Saturday, April 25, 2020

SELECTION BIAS

In 1975 Football Magazine and its star writer John Ross in particular, had a singular bee in its bonnet. The buzzing noise has followed us resolutely into the 21st century until it sounds like the shelling of Hiroshima. 

The John Ross column, Football Monthly Magazine, Volume 2 Number 1, 1975

Watching football on the television in 2020 has become such a sophisticated process that the army of pundits and presenters, pitch-side mic-wielders, pre-match interviewers and voxpop crews needed to keep the whole thing afloat could successfully crew an aircraft carrier across the Atlantic. 

The simple idea of the co-commentator first seems to have been mooted at the 1970 World Cup and, by the time the show came around again four years later, was already truly entrenched. Sir Alf Ramsey could be heard alongside ITV’s Hugh Johns chuntering things like “Tha Polish chaps really don’t seem to have the slightest idea of what they are doing” in a quavery voice pitched just south of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The expert panel wheeled out for half time frivolity and full time analysis was also a thing of beauty, a kind of full page ad for Man at C&A and an opportunity to marvel at precisely where Derek Dougan's hair started and finished.

By the time the likes of Jack Charlton and David Pleat had joined the ranks in the 80s, as live tv football exploded onto our screens on a weekly rather than once in a lonely while basis, we had strange Geordie slang and first name cosiness to add to the growing problems. The men with voices now joined in at an alarming rate and with a grand variety of skills to bring to the job. When Andy Townsend starting personalizing everything he saw in football by commencing every comment with the honey-soaked words “For me, Clive”, football on tv had grown its first adolescent moustache. Unfortunately, the pimple went unpopped and has been allowed to grow to the size of Richard Dunne’s behind.  

Soft spot, impartiality, bias: from Football Monthly, Meet the Press, Vol 2 no.4, 1975
These days, of course, one cannot move for the detritus of Punditry. The facial hair has become positively Darwinesque, so far have we travelled from the early Townsend bumfluff. The industry has grown up, embraced sophistry and welcomed in a whole new troop of co-workers. This genre, the ex-player, can be found everywhere. In fact, if your station begins a football broadcast of any sort without one sitting plum next to the commentator, ready to offer pearls of ex-footballer wisdom on what is unfolding before us, there is something wrong. Or he missed the connection in Northenden.

With this army of ex-players, of course, comes the past lives they represent.

Ex-Liverpool, and there are admittedly one or two of those striding around in the media, means a red leaning. Ex-Newcastle would suggest a timeworn fondness for the Magpies and ex-Swansea would suggest the same for the South Wales outfit. Only there are no ex-Newcastle and ex-Swansea men on offer. They are all ex-Liverpool, ex-United or ex-Arsenal. Battalions of them, all carrying the gentle biases and partialities you’d expect from wearing those red jerseys on their shoulders for so many years

This reached an interesting peak with Manchester City’s final pre-covid game of any significance, away at Real Madrid. Expert analysis came that night from Steve McManaman, a man whose name is synonymous with Liverpool as much as it is with the idle overuse of the letter A.

Steve, of course, also turned out for Real Madrid and Manchester City, where his arm-waving became so over-indulgent as to look pathetic in the extreme.

"Over there, Paul, ffs. Do I have to do everything myself?"
Perhaps as a result of the Stadium of Manchester’s reaction to his comic gesticulating episodes in sky blue, which mainly featured the brittle-looking Steve trotting or walking in the centre circle, brushing his foppish locks out of his eyes and pointing like someone who had just witnessed an armed robbery, Steve probably doesn’t harbour a massive amount of goodwill towards City. Steve’s frantic motioning towards an inert Paul Bosvelt might have had its aesthetic justification, but it was ultimately useless. At the time he played in sky blue, he didn’t care. We could tell from an early stage and the arm-waving only made it worse on the grounds that frantically telling everyone else where to position themselves whilst being forever in the wrong place yourself smacks of a degree of nonchalant laziness that will never win you new pals and admirers.

