Category Archives: Player Profiles

Les Ferdinand – The Toon’s instant hero.

Sometimes achieving hero status at a club can take a while. You labour long and hard for a club, offering dedicated service, often playing through injury, and never giving less than 100% effort for the cause. For others, however, there’s an aura that they bring with them, they fit perfectly into the template that the club – and the fans – are looking for. When Les Ferdinand joined Newcastle United in 1995 as the St James Park club paid QPR £6million for his services, he was already an established star, an England international and the complete article as a centre forward. The famous Newcastle United number nine shirt fitted him like a glove.

In his first term with the club, Ferdinand’s goals and powerful presence leading the Magpies’ line convinced, many on the Gallowgate decided that here was the next true Geordie hero in that famous striped shirt. Heir the likes of Milburn, under the tutelage and rampaging ethos of Kevin Keegan, Ferdinand delivered from the off.

Netting 25 times in just 37 league outings, Ferdinand’s arrival and contribution was one of the main reasons that Newcastle were to come oh-so-close to lifting the Premier League title. At one stage, they were twelve points clear of rivals Manchester United, but Ferguson’s team’s relentless pursuit eventually wore down Keagan’s entertainers, being crowned champions by four clear points. A disastrous run from the end of February saw four defeats and a draw in six games, as the wheels came off and Ferguson eased his team over the line.

It was a time when what was truly an outstanding season for the club felt so much like a loss. Newcastle had come closer than any of the Toon Army had dared hope to that title, and in the wake of that disappointing run, Keagan felt that further team strengthening was required. For Ferdinand however, the season was a personal triumph. As well as his goal haul, he was named as Player of the Season, and given a place in the Premier League Team of the Season. Of all the positions in Keagan’s squad, it seemed that the one least likely in need of added strength was the strike force. The manager though had other ideas.  Ferdinand’s strike partner in that fantasy line up – Alan Shearer of Blackburn Rovers – would be the surprise addition to the Newcastle squad, with a world record price tag hanging around him.

When the home town hero returned to his native Newcastle, Ferdinand was persuaded to hand over the number nine short to the new arrival, and although it was probably never said in such frank terms, the position of the club’s key striker was also passed on at the same time. To his credit, Ferdinand accepted the move with good grace. Whilst many others would have been tempted to stamp their feet petulantly at such a perceived insult, and demand a transfer, Ferdinand merely buckled down, continuing to give of his best in the interests of the club. 

The following term, with Shearer now positioned alongside him, although perhaps the reverse description would be more accurate, Ferdinand played both goalscorer and provider. Still managing to notch an impressive 21 strikes across all competitions, he also provided the muscle and power as Shearer’s side-kick; a role that hugely contributed to the club skipper scoring 25 league goals and topping the Premier League scoring charts. At the end of the term, Newcastle would again fill the runners-up spot to Manchester United, but this time, the yawning gap of seven points reflected a more season-long forlorn quest to topple the champions, rather than any late calamitous fall. It was a pursuit hardly helped when Kegan surprisingly decided to quit the manager’s chair midway through the season, being replaced by Kenny Dalglish. The move also heralded the end of Ferdinand’s time at St James Park.

Despite Keegan’s avowed adherence to ‘cavalry charge’ football, with the two-pronged forward line of Shearer and Ferdinand, Dalglish had other ideas. By the end of the season, it was clear that one of the two strikers would be moved on to raise funds for other purchases. There was no way the onus would fall on Shearer, Ferdinand was inevitably the fall guy.

It seems likely that, in an ideal world, Dalglish would have preferred to keep both his star strikers, but with Shearer the established and undoubted number one choice, it would have meant an extended time out of the team for Ferdinand, and at that time of his career, it was never going to be a viable proposition. When Spurs came in with a bid that would give Newcastle the money back that they had paid to QPR for Ferdinand’s services two years previously, the club accepted the bid, and Ferdinand took a ‘Shearer-esque’ move himself – also returning to the club he had followed as boy.

Some moves work out better than others however, and often emotion can cloud judgement. Although the striker would stay at White Hart Lane for some five seasons, he never hit the heights of goalscoring prowess that he had achieved in black and white stripes. His 33 league goals for Spurs across those five seasons compares unfavourably compared to 42 strikes in just two years at St James Park. Ferdinand too, later regretted the move. Saying later to Sky that he had wanted to “stay at Newcastle for the rest his career.”

Two years is a short time to endear yourself to a group of fans, but there was an undoubted affection between Les Ferdinand and the fans on the Gallowgate and around St James Park. In 1997, during his first game back at the ground wearing Spurs colours, Ferdinand was moved by the fans’ reaction to him. Talking to the Newcastle Chronicle, he related that, “At the end of the game, as soon as the whistle went, all the supporters started singing my name. Jesus,” he added. “I didn’t expect that. It was unreal. When I speak to people now and say I was only in Newcastle for two years, they cannot believe it.

