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Saturday, 5th July 2008

The World Cup is nearly upon us, and as you read this, could well be on top of us, or even behind us. However one thing is for certain there will be another one coming along pretty soon. Although the final is only every four years the whole business is too lucrative to allow it not to roll on almost continually with qualification games being only the most important of the internationals. By now we should all be heartily sick of the team song, whatever the nationality. Whatever made a footballer think they could do anything other than kick a pigs bladder about I do not know. Just because you have the money to be able to do something does not mean you are going to be any good at it. Many a person has come unstuck not remembering that one.

This article is based on Players, Hints on Association Football 1934 a 50 card series of cards artfully drawn.

Whatever World Cup is coming up here is a prediction: England will manage a whole series of tedious draws and then get through to the knock-out rounds by dint of some arcane mathematical formula and then be knocked out on penalties. It always happens that way, unless we can beat the Germans just once.

If we are going to suffer the penalty shoot out then best we learn how to get them on target. The cardinal sin of penalty taking is not making to the goalkeeper save it. Please note at the time of writing this article the World Cup where it was revealed England had decided not to practice penalty kicks was yet to be opon us. I can safely assume Glen Hoddle does not read this website.

Card 6 deals with the Penalty kick. Sage advice is given when the card suggests the player taking the kick should make up his mind, left or right, before he kicks the ball. It also notes most goalkeepers are weaker on their left side. The ball should be driven low, about five or six feet from the goalkeeper which seems just as good a place to hit it today.. This, it assures us, will almost certainly score a goal. A card I hope the England team read at least once. They get paid a lot of money to blast the ball above the cross-bar. I could do that and I would do it for half the price, no less; unless I got to do a few commercials afterwards reflecting on how bad I was.

Fret not though, there is advice of the goal-keeper on various occasions and this is one of them. Card 49 deals with 'Receiving a Penalty.' It starts of optimistically with the quaint idea that the goalkeeper is not meant to move before the penalty is struck. The rule seems to have changed nowadays, arm waving and pulling stupid faces seems to be in. The card itself gives the keeper little hope of saving it, suggesting you basically make an informed guess of where it is going to go. Nowadays there is more psychology going on with goalkeepers often throwing something into one corner of the net in an effort to persuade the striker to hit toward that corner.

Back to the present: Everything is going okay in the run up to 1998 World Cup. The press are more interested in a fat lads eating habits after a night on the booze, but given he is apparently the most creative talent the England squad have got it is not surprising. Given the fact 'Gazza' could well be our best player, and more than likely will not be able to run for ninety minutes, being a somewhat less than fit beer swilling smoker, prone to injury, it does not bode at all well for our chances of lifting the cup. This might be just as well as we managed to lose it the only time we won, only to be found by a dog going for a walk.

Team songs are all well and good, fancy new team strips are nice, the odd spiritual healer is not too bad either but putting the goals in the back of the net is what it is all about. Although in the case of Accrington (who have the best goal average of any English team) it is not enough, if you cannot stop them going in at the other end (they have a worse goal conceded record and went bankrupt a mighty long time ago, and should not be confused with Accrington Stanley that went bust not all that long ago.)

Details from Card
When not to shoot.
Players should remember that it does not matter who scores the goal, and that the chance ought to be given to the one best placed to take it. Occasionally a player takes the ball within shooting range and then finds the angle narrow, or the goalkeeper effectively blocking the opening. At such a time, instead of taking a chance and shooting, he should first see if he can improve the position by making an inside pass to a colleague. There is nothing more annoying than for a player to blaze away and fail when a pass to an unmarked colleague might have produced a goal.

Do the basics right and you have got to win, because the most basic is, score more goals than you let in. One famous and successful manager once said, 'If you find yourself in front of goal with the ball, put it into the back of the net. We will discuss what you should have done afterwards.' This neatly sums up the problem with endless over analysis.

Players, Hints on Assocaition Football

It is also turning the game into endless set pieces. It seems a long time ago that the free kick on goal was just an opportunity to put the ball in the air so a player can head it in the net (as suggested by card 5). Nope, today five or six people have to leap over the ball, people run about in different directions and then the ball is blasted over the cross-bar and everyone shakes their heads. A statistician calculated most goals were scored when the ball was passed less than four times. This resulted in the goalie, punting the ball up into the oppositions penalty area where if it connected with the right person it got stuck in the back of the net. Often it did not, so the opposing goalkeeper got a chance to try the tactic. Card 7 dealt with the goal kick theory of the day, suggesting that although distance was a good idea it was not the sole function of the kick. This was secondary to getting the ball to a player on the same side rather than the opposition, effectively giving away possession.

Head it, Head it!