Steve now hauls his haircut into the BT studios for our benefit and on this occasion, as both an ex-City player and an ex-Real player, BT bosses must have thought they had finally cracked the conundrum. There would finally be no reason for the great unwashed hordes of “City Twitter” to mount the keyboards and fire off expletives afterwards. That was until Steve could be heard howling the plaintive “nooooooo” in the background as Danny Carvajal brought down Raheem Sterling for a late penalty to City. In that swift unguarded moment Steve revealed his old biases and we absolutely hated him for it. Why was an Englishman who had played for City howling his barely disguised disappointment at a setback for Real Madrid? Surely, nationality would trump everything even if he couldn’t shake off a deep dislike of all things City?

Bias is an odd beast that lurks in all of us and to expect football pundits to be clear of it is plainly delusional. What might, could and surely is possible, however, is the simple solution of employing less (please, God, less) and employing objective individuals on a case by case nature. If football ever returns to our screens, then we should begin the new dawn with some stock-taking and some spring-cleaning. First to go should be 70% of the talking heads that plainly exist with the sole intention of warming up the atmosphere. If Football Magazine could get up tight about the use of an ex-Leeds manager during coverage of that club’s historical pinnacle in 1975, then I’m pretty sure being force-fed Danny Murphy and Michael Owen’s views on just how brilliant Liverpool are in the present day could qualify as a crime against humanity. 


"Definitely Klopp's fault, don't you think, Michael?"










Monday, April 6, 2020

HEAD TO HEAD


Number two in a series comparing the best players in the history of Manchester City:


Joe Corrigan v. Ederson Moraes


Joe Corrigan hit the depths before he reached the heights, eventually becoming an England squad regular, restricted only by the phenomenal presence of Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton from gaining more than his 9 England caps. The goalkeeping art has perhaps changed more than any other facet of the game in modern times and certain skills are much more prevalent now than in Corrigan’s day, especially in the systems and game plans run by the likes of Pep Guardiola. Here we compare the two great ‘keepers and judge them on their different attributes. With Graham Ward.


Presence in the box


JC: Joe was a huge man, and unusually tall for his era. He did suffer from a weight problem when he first made his mark, but once this was under control following his return after MacRae’s injury at Leicester, he never looked back, and was a commanding figure, covering the whole of his penalty area superbly. 8

EM: Ederson and his ilk are no longer really required to be a “presence in the box” in the old way of things. The goalkeeping art has changed more than any other position on the field. Often it is not even “the box” where Ederson and his peers have to carry out their work, as noted below against Wolves. 7







Communication

JC: An area where Corrigan improved with age, as he built up his relationship with his central defenders like Booth, Doyle, and Watson, which was an important factor during the ‘what if’ 1976/77 season, as City missed out on the league title by a point, although Liverpool could afford to lose their last game. City conceded 34 goals (one more than the champions) in a 42 game season. 7.5

EM: In this era of multinational squads, communication has, as a must, become short and simple. Perhaps it always was. “Out!”, “Back post” and the like still suffice and even Ederson’s scratchy command of English can see him through this. Not the shoutiest of keepers, however. 7

1976-77: Joe Corrigan races back towards his goal as Dave Watson's back pass heads into the net v. Liverpool at Maine Road.  29th December 1976.


Crosses


JC: Again, an unsteady start for Corrigan, who was at fault for the WBA goal in the 1970 League Cup final, by being caught a little flat-footed under a looping cross. Once he slimmed down, his agility improved, and it was then rare to see him beaten in the air by an opposition centre-forward and there were several around who were useful in that respect. 7.5

EM: Ederson often has so little to do that his decision-making can be called into question. He can hardly be blamed for lapses when he touches the ball so infrequently. Having said that, this is not one of the areas of his game where he looks most accomplished. 7

Shot-stopping


JC: This was an issue for him at the start and during the early development of his career. However, I can say that I saw the greatest save I’ve ever seen live, when he sprang from a standing start to his left to keep out a point blank range Allan Clarke header in an FA Cup tie at Leeds, and was still agile enough to then pick up the pieces. 8.5

EM: Much more of an athlete than his predecessors in the City goal, his agility is second to none. Able to get down quickly to low shots and to fly high to tip others over. He is built to fly and he takes full advantage of his attributes in this respect. 8.5


Positioning


JC: Corrigan’s positioning was usually excellent and he was very rarely caught out, but he would look back, I’m sure, at one of his England appearances, against Brazil, when he was beaten at his near post. 7.5

EM: Can be caught out, as seen this season when being beaten by shots that might not have gone in, had he been positioned better. Generally aware of his angles and quick enough to right any positional wrongs that can occur. Has been rash on occasion coming out to meet forwards, ending in serious injury against Sadio Mane and a red card for interfering with Diogo Jota in the calamatous defeat at Wolves this season. Also beaten badly at his near post by Anthony Martial in the Derby. 7

Distribution


JC: An area where Corrigan was initially suspect, but, again, a caveat about the laws in place for the majority of his career. Usually a goalkeeper cleared the ball down the field as far as he could, both from a place kick, and out of hand. I’m afraid Joe will always be remembered for ‘that’ Ronnie Boyce goal, and a howler against Sunderland in the FA Cup when he wasn’t wearing a cap in the unseasonably strong sunlight. I saw both! 

6.5



EM: Throws almost as far as he kicks and kicks like a quarterback. If there is one aspect of this goalkeeper’s armoury that puts him in a different class to his peers, it his distribution. Fast, technically adept, with a clear vision of what he is trying to activate, his pinged diagonal slices have opened up many a defence and produced a direct assist for Sergio Aguero against Huddersfield in 2018-19. Let himself down badly in the Derby when setting up Scott McTominay for United’s 96th minute clincher this season, though. 8.5

Temperament


JC: Overall, I would rate this his greatest asset. The way he overcame the early setbacks, and accusation that he was a manufactured goalkeeper, speaks volumes for the man. As I indicated earlier, following his chance return, after 12 months or so he was winning his second League Cup, and his first England cap. Don’t forget this was in the era of Shilton and Clemence, plus other very fine keepers like Phil Parkes (QPR/West Ham). He was rightfully declared man of the match following the FA Cup final and replay against Spurs in 1981, when it seemed the only way Spurs would score in the first game was via a fluke - which is what happened, and, if you’re of a certain age, still gives you nightmares, or has caused a life long dislike of the north London club. 9

EM: A steady Eddie for a Brazilian, who you might be tempted to stereotype as hot headed and prone to tantrums. That would be unfair to Brazilians and to Ederson, who has seldom lost his control while at City, despite taking some stick from on-running forwards. Extremely coolness in tapping the ball nonchalantly about his area with forwards getting closer and closer is sometimes taken for granted. Not immune to the odd rumble, though.  7.5


Concentration


JC: This, too, was a problem to start off with, but again improved with age. As he reached maturity in his career. City had another outstanding side that usually scored more than they conceded, meaning Corrigan had to guard against lapses, as it was rare that City had to defend. Following Malcolm Allison’s dismantling of that side, Joe was the bulwark needed to prevent more heavy beatings for a young and callow team. 8

EM: Along with his distribution, this is Ederson’s greatest attribute, although this season has seen a few lapses, which had not been on display up to now. While Corrigan had an increasingly heavy workload as the City side he played for diminished in capability, Ederson has only known great periods of non-activity during his time at the Etihad. To remain vigilant in the teeth of incessant attacking away from your area of the pitch and overwhelming possession stats in favour of your team mates takes something special. 8.5

Handling


JC: Corrigan’s handling could be called poor during the first stages of his City career, and improved immeasurably as he gained experience. I should add a caveat about general ground conditions, and the fact that the gloves of today were at the prototype stage, by comparison, at the end of his career. If you look at early videos, you will see Joe wearing plain white woollen gloves. The first great goalkeeper to use the type of glove that is common today was the great Gordon Banks. 8