(This article was originally produced for the Pundit feed website).

Josef Masopust – A golden career and 100 seconds of immortality.

Santiago, the capital of Chile was enjoying a balmy summer afternoon on 17 June 1962. The hot sun beat down, precluding almost all strenuous activity and everything was quiet and relaxed. Except that is for the area within and surrounding the Estadio Nacional, where the World Cup Final was being played between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. The game had started fairly evenly, with the Europeans pressing eagerly, but Brazil, even without the injured Pelé – ironically injured in a group game against the same opponents a dozen days earlier, looked dangerous. As the clock clicked around to 2.45pm local time though, the first goal was scored. Despite the reigning champions being widely favoured to retain the trophy, the strike came at the other end of the field.

Collecting the ball inside the opponents’ half, Sokol OKD Ostrava outside right, Tomáš Pospíchal ran forward across field before jinking right towards the Brazil area around 25 yards from goal. Looking up, he noticed the run of a team-mate towards the Brazil box. Stabbing the ball into the gap, soon to be filled by his team-mate, he paused as the white-shirted player reached the ball ahead of Gilmar and central defender Zózimo, before driving home right-footed under the diving goalkeeper and into the corner of the net. As the defender and goalkeeper fell into each other in a crumpled heap, Josef Masopust spun away, arms aloft in joyous celebration, soon to be engulfed by Pospíchal and his other team-mates. On that June day, at that moment, Czechoslovakia were ahead, and on their way to becoming champions of the world. Sadly, for the Czechs, the dream would only last around 100 or so seconds before a speculative shot from a tight angle on the left-hand side by Amarildo somehow deceived the previously excellent goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf at the near post to bring the scores level. 

Ahead of the final, Schrojf had conceded a mere four goals, three of them in a dead rubber of a group game against Mexico when qualification had already been secured. His error however all but doused the Europeans’ aspirations, as Brazil would contain any further thrusts from them and go on to score further goals from Zito and Vavá to ensure that the Seleção would become only the second team in history to retain the Jules Rimet trophy, following the successes of Italy in 1934 and 1938. Masopust’s goal was relegated to being a footnote in the history of football but, for those 100 seconds, the country’s greatest player had offered up the dream of the most unlikely of victories. Later, he would relate that, “When we qualified in 1962 people were telling us, ‘When you get there, don’t even bother unpacking because you’ll be coming back straight away.’ Even when we were leaving for Chile, no one came to wish us good luck or anything.” For those one hundred seconds though, such thoughts were put aside, and anything was possible, and Josef Masopust touched immortality.

Born in Střimická, then Czechoslovakia, but in an area now part of the Czech Republic, on 9 February 1931, the fourth of six children in the family. The village no longer exists, as it was demolished to allow extraction of coal in the 1950s. The young Josef Masupost though would endure the torrid times of German occupation as a young child though, when the village, part of the Most district in the Ústí nad Labem region was used as a forced labour camp by the invaders to extract the precious fuel from the ground.

At the end of the hostilities though, the now teenage Masupost began his career in football by joining the nearby ZSJ Uhlomost Most club, playing in a local league where he spent five years in the backwater of the burgeoning country’s sporting regeneration learning his trade. By 1950, now an accomplished 19-year-old midfielder player, he was ready for the step up to the big time as he joined first division club ZSJ Technomat Teplice. At the time, conscription into the armed forces was in force and after completing his term, he joined the club that would later find European fame as Dukla Prague, but were then known as ATK Praha. He would play for the club for 16 years winning eight league titles and three national cups. Dukla Prague also reached the semi-finals of the 1966–67 European Cup, before losing out to Celtic, who went on to win the competition.

Before that though, there was a prestigious game played in Mexico in 1959 that, although no one knew at the time would serve as a dress rehearsal for that World Cup final three years later. Dukla Prague were on a tour of Latin America and one of their scheduled game was against Santos in Mexico City. Rudolf Kocek, the former chairman of the club and the Czech football association, would describe it as his “most memorable match.” The previous year, a teenage Pelé had led Brazil to World cup triumph in Sweden and Santos were widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading clubs.

All conditions seemed to favour a South American triumph. The game as played at noon as, the story goes, fans could not only take in the game but also move on to watch the bullfighting in the cool of the evening. The crowd of some 90,000 seemed to bear out the theory. Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians felt more at home in the heat and were quickly two goals clear, but Masopust would drive his team forwards, not only subduing the prodigious skills of the player destined to become lauded as the greatest on the planet, but also notching two goals as the Czechs fought back to win 4-3. It was a titanic achievement and put down a marker for the future had it only been recognised.

