Norm’s latest poll put me in mind of a list of my own – my ten favourite footballers. Not the ten I think the best. Just the ten closest to my heart, as it were.
I found choosing my ten “favourite” novelists revealing – what a fireside and slippers little Englander I turn out to be, despite the preponderance of Scots in my list. I wonder if the same will be true of my footballers?
1. George Best
A controversial choice, I’m sure. The little-known Manchester man from long ago etc. But G. Best was the first player I was specifically aware of, and what a way to start. Imagine if it was all like this!
2. Steve Coppell
Steve Coppell was the first player who I wanted to be. It wasn’t that I was a winger – only in rugby union; in soccer I played in defence. But I looked up to Coppell, and that was twenty years before I knew the man had a degree under his belt. How pleased I was to hear him praised in his absence by Ron Atkinson when United made it to yet another FA Cup Final. And then he vanished from my pre-internet radar. Forced into retirement at 27. Imagine: had he played until 35, he might have been at the 1990 World Cup. My best memory of him is his running the West Germans into the ground in the 1982 World Cup: you’ll have to settle for the subsequent match against Spain.
3. Trevor Brooking
Trevor Brooking taught me to play football. His football skills strip cartoon in the Daily Mail had me outside in all weathers, using the recommended tennis ball, learning just about everything I still know. That strip should be given to every new born child in the UK along with their compulsory copies of the Beatles’ albums and Our Island Story.
Brooking spent his entire career at West Ham, which was a cozy London club with a reputation for attractive football. Then, as now, it was an academy producing an unbroken run of fantastic players. Were it not for their financial situation, the Hammers would have won even more than they actually have – a title or two at the very least.
4. Duncan Edwards
I’ve seen film of him now, but didn’t have to have done: he shines out of every Manchester United history as the epitome of a proper boy’s hero. Modest, hard-working, from a good honest background and abundantly talented – and the pain of 1958 is still there, even for those of us not born for another decade. Brutal, heartbreaking waste, on all kinds of levels.
5. Stanley Matthews
Matthews, like Sir Tom Finney, is hard to get at now from under all of the patronizing schmaltz the media have piled onto them. I found out about Stanley Matthews from 1950s football annuals I’d bought in junk shops aged eight or nine, and they told me that he was the best player in the world, and a gentleman to boot.
Turned out to be true – read about his work against apartheid sometime.
6. Alfredo di Stefano
Another 1950s football annual suggested to me that, in fact, Alfredo di Stefano was the best player in the world. Here was a real father figure, with his stately carriage and receding hairline. Practice until you can do anything with a ball, he said, and I tried. What good advice, after half a century, for someone to give to our children.
7. Dixie Dean
These players aren’t all my direct contemporaries, are they? But Dean has to be here. I think his was the first proper football biography I ever read, and that sole shaky photograph of his sixtieth league goal haunted me. Now I know that his great feat was aided by a rule change, but it’s still impressive. And he got to be alive in the 1920s, which I once deeply envied in people, and still believe must have been fun in the right places.
8. Bobby Moore
His looks alone gave to this too-young-for-’66 child the impression of having been born too late for a better, cleaner age. The truth about Moore was far more complex than the blonde brilliant ubercaptain I first admired, but in some ways he comes out better as a human being. But I’d have given much to have been able to comprehend this greatest game in the history of this greatest sport when it was fresh:
9. Bert Trautmann
In the early ’80s I met a man who’d been in the same POW camp as Trautmann. His wartime experiences had convinced him that England was the greatest country on God’s earth – he’d never been to Scotland – but his own nation, for all its horror and tribulations visited and received, still produced its good ‘uns, and Bert Trautmann was one of them. When I was young enough to think myself immortal, I imagined myself being heroic enough to attempt to run off a broken neck..
10. Mick Mills
The epitome of the greatest Ipswich side, a team who were prevented only by a truly exceptional Liverpool generation from completely dominating European football. Why it was Mills, and not Wark or Mariner or the two Dutchmen or even the savant Kevin Beattie, I really couldn’t tell you.
He looks older than players do now. But all the players do. Are they really in their twenties?
My choice of novelists revealed me to be a fire and slippers little Englander. I can’t say what my footballers show. An obsession with misplaced nostalgia?
Tell me yours. Remember, it’s your ten favourite players; not the ten you rate the best, or the ten most influential. Fictional players allowed, although I think I’ll pass on Roy Race.