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Ernest Needham's story XI.
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XI: GIANTS OF THE GAME
Ernest Needham | 08/02/1913
It is a motley throng of players which passes like a procession through my mind, as I think of the Internationals I have played with, or against, or have met in one circle or another of the great game. Some were truly giants of the game (though perhaps anything but giants in stature). They were gifted above their fellows, and stood out by themselves, some for this and some for that dazzling quality. Others were great players as club players, but in International games could not succeed. They had not what is called the right temeperament — which is another description of Confidence, with a capital "C."
Among goalkeepers, three Englishmen take very big places. One of them was my old comrade in the Sheffield United, Foulke. I have referred often enough to his deeds in this series of articles, and shall content mysqlf here with saying that at his best, Foulke was the finest custodian I ever saw — whatever the International selectors may have thought. They should have played on the same side to have realised what a wonderful asset that man was to a team.
SOME STAR GOALKEEPERS
When I first knew Jack Robinson, the famous old Derby County custodian, both he and I were Midland League players — he for Lincoln City and I for Staveley. He was one of the very shrewdest and most resourceful goalkeepers, and he could guess his opponents' intentions so well that he generally used to be in the right place when called upon to save his goal. It is only a year or so ago that he gave up the game after being before the public for more than twenty years.
Sutcliffe, who represented England both in Association and Rugby football, was a natural goalkeeper, and a fine amateur custodian whom I recall was the Rev. C. B. Raikes, of the Corinthians — now I believe at Welbeck. About the best Scottish goalkeeper I knew was Peter McBride, and among Welshmen I should choose Trainer, his predecessor at Preston, rather than L. R. Roose — the difference between them being that Trainer was staid and sure, while Roose was more brilliant, but made more mistakes.
In my experience, Bob Crompton, of Blackburn Robers, was the best of English right back, but another who did great things was Howard Spencer, of Aston Villa. He was supposed to be the most gentlemanly back playing football, and he could be effective without taking a mean advantage of anybody. When I say he was gentlemanly I do not wish to suggest that he never charged anybody. He could give a very hefty charge, but it was always a square one, and there was this difference between Spencer and some others who have done their share of charging, he could accept a heavy charge like a sportsman.
DAN DOYLE'S THREAT
The same might be said of W. J. Oakley, the famous Corinthian back. He was one of the fastest men who ever played in his position, and also one of the best. A defender of whom we saw all too little was Williams, the West Bromwich back; he went out of the game through the "footballer's plague" — knee trouble. Few more robust backs ever donned a shirt than Williams, and there were not so many forwards who cared to run up against him, although he was generally fair in his methods.
Of another type was Bob Holmes, the old Preston North End back, and the present trainer of the Blackburn Rovers. He never went in for robustness, but preferred to triumph bu sheer skill and intelligence. Many a time his team have blessed Holmes, for his fine ability to kick the ball right down the field to his forwards from any position.
"Nick" Smith will always hold a place among the most spledid backs Scotland has ever produced, though his career was not a very long one. Then there was the celebrated Dan Doyle, who played with Everton and Grimsby Town before going back to Celtic. Once when Bennett and I were the right wing forwards for Sheffield against Glasgow, I took the ball through and then paused an instant, with my foot on the ball, ready to flick it one way or the other. Bennett came rushing up and shouted for it, and I parted just as Doyle shaped at me. Bennett took it on and scored a goal.
"You little beauty," said Doyle — or words to that effect — as he scowled at me, "the next time you do that I shall COME."
"There is no occasion," said I, "I shan't be there!"
The point of the conversation will be seen when I add that while Doyle was one of the soundest of backs, if there was any roughing to be done, he could do it.
CRABTREE: THE ALMOST INCOMPARABLE
One of the very greatest player I ever knew was the late James Crabtree, once of Burnley and afterwards of Aston Villa. In his day he was about the best all-round player in the country, for he was equally at home at back or half-back, no matter which wing he was asked to operate on, and I have seen him play a good game forward as well. It was education for young players to watch him. Everything he did was marked XL. The only modern player I can compare him with is Peter M'William.
During the time the Villa were making much history. Jack Reynolds played dazzling football for them at half-back. He was one of the best half-backs for supporting his forwards that ever kicked a ball. The year before he joined the Villa he, Charlie Perry and Billy Groves constituted that grand Albion half-back like which broke up the Villa combination in a famous Cup Final of the early nineties. People were laying odds on the Villa winning, yet the Albion beat them by 3—0. The Birmingham folk blamed Warner, the Villa goalkeeper, who had a rough reception when he returned home. But they blamed the wrong man — or rather, men. The root of the Villa's trouble was the Albion middle line, then the best in the country, and that the Villa directors realised it was proved by their obstaining both Reynolds and Groves the next season.
