Where are the playmakers?

Published : Mar 07, 2009 00:00 IST

When England recently lost in Spain, they came up against a team brimming with adroit little midfield players, clever on the ball, neat in distribution, in the image of Barcelona’s Xavi. England had no such player.

Blessed are the playmakers, you might say; as and where you can find them. Before Arsenal’s recent, deeply frustrating, home game against Sunderland, who dourly held them to a 0-0 draw, I found myself talking to an old chum in Paul Davis. Twenty years ago the general of the Gunners’ midfield, an excellent ball player, a shrewd and splendid user of the ball, one of three fine black players who Arsenal — actually disposed in those remote days to use English footballers — had found in South East London. The other two being Michael Thomas, who in 1989 scored that supremely dramatic last ditch goal at Liverpool, to give the Gunners the Championship on goal difference — later transferred to Liverpool, himself — and “Rocky” Rocastle a gifted outside-right, doomed, alas, to an early death from cancer.

Watching the Gunners beat in vain against Sunderland’s massed defence, frustrated time and again by the superbly brave and agile goalkeeping of the Hungarian international, Marton Fulop, you wondered what difference a midfield general of Davis’ quality might have made to a team whose central midfielders, Alexandre Song and the Brazilian Denilson, lacked invention and surprise.

For you might describe Davis as the Last of the Mohicans. That’s to say the last exponent of midfield generalship in a tradition established at Highbury by the inspirational little Scottish inside-left, Alex James. Joining the Gunners from Preston for £9,000, big money then, in 1929, James was the inspiration of their attack for the next eight years. Herbert Chapman’s team, later managed by his successor, George Allison, became a dominant force.

After World War II, the mantle fell on the shoulders of the ebullient ball playing Jimmy Logie, a little Scot like Alex though an inside-right rather than an inside-left, and being physically less strong, unable to provide the devastating long through balls and cross field passes deployed by James, but quicker, splendidly elusive, adept in feeding his right-winger or his centre-forward.

For Jack Kelsey, the famous Welsh international ’keeper and a star of the 1958 World Cup finals, Logie was for years the undoubted star of the Arsenal team though, absurdly, he won only a single cap for Scotland. For that matter, James himself won only a handful, since the Scot selectors, in both cases, didn’t like to pick the Anglos, players who belonged to English clubs. That, however, was in the remote days when Scotland still produced abundant talent. No longer, alas.

Logie left Highbury in sad circumstances, having fallen out with the pompous, self-important chairman Sir Bracewell Smith. At one point he was reduced to selling papers and magazines in London’s Piccadilly Circus and he would die in poverty. Where today he would undoubtedly have been a millionaire.

Still, other playmakers would follow in his impressive footsteps. There was the West Londoner, Jimmy Bloomfield, an elegant ball player and a neat passer of the ball. George Eastham, son of a father of the same name who himself played pre-war for Bolton and England, arrived from Newcastle in a controversial transfer and enraptured the crowd at Highbury on many occasions with his skills and strategies. He was unlucky, though a member of the squad, not to get a game for England, in the 1966 World Cup finals.

As for Davis, he eventually had to cope with the excessively functional tactics of the manager George Graham, himself, in his Arsenal attacking days nicknamed “Stroller” for his casual approach, but as a manager, dismissive of the kind of players he once was himself, and no enthusiast for the “scheming” inside-forward.

So much so that when I was sports columnist of the ‘Sunday People’, Paul came round for tea and we carefully worked out a strategy to get him back in an Arsenal team from which he had been illogically dropped. Careful was the word; it was important not to antagonise Graham. In the event, the strategy worked. Within a week Paul was back in the team and he played in the two Cup finals at Wembley.

When England recently lost in Spain, they came up against a team brimming with adroit little midfield players, clever on the ball, neat in distribution, in the image of Barcelona’s Xavi. England had no such player. Nor arguably have they had since the going of Paul Gascoigne, a wonderfully inventive, technically superb footballer, whatever the sad chaos of his private life. Before him, there was a splendid passer of the ball, adept in the defence cutting through pass, in Glenn Hoddle. It’s hard indeed to find a successor to these two outstanding talents. But then even Brazil no longer rely on the kind of essential “schemer” that was Didi, who figures in three World Cup finals, two of them successful, Gerson and Rivelino.

Away back in the 1960, the word was, among Italian coaches, that the so called regista, literally the director — or general — was out of date, that players should be able to do such duties for their own part. Yet footballers such as Gianni Rivera and Sandrino Mazzola gave the lie to such an orthodoxy and recently, watching Italy lose to Brazil at Arsenal’s ground, you felt they could well have done with such a player. Giancarlo Antognoni, who missed the 1982 World Cup final in Madrid, through injury, being another who would surely flourish in the present day.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to unlock all user benefits
  • Get notified on top games and events
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign up / manage to our newsletters with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early bird access to discounts & offers to our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment