I was first exposed to this style of theory when Spurs played Watford in a reserve game at Vicarage Road in the early eighties. We couldn’t believe it, there we were having the audacity to pass the ball on the grass and Watford were playing a game I had never seen before. A game based on long balls, pressurising and as long as the ball was in the air they were happy. It was shell-shock football and fortunately we won the match but little did we know how much of an affect this was to have on the British game. As Mr Clough once said ‘If God wanted us to play football in the clouds, he would have put grass up there!’
Through the 80’s with our exclusion from Europe more and more Watford’s were appearing, especially in the lower leagues where it was manifesting itself like an uncontrollable disease, everyone seemed to be playing this ‘percentage football’. Over a period of 2 to 3 years the words ‘touch’, ‘play’, ‘class’ and ‘pass’ were being replaced with new shouts of ‘hook it on!’ ‘turn them!’ ‘corner-flag!’ and ‘channels!’. Managers were changing their thinking and the majority of players just followed like sheep.
Individual thinking for players was replaced with robotic brain-washing. It was one of the saddest things I’ve seen in football, coaches actually setting up training exercises to smash the ball over the defence and into the channels and corner flags. There was an exercise with Phil Holder on a Thursday one day for everyone to work on defensive headers, one chipping the ball from about thirty yards away and his partner heading it as far as he could. Every player had to do it from defenders, midfield and forwards. When we all came in on the Friday, the day before a game, we couldn’t move our necks and our heads were thumping. This was the new style of Neanderthal coaching.
Players became scared to play short balls and frightened to try anything against the grain and the longer this went on a new breed of footballer was appearing. He had to be strong, fit and take orders without question and the only position that was condemned was midfield. There was no link from defence to midfield and midfield to forwards. All you did was support the front or cover the defence, you tackled and closed people down and fought for scraps like wild dogs for a bone. When you got possession you could only have one or two touches maximum as long as you released it in a forward manner. The Midfield play-maker was becoming extinct to the point where he was actually being replaced by Centre-Halves because they could do a better job in the ‘LARRY LUMPIT’ style.
I have never been so bored in training. When players love the training they are always out before it starts, playing keep-ball, cosmic and having a laugh. Keep-ball was stopped as it had no bearing to the way we played so the lads just sat in the changing room waiting to be summoned to the drill yard. It became a regime and our game became regimental. We ran and went through team play until it was second nature and Rodney Marsh’s quote of a ‘grey game, played by grey people on grey days’ had never been truer. The beautiful game was getting uglier and if you had any natural ability you were the Quasimodo. Through this period at Brentford, Phil Holder had replaced Steve Perryman as Manager and his dogmatic style suited this type of game along with the new coaches he employed. As an older Pro and someone who was brought up on strong footballing principles, Phil and I were always clashing and I am glad to say I continued to play as much as I could within the regime. From being a regular in the first team I was now a regular ‘Judge’ always sitting on the bench. The trouble with this type of play is that when it all goes wrong you don’t have any style to revert to and it really looks poor. I believe I hold 2 records at Brentford. The first one being the first player to come on and score in the number 13 shirt and secondly making a record number of consecutive substitute appearing. I was Phil’s ‘get out of jail’ card. If it all goes wrong, sling on Cockers and see if he can do something different.
My personal life was taking a nose-dive. I was relying heavily on booze to cope with my situation and I reverted to smashing up my flat just as I did when I was bed-bound at the age of 15. This was my way of handing my predicament and the depths I had sunk to because of football. You tend to do extreme things when you only have one thing dominating your world and when it doesn’t go your way you turn to extremities to forget it. It all sounds a bit over the top but when one individual thing has created your life since you can remember and it all starts going pear-shaped, on top of the drink you feel you have failed in life and your small world starts to crumble.
As an older Pro, you have more or less established yourself at the club so you can choose whether to conform or stand up and in my experience most players conform. This is for a number of reasons, firstly self-survival, secondly no real principles about the game and finally they will play any way the Manger tells them to. The players I felt most sorry for were the youngsters, the YTS or young pros who were trying to establish themselves. They were not being taught the basic fundamentals of football and every Saturday when they watched the first team they certainly weren’t learning anything. If you had the three “S’s”, Small, Skinny and Skillful you had no chance and many excellent youngsters fell by the wayside. Brentford had some really promising kids who had done really well in the League and FA Youth Cup but because of Management thinking there has only been one player to move on. Marcus Gayle went to Wimbledon and although he had some skill his size was a bigger advantage. These youngsters were good enough to progress and be the life blood of Brentford for many years to come but sadly due to this style of Football, once again it failed them. So not only did a certain type of player drift out of the game but future stars were doing the same thing.
This was the real crucifixion of British football.