Speaking of heading the ball, this was not something to be taken lightly. Quite literally in fact. There is a suggestion of a court case going through the British system (which is getting ever similar too our US cousins) where a professional footballer is sueing because repeatedly heading the old style leather football seems to have caused him to suffer a pre-senile affliction in later life, although not rendered daft enough to bring the court action.. Of course so did my Grandmother and she was not prone to heading footballs. As it turned out the judge had not spent his youth heading footballs and being in full control of his mental function threw the case out. Anyway card 9 of the series addresses this problem when it explains the ball should be headed with the forehead, rather than the top of the head. The reasons for not using the top of the head were two-fold; 1. There was no real control of the ball, 2. 'there will be a risk of concussion.'

Obviously the statistical work conducted is part of the modern game as a good few cards are dedicated to the somewhat lost art of passing. A few years ago I was reading an article on computers playing chess. The premise was simple, the more moves you made the more opportunities there were to fail in picking the right move. Mathematically it is assumed there is a right move, which I suspect you have to agree with. On that basis playing black is deemed better given you always have one less chance of making a wrong move. Computers generally play a better defensive game than they do attacking and go completely off the boil if you make moves with little pattern to them. To a lesser extent this has to be true of football, the more passes between players, the greater opportunity of making an error.

Details from Card
Kicking to swerve the ball
The ball sometimes swerves and ducks without any deliberate attempt on the part of the player to produce this change in flight. Indeed, when it happens he rarely knows the cause. Possibly the lace on the boot contributes to it, but the expert player can intentionally impart a swerve. This is done by drawing the foot slightly across the ball as it comes in contact with it. That is to say, in making the swerve to the right the foot is swung towards the left. A swerving shot will often surprise a goalkeeper and beat him, but it should only be tried as a last resort.

I remember there was quite some fuss in the household one World Cup year, when those dastardly Brazilian's seemed to be able to get the ball in the back of the net by remote control. The ball would duck and weave in the air in a most alarming way. Certainly if they had been Russian it would have all been done by radio signals. It was not helping much as we were all losing our shirts on a rather unpleasant gambling streak which saw us losing over 60 bets in one night. I think the only thing we did not bet on was who was going to be fouled first. Looking back on it that was our mistake.

None of this magic would have been a mystery if only we had read card number 3, 'Kicking to swerve the ball'

The school yard

Every schoolboy is taught football, they were in my day, anyway. There was a movement in the early 1990's which suggested confrontational sports were not doing the children any good. I suspect it was a ploy to make the selling of school playing fields easier. Nowadays I do believe the girls are taught football too, and that is a good thing, keeps everyone on their toes, as now the great fear is our children are not getting enough exercise. Strange how millions of years of development turned out to have got it right and a few forward thinking liberal intellectuals got it wrong, even if they did spend a whole afternoon thinking it through. Anyway, as we charged about in one great tangle of boys on a half frozen field of mud the sports master would scream at us, 'Let the ball do the running!'

As an instructor he was not much good, he had a wooden leg as far as I remember, and had to rely on a strong voice to keep control of the play area. Wooden or not, certainly it was not in working order. Anyway the rumour was he had played for Chelsea in the run up to the war but had sustained the leg injury during the war and had returned a school teacher. There was, it turned out, a great deal of truth in this story.

Despite his impressive voice twenty odd children were not about to let the ball do anything but get in the way of kicking one another.

Scotland might not be the international force that England are when it comes to football but up to 1932 the International games between England and Scotland make interesting reading.
A total of 56 games had been played.
14 of them had ended in a draw.
Scotland had won 25, scoring 110 goals
England had won 17, scoring 94 goals.
These were not games known for tactics by the look of it. Often one side or the other would power 5 goals into the opposition net. 1920 England won 5-4 with Scotland returning the favour in 1928 with a 5-1 mashing at Wembley. Least said about this the better but I suppose it is good to see some footballing nations have fallen even further than we have.
Wales never were any good, in 1930 England beat them 6-0. Up to 1934 they had played 49 times with Wales winning 6.
Up to this period, Ireland were keepers of the wooden spoon.

We might not have been any good at it but Scotland were 'outstanding' at it, letting the ball run that is. Card 17 gives us the low down, the football never gets tired so the title, 'Let the ball run' makes perfect sense.

A lot of the cards, not unnaturally, deal with the whole issue of ball control and throw-ins. Useful stuff but learning how to trap the ball was never as interesting as learning how to knock your opponent off his feet, now that was the real art-form of the school-yard.

Card 36 deals with the gentle art of The Shoulder Charge. The card notes this tactic is not as often seen today as it was in the past but remains useful. Timing being an important element, the card helpfully suggests timing the charge to coincide with your opponent only having one foot on the ground should ensure success. Other cards deal with tackling in general.

The modern game has moved on quite dramatically, players seem to be made of glass today. A good number of the cards deal with positions on the field the average person would no longer recognise. Card 37 has the Wing Halves marking Inside Forwards. Card 32 has the Outside Forward cutting in.

All well and good I am sure but we no longer are living in the world of goalkeepers in flat caps and kicking a ball about which is likely to knock you out if you headed it incorrectly. I am not sure if the game of football is any better for all the improvements made. I do know less people watch the matches on the terraces and that fewer teams exist. I also know those that remain are making a good deal of money out of it.