It’s true to say of course that while Pelé was still a teenager Masopust was now entering the prime years of his career. He had a natural athleticism that, coupled to a unique dribbling style of swaying past opponents, often described by fans as ‘the slalom’ made him the almost complete midfield player, and yet he also had a feverish appetite for work. Many, at the time, compared his style to that of József Bozsik, a star of the Magical Magyar Hungarian side that dominated so much of international football in the 1950s. Some criticised an apparent lack of ability to win the ball in tackles when defending, but an innate ability to read the game, more often than not, allowed him to anticipate opponents’ passes, cutting off attempted moves and springing his team forward with dribbling or accurate passing. His value to Dukla Prague is illustrated by the fact he played almost 400 games for the club, scoring 79 times and creating many others. Although as he later lamented, “We didn’t get paid as such, just our army wages.”

Czechoslovakia had qualified for the 1958 World Cup, but had failed to escape from the group stages, eventually losing out on a play-off against Northern Ireland. Despite the progress of Masopust and Dukla Prague in the intervening years therefore, and a third-place finish in the first European Championships in 1960, the low level of expectation as the squad left for South America was probably entirely reasonable. 

The Czechs were based in the Pacific coastal city of Viña del Mar in the Valparaíso Region and would play all of their games at the compact Estadio Sausalito, where the crowd attendance never topped 15,000 for any of their games. On the last day of May 1962, they began their campaign with a game against the fancied Spain team featuring the likes of Luis del Sol, Ferenc Puskás, Luis Suárez and Francisco Gento. Brazil had already comfortably beaten Mexico 2-0 the previous day, with Zagallo and Pelé getting the goals. It was likely that all of the other teams would be playing for second place in the group.

If the Brazil game had been one of open flowing football, this one would never reach such heights. In a physical encounter, with excesses from both sides, a goalless draw seemed the likeliest of outcomes until, with just ten minutes remaining an error, and squandered possession, saw Jozef Štibrányi break clear to score the winner. It had been the sort of encounter where the dynamic play of Masopust would excel and he did as much as anyone in the team to guide the Czechs to victory. There was just a couple of days break before the game with Brazil. The South Americans had enjoyed an extra day’s rest, but that wasn’t the main difference between the teams.

The game, as a contest was probably ruined midway through the first half when Pelé tore a thigh muscle. In these days, substitutes weren’t allowed and Brazil were compelled to place the limping star player out on the flank as a passenger to the team. It meant that the game fizzled out a goalless draw, but Masopust remembered a specific incident in the game, when facing the limping Brazil number ten. “At one point, he had the ball on the wing. I ran to close him down. I was going to finish him off but when I was about a metre and a half away, I saw he was injured so I pulled up so I wouldn’t make things worse for him. When he saw this, he kicked the ball out of play.”

In the other game, Spain defeated Mexico, and would face Brazil in their final game. On 6 June, even without Pelé, Brazil overcame the Spaniards 2-1. It meant that Czechoslovakia were guaranteed qualification, and despite Václav Mašek scoring the fastest goal in World cup history, netting after just 15 seconds, the Mexicans rallied to restore a bit of pride and won 3-1.

The quarter-finals pitched Masopust and his team against fellow East Europeans, Hungary. Despite the flowering talent of Flórián Albert, this was no vintage Hungary team, and certainly a pale shade of the cherry red shirted players who were now scattered around Europe following the Soviet Union invasion of their country. That said, they had still topped their group, forcing England into second place. In a tense and close game, it was Masopust’s first-half precise through ball that deceived the Hungarian defence and set up Adolf Scherer to score the only goal of the game. Although Hungary pressed for much of the second period, even striking the bar on one occasion, Schrojf and his back line held out to send Czechoslovakia into the last four.

The quarter-final had seen the Czechs travel to the Estadio El Teniente in Rancagua, but the semi-final, again facing another Ease European team, would be back at the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar. On 13 June at the Estadio Nacional, Santiago Brazil defeated hosts Chile 4-2 in front of more that 76,000 fans. At the same time, Czechoslovakia faced Yugoslavia with less than 6,000 fans watching for the right to play the holders and reigning champions in the World Cup Final. The game was refereed by Swiss official Gottfried Dienst who, four years later would be in charge of the World cup Final at Wembley and decide that Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line to give England a 3-2 lead. This game had far less controversy with the fist period being goalless before Josef Kadraba gave Masopust’s team the lead three minutes after the restart. Dražan Jerković equalised with 20 minutes to play, but two goals inside the last ten minutes, the second a penalty from Scherer saw the unlikely Czechs bounce into the final.

