows, the so called Big Match Temperament is something which can, in certain cases, be acquired in time. Recently, watching a disappointing performance by one of Argentina's supposedly brightest young talents in attack, Juan Riquelme, against Wales at Cardiff, you wondered, has he the temperament? Will he get time?