From August 2008
My methodology disallows me from choosing any player whom I did not see in the flesh or regularly on television. So Best’s immense reputation, Charlton’s trophies and Moores’ imperiousness count for nothing. My methodology also allows me to pick from a player’s best years and not discount them against a long decline. Philosophically, I rule out the huffers and puffers and the artistes who never won very much that really mattered (since that is the object of the game). So no Bryan Robson and no Glenn Hoddle.
John Robertson and Neville Southall have much in common. Neither were natural athletes, barely athletes at all, though Robertson played an astonishing 243 consecutive games through Forest’s glory years from December 1976 to December 1980 and Southall racked up 750 appearances for Everton. Both blossomed as players quite late at an age when Cesc Fabregas will have played 300 games or so. The key to their success was the understanding that the game is a simple one, in which Robertson’s job was to beat his full back and pass the ball to a man in a goalscoring position and Southall’s job was to stop the ball going into the net. Crucially, both players had managers who recognised this simplicity in approach and indulged their star player’s foibles (Southall’s eccentricity, Robertson’s smoking). In return for that faith and indulgence, they delivered multiple trophies at national and international level and are held in the highest respect by fellow pros and fans the world over.
I recall Southall’s first few games for Everton in the 1981-82 season. He had been signed from Bury (how times change) and was vying for a place with Jim Arnold, a solid, but uninspiring keeper. Neville, unkempt in his green jersey, would shamble on to the pitch for his warm-up, but come alive as the crosses were slung in and the shots saved. Once the match started, we saw that he had no weaknesses: his positioning was perfect; his catching of the high ball immaculate; his shot stopping, especially at close range, spectacular; his speed off the line surprising; and his bravery and temperament unimpeachable. We muttered to ourselves that with this man in goal, we were going to win things. I have only had that feeling once in the intervening 27 years about a goalkeeper. I saw one of Peter Scmeichel’s first games for Manchester United: we left Goodison muttering those same thoughts, this time about the opposition. Schmeichel and Southall – the two best goalkeepers I’ve ever seen.
In a race with Ryan Giggs from the halfway line to the goalline, Ryan would be careering into the net as John Robertson just entered the D, already blowing hard. But Robertson was the fastest player I ever saw over one yard, and that was all he needed to play the killer ball. It helped that Robertson didn’t really run at all, he just paused, waiting, then shuffled and passed. He didn’t tackle back (but he never gave the ball away either) and was always an out ball for a defence under pressure and was, therefore, not a maverick but a team man in every sense. He was never prolific as a goalscorer, though he got 12 in Forest’s Title winning season, but he always seemed to score vital goals, including the one that won Forest’s second European Cup (after presenting Trevor Francis with an unmissable chance to win Forest’s first).
Robertson’s biggest fan was his manager Brian Clough, who knew a bit about players. There are many quotes attributed to Clough concerning Robertson, but my favourite (possibly apocryphal, but true in a larger sense) concerns a half-time team talk. A young substitute is being briefed by Clough, “… And when you get the ball, young man, just give it to The Genius”. The substitute, confused and intimidated, hesitantly points across at the first £1M player, scorer of the goal that won the European Cup, the footballing thoroughbred Trevor Francis. “Not him – HIM!” shouts Clough pointing at a slump shouldered, slightly overweight Scotsman puffing on a fag. Genius indeed.