Thursday 22 March 2018

Outside the box: No room for show ponies left in game

Graham Rix wasn't too happy that his young team had been beaten and, rather than take the arm-around-the-shoulder approach, he decided the more direct route was the best option.

See if you can get the gist of what he was trying to say to one unlucky individual: "You can flick the f****** ball up on to the back of your f****** neck and run around like a f****** idiot. What f****** good is that to me?" Other than the swearing it might be slightly paraphrased, but Rix's words during a 1997 behind-the-scenes documentary with Chelsea's youth team rang loud and clear to the kid on the receiving end of his rant -- there's no room for fun in football.

During the 'Football Dreams' programme, Rix reckoned only one or two from his crop would "make it". Jody Morris was that one; the youngster at the end of the tirade wasn't. Dan Magness wasn't that teenager but, with talent for keeping the ball airborne, it's unlikely that he would be Rix's type. Last week, Magness raised £1000 for homelessness when he scaled the 920 steps of Tower 42 in London while not letting a ball drop to the ground. He also holds the world record for keepy-uppys -- he prevented the ball from hitting the ground for an impressive 26 hours.

Around the world, there are guys like Magness (pictured right) who freestyle their skills by juggling the ball while climbing up lamp-posts or catching the ball on or behind various parts of their anatomy, which looks cool, but in an actual football match is as useful as a chocolate teapot. It seems peculiar that such talent can't be harnessed in the professional game -- although in Magness' case signing for Wimbledon as a teenager probably didn't help -- but such circus acts will always be destined to be the half-time light relief to the serious business people actually pay to see.

Rix might have been blunt in his assessment, but it sums up the suspicion throughout the game that greets anybody who tries to perform an unnecessary trick when a better option is possible -- if Barcelona had wanted that, they'd have kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It took 28 goals in 60 games during the 2006/2007 season for Cristiano Ronaldo to convince critics he wasn't a show pony; for those who weren't sure about his end product, he then got 46 in 59. Yet, due to his early reputation for style over substance there are, bafflingly, still those who remain unconvinced he belongs in the world's elite.

Joe Cole hasn't been so lucky. Feted for years as England's 'chosen one', Cole burst on the scene with as many tricks as Tommy Cooper, but, unfortunately, they were similarly unsuccessful and there weren't too many managers laughing. At 22, Cole scored the winner for Chelsea against Liverpool but was slaughtered by Jose Mourinho afterwards for abdicating his other responsibilities.

"When he scored the goal the game finished for him," said Mourinho. "After that, I needed 11 players for my defensive organisation and I had just 10." Mourinho threatened never to use Cole again if he played for the crowd rather than the team.

For all of Mourinho's harshness, however, under his guidance, Cole was a key ingredient of the team rather than simply the icing. The perfect example came in the final game of the 2006 season when Cole's skill left Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for dead before he rammed home the goal that sealed Chelsea's second title in two seasons.

Five years on, Cole finds himself a key cog in the little wheel of Liverpool's Thursday night Europa League. At 29, for a six-figure weekly salary, clubs expect more than shapes and shimmies.

At Anfield yesterday, Nani took a few stepovers backwards in his attempts to rid himself of the tag of a luxury player. Not including his '50-pence-head' set-up of Dirk Kuyt, Nani has nine goals and 15 assists already this season, but it's in games against better teams that his reputation will stand or fall. Once the Chelsea juggernaut got moving last week, Nani -- other than a passable impression of Michael Jackson as he wiggled his foot over the ball -- was nowhere to be seen. Yesterday, he was unfortunate that his leg got in the way of Jamie Carragher's studs but it was what went before that -- nothing, other than his mistake in Kuyt's goal -- that will be of greater concern to his manager.

Perhaps Gary Neville could return to boot him up and down Carrington to get him used to Premier League full-backs, but seeing his reaction to Carragher's disgraceful tackle will only encourage more of the same next time.

The problem for Nani, like Cole and Ronaldo before him, is that it takes a trusting manager to use a show pony instead of a carthorse when the pressure is on. Yesterday, Cole's only contribution was to allow Luiz Suarez to receive a standing ovation in the final few minutes. If Nani was able to see through his tears from the bench, he might have seen the sort of future he'll have to work hard to avoid.

Irish Independent

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