EM: Gloves, balls, pitches, preparation. All these items have improved beyond recognition in the time between the end of Big Joe’s career and the beginning of Ederson’s. The Brazilian’s handling has generally been of the highest order, but, again, this season has seen one or two shots spilled in a range of slightly below-par performances  8

Penalties


JC: I think I can honestly say I only saw Corrigan save one penalty in a 90 minute game - at Maine Road against Newcastle. The Scoreboard (soon to be North stand) end was boarded up, and the penalty was a poor one, and Joe managed to shovel the ball away before he dived under it. I should add I was there for the epic League Cup penalty shoot out at Stoke, and how can you forget the comedy value of a booking at Derby for pacing 12 steps to the missing spot? 6.5

EM: While Ederson has missed out on the possibility of being a penalty shoot-out hero like Willy Caballero and Claudio Bravo in recent years at Wembley and on the road to Wembley (even Aro Muric has emerged triumphant from one shoot-out - v. Leicester - during Ederson’s time at the club), he does have a critical penalty save to his name in the Premier League, salvaging a 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park with a stoppage time save from Luka Milivojevic’s weak effort  Also saved from Aubameyang at the Emirates and Dries Mertens of Napoli in the Champions League. 7.5


TOTAL



JOE CORRIGAN 77 - 76.5 EDERSON MORAES













Saturday, April 4, 2020

A LITTLE TOO LATE AND QUITE A LOT TOO LITTLE


Albert Camus, who everyone is reading this spring, don’t you know, once stated that Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.” 

Well, not many of us can say that anymore. 


In his epic novel La Peste (The Plague), Camus depicts Raymond Rambert, a journalist who is visiting Oran to research a story on living conditions in the Arab quarter of the town, as a character trapped in a city with which he feels he has no connection. The week’s machinations in the Premier League gas bubble have left many of us with similar sentiments. 


Do we belong here? Does any relevant connection remain?


In the existential waiting room that we all inhabit right now, it is perhaps restorative to ponder a while how we might all change as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis and, in particular, as this is what draws us to this particular forum, what football might do to right some of its evident wrongs in any future world we are granted clean breathing air in.

So far, it has been something of a mixed bag, and scrutinising individual cases (Jesus Christ, Tottenham; for God’s sake, Richard Branson, oh no, Liverpool) doesn’t really solve anything. We all know who are doing their stuff and who aren’t. We certainly don’t need Sky News, Matt Hancock and the crack team from the Sunday Times to single out particular clubs, who don’t fit their agenda, to help us form our opinions. I hope.

On a more general note, however, we might want to ask ourselves where we go from here, presuming there will be a place to launch ourselves from once this purge has had its way with us. 

The opinions fly thick and fast. There are those who think this is God’s work, or the devil’s, or that it is Mother Earth scolding us for blatantly ignoring all of her beseeching messages to calm down a bit in our rape and pillage of the planet’s resources. Is it a punishment for those who believe these things are sent as a punishment? That would be neat. For all of us then whatever we might believe, the current state of affairs has delivered a pregnant moment to pause and think.



Like Camus on contemplating absurdism and what our response to it might be, a deeper reflection on ourselves and our way of life is likely to end in heavy existential angst. Most of what we do is worthless, trivial and selfish, we will probably decide. Bordering on the absurd, our habits and routines are not much more sophisticated than the hamster running around his wheel thinking he might be on the way to the peanut kiosk on the beachfront at Fleetwood. 

Being forced to self-isolate tends to sharpen the senses, allow us to prioritise anew. Do we have enough to eat? Do I feel ok? Are my close ones safe? How can I participate meaningfully in keeping communities going and boosting the flagging fortunes of those less well-placed? How can I show my appreciation for those people I always presume are just there but never really value properly? All these thoughts now reach us before "who wrote this latest baseless attack on my football club?" and "Is Kevin de Bruyne fit?"


