English Football: The Ugly Duckling

The eighties. Ex-Aberdeen and Scotland manager Sir Alex Ferguson made a shaky start to a 27 year-long rein at Manchester United, which, despite taking him to just 11th in the league in his first and third seasons, would go on to net the club 49 trophies, both domestically and in Europe; the back-pass and Bosman rules hadn’t been invented yet; the Premier League was still known as the Football League First Division and Liverpool were a dominating force at home and abroad, winning the European Cup in ‘81 and ‘84. The league table would look somewhat alien to the under-twenties, with the likes of Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest, now both in the Championship, both featuring highly in the rankings. Spain weren’t quite as unstoppable as they have been in recent years. On the other hand – or foot – the other national teams were much the same with Italy and Argentina winning the ’82 and ’86 Fifa World Cups, with Germany being runners up in both tournaments and England yet to win since ’66.

However, this wasn’t the only aspect of ‘80s football that would seem unusual to the younger football fan. Crunching tackles were no longer a yellow or red card offence, the best offense was a good defence and the concept of ‘total football’ began to spread across Europe.

The Best Offense was a Good Defence

Rather than the attractive, attacking way of football, which many teams have adopted over recent years, the object of English ‘80s football wasn’t to score more goals against the opposing team, but to stop them scoring against you. An infamous example of this is George Graham’s ‘boring, boring’ Arsenal and their back four in the mid-to-late ‘80s, before the Wenger era of slick passing and attacking at speed. The impenetrable wall of defenders consisting of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, who’s now assistant manager at the club, became famous for the ‘offside trap’ where the defenders would stand in alignment with the opposing team’s attacker, only for the last defender, often Adams, to step forward just before the attacking pass was made, rendering the move offside and frustrating the opposition.

Going to Ground

The eighties was renowned for its no-nonsense approach to tackling; defenders wouldn’t think twice about going to ground and sliding in for a tackle that would leave most referees these days reaching for their back pocket. Left-back Stuart Pearce, ex-manager of England’s under-21 team, made over 400 appearances for Nottingham Forest in the First Division in the mid-to-late ‘80s and was affectionately nicknamed ‘Psycho’ due to his somewhat overly ‘enthusiastic ‘challenges.

Similarly, Ipswich Town centre-back, Terry Butcher, featured in one of the most iconic, English footballing images of all time. The courageous defender leapt into an aerial duel in England’s ‘89 World Cup Qualifier against Sweden, only to completely split his head open in a clash of heads. Butcher had his head bandaged but carried on playing, agitating the wound and leaving him and his white England kit covered in claret.

Total Football

The tactical style of passing and moving, interchanging positions and attacking, wing play was first developed in Holland, at Rinus Michel’s Dutch side Ajax in the late ‘60s and was honed during the 1970s, where they experienced one of their most successful periods, winning 5 titles in 1972. Johan Cruyff refined the technique during his time as manager from ’85 to ’88, after playing at the side for the early portion of his career, and later in the early ‘80s. Cruyff’s appointment as Barcelona manager in 1988 saw his adopted theory of ‘total football’ transported to Spain, which has given birth to what modern fans know as ‘ticka tacka’ football, still played by the likes of Barcelona, and a different type of pass-and-move football, orchestrated worldwide from the British ‘David’, Swansea, to Germany and European ‘Goliath’, the Bundesliga’s Bayern Munich.

Heroes of the 1980s

An aspect of modern football that hasn’t changed is the hero factor. Just as we have Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale today, the ‘80s laid way for men such as Ajax striker Marco Van Basten; England legends Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne; and Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.

Van Basten played for Ajax during the ‘total football’ era, known for his stunning goals and ability, who converted 128 goals in just 133 appearances for the Dutch team between 1981 and ’87, was named World Player of the Year three times. He later returned to coach the club after an injury ended his career early, as well as the Netherlands national team.

Lineker, who started his career at Leicester in 1978, went on to net 243 goals for clubs such as Everton and Barcelona during his career as a striker. He also scored a whopping 48 goals in 80 appearances for the England national side, almost becoming England’s top goalscorer, second only to Sir Bobby Charlton. Tottenham Hotspur teammate, midfielder Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, also had an impressive goal tally and was renowned for his finesse and passion, both on and off the ball. Unfortunately, through the passion, problems started to emerge in the tabloids, and Gazza’s apparent mental illness and alcoholism hampered his true potential and although he’s sought help in the form of rehab many times, he still battles with addiction to this day. Napoli international Maradona, who scored 81 goals for the club and later became manager to his national team, Argentina, also fought with addiction; famously using cocaine during his time at Barcelona in the early ‘80s before checking into rehab and getting clean.

How did it all change?

Football in 1980s Europe may not seem that different to what it currently is now; free flowing, fluid, silky passing and attractive goals were being slotted home at the likes of Ajax for a long time before the style hit English soil. The English football style during ‘80s was slow, stagnant and defensive and more about clean sheets than impressive score lines. The back-pass rule was brought into play in 1992 to discourage time-wasting, which had become commonplace in our game, and to force our defensive technique to speed up and become more exciting after the ‘exceedingly dull’ performances in the 1990 World Cup. The abolition of allowing the goalkeeper to handle the ball passed back to them by one of their teammates made the game slicker and more exciting. The introduction of the Bosman rule in 1990, let European players run down their contracts and allowed them to move anywhere within the E.U. for free. This broadened English football’s horizons significantly, bringing a higher quality of football to the Premier League and turning it into what it is today: the best league in the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.