WOULDN'T PLAY FOR THE KNEECAP
In my time as an International player, the men who represented their country were not as well treated as is now the case. Instead of getting £4 a match and expenses paid (or £10, as was paid at one time), we drew a modest guinea apiece and sometimes had our expenses vigorously challenged. Later we got a guinea and a half, the idea being, if I remember right, to cover odd expenses. Anyhow, I know that once when we were playing at Liverpool, Jack Reynolds was in some slight trouble with his knee, and was advised to get a protector to wear during the match. When he asked for the price of it as an "expense" he was told he'd get nothing on that account, and he didn't either.
A couple of centre-halves who could be compared for effectiveness, though absolutely different in style and build, were Tom Crawshaw (of the Wednesday) and little Johnny Holt (of Everton). Crawshaw as a header was the best we ever had, and he was very fast, and what he lacked in sheer eleverness with his feet he made up for in soundness. Of course, he was a big chap.
Now Johnny Holt was one of those five-feet-nothing sort of chaps, who are generally voted too small for class football. Yet he could always hold his own with either little or big opponents; in fact, he seemed to shine most against the biggest of them, and he could usually devise some scheme for getting the ball in front of then, whether it was in the air or on the ground.
THE DIG IN THE BACK
In some respects he could be likened to Wedlock of present-day internationals, but take all in all he was the very craftiest player I have seen in my life. People used to marvel sometimes how he got the ball when it was put across high, and there was a bigger man standing in front of him. Well, Jonhny had a little knack of giving the big man a dig in the small of the back at the psychological moment, the result being that for an instant that man couldn't jump, while Johnny made one of his daring leaps and, of course, collared the ball! It was quite a long time before the referees dropped to this trick of his.
Football lost of its jewels when Frank Forman, the great Notts Forest half-back, retired from the game, and another of them was poor Ben Warren, of Derby County. A great character, as well as a great player, was seen in Alex Leake, who never went through a game without passing a lot of funny remarks.
Some of the cleverest halves I have known have been Scotsmen — notably Gibson, of the Rangers, who was regularly picked against England, a very hard worker; J. Kelly, the present chairman of the Celtic directors, another edition of James Cowan; Jack Robertson, a left half half of the carpet-weaving order, who, if I remember rightly, captained Scotland when they gave us that awful whacking by 4—0. Two of the best centre-halves of all-time were Scots, the one being Alex Raisbeck and the other James Cowan. As many people will remember, Cowan won the Powderhall sprint when he was supposed to be unfit to play football owing to akle injury. He got fined by the Villa directos when he returned after springing this surprise, but I doubt whether he felt that very much know most of the Villa players were in the secret, and were supposed to have made a good haul out of his success.
BLOOMER: PEER OF FORWARD
It is anything but an easy matter to sum up and sort our the International forwards I met during my career. For sheer effectiveness I should be inclined to say that Steve Bloomer was, at his best, the finest forward I knew. He was certainly the finest inside-right England has ever had. His extreme deadliness in front of goal was largely due to the fact that he had a way of shooting with whichever foot it seemed least likely he would use. When the average forwardsruns into goal to shoot, you can see him working till he can just get the ball in a particular stride. Bloomer was different. In the middle of a stride, which appeared to be part of the early preliminaries, his foot would hit the ball like a hammer, and it was in the net before a goalkeeper could act.
You can't explain the methods of a man like Bloomer. He had, and of course still has to some extent, a wonderfull gift which gave him the confidence to do what others would not dream of. At one time he was even more dangerous with his left foot than his right. I remember he had a curious experience against Foulke. For some seasons he could beat Bill as frequently as any other great forward, but then for some season Bill was like a bogy to him. "What chance has a chap of getting the ball past a mountain like him." he said to me once. "But I'm going to try my best this afternoon. I should just love to beat him again." As it happened, "the mountain" proved too big for him once more.
Among outside-rights, I doubt if there has ever been one to best W. I. Bassett, of West Bromwich Albion. I used to read about him long before I met him, and when I did come to play against him I found that hewas worthy of all the praise which had been showered upon him. He was quick and very clever, and very seldom failed to centre the ball well into the goalmouth from any angle. His centres were really things of beaty — perfectly-gauged lobs that dropped the ball exactly right for the others to rush through. Going by the little I have seen of Simpson, I should say Bassett was a better man. Perhaps he was not so clever with the ball, but he was faster, could run further at top speed, and was away like lightning once he had the ball. Of course, Simpson has been a marked man from the time he came here, and has had to use all his brains to succeed as he has done.
My private opinion favours centre-forward as the hardest place to fill with satisfaction. The centre-forward has less room than any man on the field to perform his most important task; whichever way he urn he is met by immediate opposition. Great centre-forwards have not been exactly common, but I think the greatest as an English International was G. O. Smith, the Corinthian.
