Respecting football's hierarchy of talent

One of the big things about playing football is that you instantly take your place in an unarguable hierarchy of talent.

People often say football is all about opinions. This is only half true.

Watching football, shouting at football, sitting in a North London tapas bar in a Lionel Messi shirt talking about “Barca” in a braying voice: these things are all matters of opinion.

Playing football is a rare absolute in a confusing world. When you play, you really aren’t kidding anyone.

Everyone has a private ranking of the best player they have ever played with or against.

For me it was the captain of our university team. He was awesome: a strolling, ball-playing centre half; quick on the turn, a perfect touch, hugely powerful and quick-footed. You couldn’t get near him.

It was like playing against a different species. The word was always that he was going to go pro at some point. There seemed to be no question of this. Moves were already being made. Vaguely, you kept expecting to hear something.

He eventually played two games as a sub for Colchester. I heard about it years later. This seemed impossible. Suddenly the world seemed very big and football like a bewilderingly difficult game.

We all hear the talk about the unguessable gap between even the best park amateur and the lowliest professional. But like walking in space or catching a violent case of Indian dengue fever, you probably have to actually experience it yourself to have any idea of its sheer terrible scale.

I have a friend who was a decent schoolboy footballer, good enough to make it into the Blackburn youth system.

Everything went well until he finally came up against the young Damien Duff in a practice match. It was, he says, a defining experience.

There was no going any further forward after that. But he does also know certain things: he understands class-gulf and ability-rationing in a way that that even Duff himself is probably unaware of.

This works in other ways too. There is an unexpressed – and pretty much inexpressible – sense of restrained admiration for those who belong to a higher football caste than you.

Your team’s best midfielder who can actually run fast and control the ball properly and deliver a dead ball and even “see” a pass. He has a halo of righteousness about him.

You give him space in the changing Portakabin and – even if he also happens to be a semi-mute or a gurning sociopath – you give him a kind of respect.

It must be nice - so nice - to actually be good at this. You really can’t fake it.

What you can do is judge how good someone is instantly. There is an implicitly grasped pecking order.

All it takes is one pass, one muffed ball trap, one round of keep-ups. This is information unique to the football player. You have a new way of judging humanity.

Tony Blair may be many things: but anybody who has ever played football will have had their opinion of him unavoidably tweaked by watching him play head tennis with Kevin Keegan or doing one-twos with Glenn Hoddle. Blair could play.

Similarly, John Major was dead to me the moment I witnessed his frankly toddler-level attempts to control a rolling all at a photo shoot. This was simply not going to work out.

Also, try as I might I could never quite maintain my absolute reverence for the West Indian fast bowler Curtly Ambrose after having a kick about with him in a local park and discovering he had absolutely no ball skill.

He toe-poked the thing. It was shattering. Courtney Walsh, on the other hand, was useful. Still got a lot of time for Courtney Walsh. 

Around the same time as this encounter I started an ongoing discussion with some friends about which professional player have the most devastating effect playing at our bog bound park football level.

We discounted the delicate skills of a Giggs or a Joe Cole. We weren’t satisfied with an out and out midfield enforcer, like a Patrick Vieira. We already had muscle and heft.

For a long time it was Les Ferdinand who really hit the spot. You could imagine him scoring 23 goals in a game: unstoppable power headers, the pitch-length gallop, the shot from halfway.

These days it’s obviously Wayne Rooney. Just imagine it. In fact this is probably why Rooney is so popular, and so tenderly cherished, tribal loyalties aside.

He looks like the best Sunday league, park kick about-based, Astroturf-galloping amateur footballer ever conceived. He’s like you - only really, impossibly good – which isn’t something you could ever say about Glenn Hoddle or Teddy Sheringham.

In a way it’s the ultimate compliment.   

Previously on The Sharp End:Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)Why tactics say a lot about humanityWhat your kit says about you (and others)Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsongWhy winning means nothing and everythingThe manager – parent, pastor, secretary, dictator

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