The cleaners, the doctors, the nurses, the drivers, the refuse collectors, the delivery folk, the support staff, those bringing us reliable news and information, those transporting us to and fro, in and out, those keeping us fed, those keeping us safe, those keeping us informed, those keeping supply chains running, the chap that put the Dalek on the street the other day.



Who would have thought we would one day rue the passing of the milk delivery?

Into none of these categories falls Daniel Levy. I begin with the Tottenham chairman solely on the grounds that his acts are the latest to appear before our eyes from the Planet Altruism that is football. There are plenty of others and you can consider them too if you have the energy. 


On Tuesday, Tottenham Hotspur announced, via chairman Levy, sitting freshly atop his self-awarded £3m bonus for the (albeit tardy) completion of the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, that "people need to wake up to the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic”. It is not clear whether he was nibbling on one of the 234 different kinds of cheese to be found in the new stadium’s Cheese Foyer at the time or not and, if so, whether it was one of the particularly malodourous French ones that can cause hallucination, but what is clear is that Levy’s pint is filling from the bottom up. Football’s pint is also filling from the bottom up. Despite technology at Spurs, this has almost always been the case.


By now, the details of the situation are well known: in order to make sure everyone at the club was fully awake, Levy announced that 550 non-playing staff would take a 20% pay cut. Levy himself will be involved in this scheme, meaning some of the £7m he earned in the last calendar year will be taken back.

No biological honey on his toast this week then.


It is not known whether Tottenham’s owner, Joe Lewis -apparently worth roughly (it is sometimes a little tricky to get to the final, precise figure when there are so many noughts making your eyes blur) £4.35bn (this from the Sunday Times Rich List, who rejoice in this kind of vulgarity)- will be hit by the same in-house procedure. Levy’s Trumpist addendum that even his Tottenham “the 8
th richest club in the world according to Deloittes rich list” have been hit hard holds little sway. We really don’t care about the state of your media partners, Daniel, or whether the club’s cheese is going off or even that Tottenham lie 8th in the grossest of league tables. And whilst we are looking at you and your ideas in these crisis times, dipping into the government’s emergency furlough scheme when you are running a multi-million pound business is in all probability not the kind of struggling business Boris Johnson and the guys and girls at HM Treasury had in mind, when they announced the emergency aid package. 

They probably won't have been expecting to pay 80% of Liverpool's non-playing staff's salaries either. You really just can't find a good news story around when you need one, although some will work harder than others to put a positive gloss on things, just to keep the nation's morale high. 


You can polish a turd as long as you don't mind getting stuff under your finger nails. (always wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, singing, well, you know the drill by now).

What about those on salaries so high they could each forgo a camouflage Hummer to arrange some shopping deliveries for the elderly community of the Tottenham High Road. Before we explode with indignation, it might be worth remembering that Spain, where Barcelona's squad have agreed to take a huge pay cut, are much further along this crisis line than the UK is. People have had longer to come to terms and to rationalise their own response, although there is clearly no point taking your time to rationalise your response and then responding as Tottenham and Liverpool have... 


Gordon Taylor, for decades a barometer of how football folk approach life’s great causes, has already said his members will block any multilateral deferral of wages. Not the least of Mr Taylor’s shortcomings has been the inability to judge when was an opportune moment to retire from his post.

There will be plenty of players embarrassed by Taylor's response and they will determine their own response in the next few days if their union cannot do that for them. 

Meanwhile our own Premier League bigwigs have been busy conference-calling each other through the night to come up with hair-brained schemes to “get the Premier League done” in any form necessary, including the frankly hideous prospect of a massive wave of football matches being played in concertinaed form, players staying en masse in lock-down viral free Premier Inns and a raft of behind closed doors matches being put on simultaneously in London and the South Midlands. The thought of medics being dragged away from hospitals that are so overworked they are spilling patients out into tents on their front concourses in order to watch over Dejan Lovren for 90 minutes in case he pulls a hamstring is frankly hideous. 



