What future for English football?

PUBLISHED: 14:15 11 March 2006 | UPDATED: 09:16 14 September 2010

It was a debate that began in the Evening News on Wednesday and - if only because bigger and better people than me are now muttering something similar - it is a debate that might as well carry on in the Pink Un this Saturday.

It was a debate that began in the Evening News on Wednesday and - if only because bigger and better people than me are now muttering something similar - it is a debate that might as well carry on in the Pink Un this Saturday.

At issue is the future of the English game. Or rather the manner in which the great game is played. The style of football we can expect in the years ahead - an issue that is already vexing certain people in this neck of the woods as Norwich lose “the Norwich way” of playing.

It all came to the fore nationally on the back of Arsenal's mid-week Champions League triumph and the fact that they are now the Premiership's sole representatives in the last eight of Europe's premier club competition - no mean feat for a team that can beat Real Madrid away and yet lose 1-0 away at Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers as they watch their north London neighbours Spurs steal their Champions League qualifying thunder in the race for fourth spot.

“We haven't always been able to stand up to the physical approach that people have imposed on us,” muttered Wenger afterwards, his cause championed by one of the leading lights of my trade, The Sun's chief sports writer Steven Howard.

Because the flip-side of the Gunners' midweek success was that it was achieved without a single English player to be seen as the likes of Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell nurse their various problems off the field.

Howard - for my money one of the shrewdest operators at the tabloid end of what was once Fleet Street - makes a very telling point. That Arsenal's “success in Europe this season is down to the total UN-Englishness of their play”. That whereas the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney all stumbled and fell in the face of Europe's finest, Wenger's wizard collection of European teenagers have played their way into the last eight of the Champions' League.

Howard's point is very straight-forward. That in Europe players are allowed to PLAY. In England, the flicks, tricks, passing and movement that make a free-flowing Arsenal such a delight to watch in Europe are battered out of them by the big boys.

“In the more refined arena of Europe you ALWAYS get a chance to play football,” wrote Howard in his column on Friday. “Whereas in the Premiership you cannot be sure of finishing with the same number of legs you started with…Wenger has been true to his principles and continued with his practice of bringing players to the club who have a bit more about them than just an ability to get up and down the pitch and hoof the ball into the opposition box. Players like Cesc Fabregas - with vision, a neat touch and a good footballing brain.”

All of which brings us back to Norwich. Because, for me, if you had to name three qualities that, say, Youssef Safri brings to the Carrow Road fold it is just that - vision, a neat touch and a good footballing brain.

And you could say exactly the same of the two Canary playmakers that went before - Ian Crook and Phil Mulryne. Both had vision, a neat touch and a good footballing brain. In Crook's case, he had all three in spades.

What neither Crook nor Mulryne ever had was the sheer physicality that being able to sit there, in the middle of the park and 'play' the game in 2006 now demands. Jason Koumas' arrival has hardly helped, but Mulryne - for all his ability to stroke the ball around at will - has started just one game this season for Cardiff City. Lovely lad, but he's a light-weight.

As for Safri, he has the upper body strength of a middleweight boxer that the other two always lacked; the question now, however, is whether in this league even that is enough. After all he is a doubt for today's trip to Leeds United after being left literally battered and bruised at Crystal Palace a fortnight ago.

If you're Leeds boss Kevin Blackwell - or, indeed, Sheffield United chief Neil Warnock - how do you stop Norwich from 'playing' in the stroke-the-ball-about, 'play the Norwich' way sense? You go and whack Safri up in the air. And when he gets up, you whack him again.

You don't, for example, go and tell your midfield 'enforcer' to go and whack either Dickson Etuhu or Andy Hughes up in the air, because in every likelihood you'll get a very big whack back. That's what someone like Etuhu brings to the party - this huge great 'Don't mess!' sign hanging over his head.

There are, of course, examples of players who can do the lot - offer both the six-foot plus physicality you now need to successfully compete in a Championship/Premiership central midfield and the capacity, Crook-like to ping 40-yard passes this way and that. One is Frank Lampard; another is Steven Gerrard. But they don't exactly grow on trees. Jimmy Bullard's not bad at Wigan but not the biggest; ditto the impressive Ben Watson at Palace.

In general, however, so rare are they - the six-foot, 40-yard passing beast - that most clubs have given up looking for them altogether. Instead, they'll compromise. Go for someone who can hit a fair percentage of 20 or 30-yard balls, but will live with the odd one or two going astray if they can run all day, tackle like a man possessed and have the physical presence of a rugby league centre. Either that or you sacrifice one up front and protect the player designated to 'play' with two strapping lads either side in a three-man centre-midfield.

And among all the other growing pains that Norwich's return to the Championship has brought this season, that is another one - the growing realisation that wherever you look professional football in England is getting uglier and uglier. Bolton boss Sam Allardyce may never talk to Alan Green again, but the Radio Five Live presenter might have had half a point when he branded Wanderers' football as “ugly”.

For people are abandoning the beautiful game; it's inefficient; as Arsenal have discovered to their cost, playing the beautiful game gets you nowhere at Goodison Park, Ewood Park and the Reebok. You get battered. To his credit, despite his inability to beat them, Wenger has steadfastly refused to join them - his idea of the 'beautiful' game is earning its reward in Europe.

How teams of Norwich's ilk manage to maintain the traditions of 'playing the Norwich way' in the face of football's shift towards all things big and brutal is something for any City manager - be it Nigel Worthington or whoever in the fullness of time succeeds him - to struggle with.

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