ENGLAND'S GREATEST CENTRE
His one fault was that he was too unselfish. I have been trying to remember some of his great goals, but just at the moment I really cannot do so — the fact is, he was far keener on making opening (and they were such openings!) for others, than on shooting goals himself. He generally played in an old pair of ordinary walking boots, with studs on, and his dribbling was a sight for the gods. He was not a big man, but he could beat big men, and when he did shoot he did so without fierceness, merely placing the ball as far away from the goalkeeper as possible, and seding it low. His shots took a lot of stopping when they did come. "G.O." was a most likeable, and quite unsassuming both on and off the field, but a born footballer.
Next to him among English centres I should place Johnny Goodall, a great lover of the game, who played longer than any man I know. It is a good many years since his hair left him, but I believe he still enjoys a game, and when you remember that he was at something like the height of his form and fame as a member of the great Preston North End team of the 80's, you will realise what enthusiasm that means. It is to Goodall that Bloomer must look for much that he has done, first as centre, then as outside right, for Derby County, Johnny was such a coach to him as few men had had by their side.
On the left wing we have had exceptionally good men in such players as Wheldon, of the Villa, V. J. Woodward, of the Spurs and Chelsea, and Fred Spiksley — the last, as I have said before, the finest outside-left I ever met. Wheldon was a biggish, well-made player, always dangerous within shooting range, and as he played with Spiksley in that great 1898 team against Scotland, there have been few to equal him.
SOME MIGHTY SCOTS
Noew let me come to some great Scottish Internationals forwards. First on the list I should mention Jack Bell, afterwards of Everton, who was certainly the finest Scottish forward I ever met. He was a complete master of ball control, and very fast, he could play almost anywhere, being really equally good at outside-right, outside-left, or inside-right, and to this day the people who saw the great Villa-Everton Cup Final which has taken rank as the finest Final ever played, speak of his magnificent efforts for the Everton team, who were eventually beaten by 3—2. Another man well-known in England until lately, Jack Taylor, also of Everton, was originally an inside-right, but never showed the form as a forward that he afterwards did as a centre half-back.
I cannot recall a really great Scottish inside left in my time, but at outside-left there were gems in, first, Billy Lambie, of Queen's Park, an old-fashioned individual player, and after him Alec Smith, of Glasgow Rangers' team for an extraordinary lenght of time. The Scots have counted him the best outside-left in Britain. We may have had a different opinions down here at times, but he has been a magnificent forward.
The great Bobby Walker I did not often meet. As regards cleverness I should say the Scottish inside right was better than ou own Bloomer, but he was not so effective and dangerous. He was one who feinted well with his body, and used his feet very cleverly and very quickly. It was more or less faal for a half-back who wanted to tackle him, to what his movemnts; they were so deceptive. The only thing was to keep your eye firmly fixed on the ball, and follow that only.
An outstanding Scottish centre-forward was John Campbell, who was thought to be done for owing to a damaged knee when he was allowed to leave Scotland for Aston Villa. But he soon showed that the idea was false. The Villa have always had fine forward lines, but he led them when they were at their best. As a dribbler, shot, and combination player he was magnificent, and he always played the game. He had much to do with the Villa's wonderful record of winning the Cup and the League championship in the same season.
MEREDITH AND BALL-PRACTICE
I could go on and on. There were many other very fine forwards whom it was my fortune to play amongst or against. Perhaps I shall have an opportunity of speaking of them another time. I must, however, mention the man who has played International oftener than anyone else in the whole of world of football — the great Willie Meredith, of Wales, as I need scarcely add. He and I hold different views about the value of ball-practice, for he trains on it, whereas in my opinion a player is better without the ball in mid-week, assuming, of course, that in his young days he has learnt how to control it.
At the same time Meredith's superb dribbling gives him a right to have a strong opinion of his own on the subject. The worst thing I have to say about him is that it's a pity he's not an Englishman. He and Bassett were undoubtedly the two greatest outside rights of my time — full of tricks, resource, and high quality. When I found myself pitted against either of them, my methods tackling were pretty much the same. Against Meredith it was to tackle him, if possible, before he could settle on the ball, and against Bassett to get the ball before Bassett did. Otherwise it was all U.P.
Somehow Ireland has not produced as many great players as the other countries. Of her football products, as I have known them, I should place first McCracken, the Newcastle United back. In his own way he has proved a genius, and it is a pity that he should now be shut out of International football. Talking about Ireland reminds me of one more Foulk story. We were crossing the channel, and as usual half the team were bad — including Bill. He had got into his berth somehow, nobody quite understood how he had managed it, and as he was feeling very poorly he was singing loudly to try and cheer himself up.
At last one of hte stewards went down and told him he would have to stop.
"Stop be blowed," said Bill, "why should I? This isn't a pub, and you can't turn me out"
"Well," said the steward, "one of the lady passengers is ill."
"I sympathise with her," replied Bill, calmly, "but there's a terrible lot of us down here that are ill as well." And he resumed — though more quietly — his attempts to cheer himself up.
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