Trying one’s utmost to put on what is evidently not a show for public morale but a dogged attempt to save having to repay tv cash for not fully delivering the product as the contract stated is not the best look at the moment. Self-interest and greed is not a new theme in football, however. What on earth would make humble Burnley club together with the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal to deliver a plea to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to keep City out of Europe? 

Football has been busy eating itself for several decades. Covid-19 has done us all the favour of hurrying up the process whereby we see it for what it is. In the great scheme of things, we can actually do without the white noise of the football press, the endless fabricated transfer speculation, the moral-lite world of agents and advisers, the haggling for million dollar cuts and the gasping and the whooping that accompanies every fart and every burp in our national sport.


The £25m play-off final, the £70m goalkeeper, the £5 pie, the £12 souvenir match programme. The record profit announcement that then follows. 



The last seismic sock in the teeth of this proportion fell upon our heads in 1939. Hitler’s whim that Poland might look nice on his mantlepiece reduced the new football season to dust. Large gatherings were banned, as they are now. The war footing meant that players not only had to curtail their athletic pursuits but were conscripted into the army instead. Imagine that, Corporal Harry Winks and Not Quite Private Enough Jack Grealish. Gas masks were carried by spectators at all times and the employment of officials to disperse larger crowds was also deemed fruitful.

History goes around in tight little circles. 



One wonders, when serious things befall us (and by this, I mean things more serious than losing in the last minute at West Brom or shipping your star forward to Juventus), how some will manage to relativize. The Daily Express, in particular, must be in something of a lather, having succumbed to literally hundreds of front pages down the years saying killer storms would be the end of us and, more recently, that an early judicial block on Brexit was “the day democracy died”. It is quite possible that organs such as the Express have already obliterated their stockpile of hyperbole to such an extent that they are now left to wipe their leaky bottoms on their own discarded back issues.



We have travelled a long way since powdered eggs, however. Our new creature comforts come at a massive cost to the planet. Passion fruit and mangos fly in from deepest Peru. mobile phones drop in from China, cars slide off the ramps from Korea and footballers wing in from Argentina; golf trips are to Dubai instead of the pitch and putt at Timperley. The world is suddenly a small place, but we have also undermined it, made it fragile.

Perhaps now things might change and, just for a while, they may stay changed. For the good of everyone, we must all alter our ways. This has not just been the deprivation of our rights to party and a chance to make ourselves look ridiculous pushing shopping trollies filled to the brim with toilet paper. It is not just an unforeseen but temporary curtailment of our narcissistic lives of puff pastry and caramel frappuccinos. The self-indulgent shallowness of what we have created should be reconsidered. The hollow drum that is modern football must follow suit. It has gone deeper now than paying €175 for a match ticket in the Champions League only to be treated like a two-bit nobody when you try to enter the ground. The time has come to stop milking and start reallocating.  


“A little too late and quite a lot too little …” does not have to be the phrase to mark 2020.


Extract from cover illustration of La Peste by Albert Camus. 



Thursday, March 26, 2020

BLUE BLOOD

Robert Hopkins didn't stay at Maine Road long enough to be appreciated. It was the wrong move at the wrong time, but, as Neil Moxley, a fellow true son of Birmingham, explains, any move away from St Andrews was the wrong move for Hopkins. 

*****

ROBERT Hopkins had blue blood running through his veins – unfortunately, it was the royal blue of Birmingham, rather than the sky blue of Manchester.


Limited as a player and limited in stature he may have been. But he was certainly the sort any team of the 80s wanted in their trenches. In fact, to those who fleetingly saw him play at Maine Road, they may have decided that Hopkins was actually better suited to that line of work.


The only puzzling aspect to the right-winger's career was why, as a die-hard Birmingham City supporter, he ever signed for despised rivals Aston Villa.


Hopkins himself has admitted that during one of his few first-team games for Villa – away at Notts County – he sported a Birmingham City badge over Villa's crest on his claret jersey. Taking a corner, it was spotted by Villa's away fans who began to hurl abuse at him. Hopkins promptly booted the ball out for a goal kick, flicked them the V-sign and ran off, laughing.


