Jack Hart wrote a piece for Impact a few days ago on the invigorating effect that Jonathon Joseph has had upon England’s Rugby Union side, with the Six Nations well underway. As demonstrated in the piece, Joseph’s jaunty forays through defensive lines have provided England’s backline with the variety it has long been lacking; complementing the power up front which has been England’s trademark over the past years. He’s given the team some flair. This got the author thinking about how a quest to produce players with ‘flair’ has pervaded Cricket and Football as well. It’s not something that has always been very successful. Could it be that there is something in the English sporting environment, culture or production system that stymies the development of initiative and creativity?
Of course, sweeping assertions and base generalisations are an inevitable result of trying to define the characteristics of a nation and its people. It’s called stereotyping. Nevertheless, some useful inferences can be made along the way. It seems too much of a coincidence by my reckoning that in rugby England have traditionally produced powerful forwards but not a tremendous amount of pace and skill among the backs, that England’s forté in football has been producing goalkeepers and defenders and that in cricket England’s players have always seemed to be fiercely orthodox.
It might be useful to briefly consider what we mean when we use the word ‘flair’. It doesn’t just mean skill. There is great skill involved when Steven Gerrard picks out the top corner of the net from 30 yards, but we wouldn’t describe this as a display of flair. Flair seems to indicate an element of individuality; a piece of play that would defy coaching manuals. Flair also seems to result from acts of initiative; it lies beyond the boundaries of tactics or strategy. Demonstrations of flair are also measured by their ability to excite spectators, something which is largely intangible. It transcends the act of a boundary being struck or a goal being scored. Think of Brian Lara, Eric Cantona or Seve Ballesteros. It wasn’t what they did; it was the way they did it.
Anyone who watched the BBC’s coverage of Preston North End vs Manchester United in the FA cup on Monday night would have been struck by the amazing footage of Tom Finney dancing around defenders. Stanley Matthews dribbling abilities were legendary. It would be absurd to suggest that England, and the home nations in general if one wished to consider George Best or Kenny Dalglish, has never produced any flair. John Barnes and Chris Waddle were as exciting as any player in Europe at their best. Paul Gascoigne was a mercurial talent.
It transcends the act of a boundary being struck or a goal being scored. Think of Brian Lara, Eric Cantona or Seve Ballesteros. It wasn’t what they did; it was the way they did it
So there are examples. Nevertheless, England has had far more success in producing goalkeepers and defenders. If one wished to consider the English players of the modern era who could be considered the best in the world in their role you are likely to be restricted to Peter Shilton, Bobby Moore, certainly Ashley Cole, possibly David Seaman and perhaps John Terry. Though Bryan Robson and Steven Gerrard could be said to be the world’s best in their position, they were relied more on dynamic box to box play than ‘flair’.
Moreover, it is noticeable how players with their ‘share of flair’ were not always been utilised fully by the national team. Glenn Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and to an extent Joe Cole are testament to this. Paul Scholes or Wayne Rooney are most likely the closest England have got to genuine ‘flair’ players.
This is all well and good, but quite why this should be the case is extremely difficult to answer. One can only speculate. One theory is that the weather in this country is not conducive to joyful football, or joyful anything for that matter. It is what the writer Martin Amis once called a ‘masochists climate’. Could it be that the expressive and passionate nature of the Spanish, Italians and South Americans, the vulgarism for which is the ‘Latin temperament’, translates itself onto the pitch? A little far-fetched and romantic an idea I think. The Germans have certainly done alright with no extra warmth and sunshine.
Closely connected to the climate however, is the state of football pitches in England, which certainly hindered the attempts of players who rely on technique rather than physicality. Arsene Wenger commented earlier this year that this is one area of immense improvement over the past 15 years and perhaps this is why we are seeing more flair players; Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling for example.
One theory is that the weather in this country is not conducive to joyful football, or joyful anything for that matter
In Cricket, there are similar trends. If you look at England at the current World Cup, they are relying solely on right arm fast medium and orthodox off spinners in the bowling department. England has failed to produce an international class wrist spinner for decades; and there is no doubt, as proficient as Graeme Swann was, that these are the most exciting bowlers to watch. There is a sense of mystery involved and aside from that, they spin the ball further than finger spinners. It’s a difficult art to master, but a cricketing nation like England should have produced at least one wrist spinner by now. I tried to define flair earlier in the piece, and perhaps I should have just said ‘Shane Warne’ who is its embodiment.
In the batting department, there is also a sense that English batsmen are fastidiously ‘by the book’. Kevin Pietersen was not of this mould, and more recently Eoin Morgan (present form accepted) and Jos Butler have brought some unorthodoxy. Both players have backgrounds in other sports, hurling and hockey respectively which is believed to aid their ability to manufacture unusual scoops and glances to beat the field, especially in one day cricket. Nevertheless, it has long been thought that the orthodox style of England’s batsmen has held them back in one day cricket.
Perhaps there is too much of an obsession with the MCC manual. Kids are picked up at an early age, as in football, and given extensive coaching and advise which is admirable. However, it could be argued that Lasith Malinga or Muttiah Muralitharan would never made it in England because a coach would have tried to change their idiosyncratic bowling actions. An interesting thought. Are we in fact, over coached, over informed and burdened with technical thoughts; lacking the rawness of youngsters in India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan? Once again it is a nice theory, but doesn’t fully answer the question.
England’s fraught relationship with ‘flair’ is something of a mystery, but it would be foolish to dismiss the trends altogether.
You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan
Image Courtesy of mirror.co.uk