DID THEY breed them tougher in the old days? Are current footballers pampered? Have managers taken rotation to an unnecessary level?
Yes, the game is faster now, yes, players are stronger while there is a perception among managers that they must rotate for domestic cups and even European competitions to keep their top stars fresh for the Barclays Premier League, even though for most clubs the Capital One Cup and FA Cup represent their only realistic chance of silverware.
But why could players of yesteryear play week-in, week-out with managers choosing virtually the same starting XI for each game? Were they so tough they were immune to injury? Did Bobby Charlton and others never feel tired or stale and need a rest? Did they never lose form?
For reasons which come under the “should-get-out-more” category, I discovered that Manchester United’s participation in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup of 1964/65 was remarkable for the fact that in their 11 ties, they used only 12 players. In their 11 European games between September and mid-June – yes June – Matt Busby used the same starting XI in 10 of their 11 ties: Pat Dunne, Shay Brennan, Bill Foulkes, Nobby Stiles, Tony Dunne, John Connelly, Pat Crerand, Bobby Charlton, David Herd, Denis Law and George Best. The exception was for their first match against Djurgardens IF in Stockholm when Maurice Setters played instead of Law. After that, in the modern parlance, it was cut and paste.
In these days of rotation, not to mention suspensions and injuries, such consistency of selection would be unthinkable. Three consecutive unchanged starting XI’s is a rarity at the highest level in 2013. In fact, at most levels.
United played 60 games in all competitions that season with Tony Dunne, Brennan, Foulkes and Connelly ever-presents; Best, Charlton and Stiles each missed one game; Crerand (57), Pat Dunne (55), Herd (55) and Law (52) completed the 50-plus brigade. It meant Matt Busby chose virtually the same team for every Football League game (there were 42), every FA Cup tie and every European tie. And remember, there were no substitutes so players used to play the full 90 minutes, unless significantly injured. David Meek would have been correct with 99 per cent of his predictions for United’s team in the Manchester Evening News.
Their first game was against West Bromwich Albion on August 22, their last was an Inter Cities Fair Cup semi-finals playoff against Ferencváros in Budapest on June 16. United had won the first-leg 3-2, losing the away tie in Hungary 1-0; 3-3 on aggregate, but there was no away-goals ruling them so a third game to determine the winner was needed – 10 days after the second leg in Budapest as the Reds lost the toss for home advantage. Ferencváros won 1-0.
While in no way understating Busby’s qualities as a manager, he did not have the selection dilemmas his successors do. These days, to formulate his side (plus substitutes) a manager will use his experience and knowledge having seen the opponents regularly on television, consult with his coaches and study statistics of just about every aspect of the opposition before deciding on his team and tactics.
For Busby, there were no CD’s to watch, there was no live league football on TV or a database of stats to plough through, just a hand-written scouting report. It was a case of: this is my team – try to beat it. Which proved very difficult – in 1964/65 United won the old Football League first division title and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, the forerunner to what is now the Europa League
Back then, tiredness did not appear to be in football’s vocabulary, despite European travel that meant changing flights, long train journeys and occasionally not returning to England until the Friday, perhaps even less than 24 hours before a league game. The days of charter flights were still in their infancy. A trip to the old Soviet Union could mean flying to Moscow and then, after the obligatory delay at immigration, enduring an eight-hour train journey where other the passengers could include chickens or goats. Maybe both.
Yet players went out, played in every game, managed to avoid injury and remained fresh throughout the 10-month season. No moaning about the fixture list or playing on successive days over Christmas. And medical care was in its infancy compared to today. The physio was a guy with a dreaded cold sponge (and how it seemed to work). Treatment for many injuries was little more than a massage, perhaps with a heated lamp.
Jimmy Greaves tells the story of needing a muscle strain treated and was asked to come back later as the physio was “busy with someone else.” It transpired the physio was treating his greyhound who was running the following day. The dog was on the physio table receiving the same treatment as Greaves was to undergo.
Last season, no United player started all 38 games in the Barclays Premier League. Robin van Persie was selected for the most matches – 35, with Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick joint-second with 34. In all competitions Carrick and Evra chalked up the most starts – 42 out of a possible 54.
On a most-games-started basis, United’s team was (club/internationals): De Gea (41*/46) – Rafael/27*/27), Ferdinand (31/31), Evans (28/33), Evra (42/46) – Valencia (29/36), Carrick (42/47), Cleverley (28*/35), Kagawa (22/25) – van Persie (40/45), Rooney (31*/38) *includes one appearance in the League Cup which Busby’s team did not play in.
Compare that to Busby’s “Duracells”: P. Dunne (55/56), Brennan (60/60), Foulkes (60/60), Stiles (59/63), T. Dunne (60/62), Connelly (60/63), Crerand (57/57), Charlton (59/62), Herd (55/55), Law (52/58), Best (59/66).
The overall totals of Ferguson’s last United season were boosted by substitute appearances which were not possible in 1964/65. The most used sub was Valencia who came on 11 times for an average of 22 minutes.
True, there were fewer midweek games in 1964/65 with no League Cup, but against that Busby’s team played four more league matches than Sir Alex Ferguson’s side did last season. And 50 years ago the pitches were far more strength-sapping, some resembling ploughed fields and a far cry from the bowling greens today’s sides enjoy. Van Persie and company also have far more protection from referees than their predecessors. Having your name taken was unusual while a sending-off was even more of a rarity. In the Sixties defenders had a license to kick, though they had to get close enough to Best in the first place.
Comparing different eras is always a tricky exercise, but it is difficult to escape the feeling that the stars of yesteryear were made of sterner stuff. Maybe it was the steak and chips before matches that did it.