Unsurprisingly, shortly afterwards he signed for his favourite club and linked up with the likes of Tony Coton, Noel Blake, Howard Gayle, Mick Harford and Pat Van Den Hauwe. Inevitably, trouble followed the 'Birmingham Six' – both off and on the pitch.


During one match against Watford, play was halted and a policeman strode onto the pitch towards Hopkins who was being marked by Watford's Kenny Jackett. Hopkins went as white as a sheet but the copper walked past him to tell the match official there had been a bomb threat.


“Thank **** for that,” he said to a startled opponent, “I thought they were coming to arrest me.”

Hopkins in typically robust style on his City debut v. Norwich at Maine Road, 3rd September 1986.


Perhaps Hopkins wasn't ever good enough for Manchester City. It was the first time he had ever lived away from his home-town. Perhaps he couldn't settle. 

Certainly, Manchester City never saw the best of him.


Nowadays, Hopkins still attends Birmingham's matches as a supporter. Home and away. He has been inducted into the club's hall of fame, despite a decent, if unspectacular, career.

With respect to his time at Maine Road, it's most likely he was broken-hearted at seeing his lifetime's dreams dashed - being forced to wave goodbye to his beloved club. 

In a world of here today, gone tomorrow, badge-kissing mercenaries, surely he should be cut some slack for that. 

".... a great effort to walk away from trouble...."













Thursday, March 19, 2020

HEAD TO HEAD


Number one in a series comparing the best players in the history of Manchester City.  


Kevin de Bruyne v. Colin Bell


De Bruyne has often been compared to Bell, perhaps still City’s greatest-ever player, although that mantle is under pressure from numerous candidates from the modern era of success. Here we look at the skills of both and try to decide who comes out on top: 10 categories with a final score out of 100. 

1. SHOOTING

Colin Bell’s shooting often provided spectacular goals, none more so than a Van Basten-esque diagonal volley at Stamford Bridge that brought Bell’s trademark nod and hand shake celebration. For England the 9 goals in 48 appearances also included prodigious strikes v Scotland, Wales and Czechoslavakia. Predominantly right footed, with an admirable accuracy from all distances and angles, Bell could not be faulted in this area  9

Kevin de Bruyne has built a reputation for exceptional freekick expertise, scoring some absolutely sumptuous goals in City’s triumphant rise to the top of the tree in England. From rolling clever freekicks under the wall, to curling sublime efforts over and around it, the Belgian has a box of deadball tricks that has few peers. The hit in open play at St James Park in November 2019 contained a power that few in the modern game could have matched, as the ball zipped past Martin Dubravka like a heat-seeking missile, ditto his two-touches -and-smash-it goal v Swansea a year earlier. 9



2. BALL CONTROL

Colin Bell ran City’s midfield with a calm assurance for a decade or so, before calamitous injury forced an end to a majestic career. His use of the ball in all areas of the middle of the park was always exemplary, although the quality of the surfaces on offer in the 70s did not always allow the closest of relationships with the ball. Ironically, it was in getting his studs caught in the turf v United in 1975 trying to control the ball on the run that the horrendous injury occurred. 8

De Bruyne is such a master of the ball that he often seems to be stroking it around while looking elsewhere to see what opportunities are opening up further up the pitch. He is a master of control and of pass length and pace. Seldom does the ball leave his immediate area in a way he has not designed it to. The above-mentioned goal against Swansea involved two gentle touches forward whilst looking ahead to assess space. 9

3. PASSING

Bell’s metronome passing ensured that the great City side of the late 60s and early 70s packed a proper punch. With Neil Young gliding in from the left and Francis Lee hammering through the middle, it was Bell’s laser passing that often put them through or provided the last assist from the right flank 9

Probably the best passer in Europe at the moment, you get the feeling De Bruyne could land a tennis ball on the back of an elephant and make it stay there. Some of his sublime passes to put City’s strikers through to score have been too good to believe. A true master at work, especially when curving low balls in from the right flank that are impossible to defend against, Witness his sublime efforts in setting up team mates week in week out, beautifully illustrated with one of the passes of the season against Stoke 9



4. VISION

Colin Bell could pick out a pass that nobody else in the City side of that era could see. Long and short, nothing phased him, pinging passes across rutted ground and the green grass of early season with equal measure. Thanks to Bell, the likes of Lee, Marsh, Law and Young feasted on a hatful of chances that were more difficult to miss than score. 8

With the master of all impossible passes, David Silva, in advanced pre-retirement days, De Bruyne has taken on the mantle of being City’s chief visionary. That he has done it with complete nonchalance suggests here is a player with a different kind of vision to the others. Sme of his passes find places that do not exist to the rest of us. 9

5. TEMPERAMENT

As seen with his calm handshake goal “celebration”, Bell was always an undemonstrative personality in an era of multiplying drama queens. If the 70s brought a tidal wave of players trying out new hair styles and pushing new borders of extravagant, outlandish behaviour, the shy Bell was not part of that scene at all.  Never less than cool, calm and collected, he was the purest example of good sportsmanship, fairplay and level-headedness. 10

Often in the background when things are getting close to boiling point, De Bruyne’s special abilities sometimes lead to frustration when others cannot match the standards he expects. Wtness arm-waving moments and face pulling exasperation at less gifted team mates who have flunked in his opinion. His “let me talk, let me talk!!!” high-pitched outburst after the Napoli game an example. 8

6. HEADING

Bell scored a fair number of goals with his head and was not averse to an aerial challenge in an era when the ball spent much more time in the air than it does today. High profile goals v Bilbao for City and Czechoslavakia for England (where he was hurt in a brave challenge) prove his ability and courage. 8

Not the Belgian’s strongest asset, De Bruyne is seldom to be seen getting on the end of a cross or challenging for a high ball, partly because the crosses in question are often dispatched from his own boot. 7

 

7. TACKLING

In the no-holds barred days of the 70s, if you wanted to rule the roost in the midfield area, you needed to be able to take care of yourself. Bell’s tackling was fearless and crisp, often starting moves forward that then resulting in an assist from the same player when he had caught up with play. His all action lung-busting style meant that he was often the first man back to block an opposition break after an unsuccessful City attack. 9

De Bruyne is not afraid of a tackle, despite the damage done to his body in various injuries. In today’s game, where players have a more specialised role to play, he can rely on the likes of Fernandinho, Rodrigo and Nicolas Otamendi to do the lion’s share of the breaking up of play, however. 8

8. STAMINA

Malcolm Allison nicknamed Bell "Nijinsky", not after the Russian ballet dancer (although that too might have been apt), but after the racehorse of the time. Here was a player that seldom stood still. Bell’s stamina – as he often admitted himself – was one of the attributes that made him different. 10

Here is a thoroughbred race horse. Like Bell, De Bruyne seems to have an extra reservoir of energy to carry the side when it is flagging towards the end of vital games. 9
  

 

9. SPEED

Bell was not the fastest of players, neither was he a slouch, but he made up for that with non-stop work-rate that meant he was almost always up with play at stages of the game when others were clearly flagging. 8

Deceptively fast despite a languid style and slightly loping gate, De Bruyne is as quick across the ground as he is in his head. 9

10. TEAMWORK

Bell was the one player holding the whole City show together. Never the show-off, his entire ethic was to be of use to the team. His character matched this perfectly, as he was never interested in the personal spotlight. 9

In this modern football world of Instagram, Twitter and high profile sponsorship contracts, all the world’s top performers need to have a marketable personality. De Bruyne, now touted as perhaps the world’s third best player after Ronaldo and Messi, is no different. On the pitch he is a master of bringing others into the game, but contains a streak of individualism the retiring Bell could probably never have mustered. 9


TOTAL:

KEVIN DE BRUYNE 87 - 88 COLIN BELL










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