The game would be played on 17 June, a special date for Masopust. “The day of the final was special for me,” he recalled. “Not only because I was about to play in the World cup final, but also because it was my wife’s birthday. So I would have the chance to celebrate two things that day if it had worked out differently.” Sad to say however, that even if the Czechs had prevailed, celebrating his wife’s birthday would have been a long-distance affair. Whenever the team travelled abroad, at least one family member of each player was required to stay at home to ensure that the other didn’t defect. It was a fuel and heartless, but hardly unusual, display of paranoia by the Eastern Bloc regimes, and would hardly have been inspiring for the squad, but it was just the way of things at that time, and there was little point in questioning it.

Whilst Brazil were overwhelming favourites to win the game, even with Pelé merely a massively interested spectator, the Czechs knew their place in the great scheme of things. “I have to be honest,” Masopust confessed. “And say that we didn’t really believe we could win against brazil. We knew the quality of their squad and we didn’t really believe it.” Their preparation was hardly helped by a pre-game presentation to Schrojf for being the tournament’s outstanding goalkeeper. It was more than a little ironic given the error in the game that cost so much.

Having played in front of small crowds in compact stadiums, going out into the bowl of the Estadio Nacional with nearly 60,000 people jammed in was an entirely different experience. “Only when we went out in the tunnel, did we hear the noise and the atmosphere ahead,” Masopust recalled. Fifteen minutes later, his name was briefly written into World Cup history. Understandably, he remembered the event clearly. “We were attacking down the left wing. I was running into the box and I saw a gap in the defence. I got the ball, so I just hit it in the net.” And then the understatement. “I was happy.” As mentioned though, that elation was fleeting. The hundred seconds were already ticking away. “But before I could comprehend the joy I should have been feeling, they scored and ruined it for me.

The game ended 3-1 and the Czechs accepted their fate with all due humility. “We felt we’d done our best, but Brazil were just the better team. We really had no grudges after the match.” The team that had slipped out of their country to head to chile with barely an echo of support were greeted back home as heroes when they returned though. “It had changed 100%,” Masopust recalled. “We could hardly get through customs. It was crazy.” Much as with his goal though, the fame and celebrity were fleeting. “After that, though, I think our lifestyle was pretty much the same as before. From the fans’ point of view, it was a huge success, but officially not really. We only got 5,000 Czech crowns (equivalent at the time to around 180$), from which they wanted taxes. We were quite disappointed.” Despite that period of disillusionment, the successes of Josef Masopust were recognised when he was awarded the Ballon d’Or later the same year.

Four years later, after Czechoslovakia failed to qualify for the 1966 World cup, Masopust retired from international football. As a reward for his services to his country, he was allowed to move abroad working as coach, first in Indonesia, and then latterly back in Europe, in Belgium.  Prague was his adopted home city though and he later returned to live in his old army flat overlooking the Dukla Prague stadium, where he died in 2015.

Papin!

papin

“If we had had Jean-Pierre Papin  up front, we would have won the World Cup in 1982!” It was a plaintive lament from, Michel Hidalgo, a frustrated coach, looking back. He had seen his team entertain and entrance, but lack that killer instinct, bereft of a striker with the gift of scoring, someone who would convert the footballing domination of his team into goals. He knew who the perfect fit would have been but, unfortunately for Hidalgo, Papin was still in the ranks of junior football at the time, with INF Vichy. Continue reading →

Ali Daei – International goalscorer extraordinaire!

Ali Daei

So, here’s a question for you? Who do you think had scored the most goals in international football? Pelé? Nope, not even close. Ronaldo? Closer, but no cigar. Ferenc Puskás I hear some of the more ‘mature’ voices claim. Well, not quite, although he was the record holder until 2003. Continue reading →

Steed Malbranque – One of Tony Blair’s ‘favourite’ footballers.

Steed Malbranque

 For reasons surpassing normal logic, former prime minister Tony Blair was invited onto the BBC’s Football Focus programme in 2005 to discuss his supposed love of the beautiful game. When asked to name his favourite players, the politician apparently went with Teddy Sheringham, Arjan de Zeeuw, and Steed Malbranque. Continue reading →

Carlos Kaiser – The ‘real’ (well not quite) False Nine.

Carlos Kaiser

The title may be a little misleading. If you don’t know the story, let’s make something clear from the start. It’s questionable if there was anything genuinely ‘real’ about the footballing career of Carlos Kaiser. To begin with, Kaiser isn’t really his name. Brazilian footballers often get tagged with a nickname, or a derivation of their real name, that then becomes known the world over as their official footballing nomme de guerre. Pelé being a prime example, although Edson Arantes do Nascimento is a bit of a mouthful anyway. Continue reading →

Giuliano Sarti – The ‘Ice Goalkeeper’.

Sarti

 On 5 June 2017, in the Italian city of Florence, Giuliano Sarti, one of the most decorated goalkeepers in the history of Italian football passed away following a brief illness, aged 85. Sarti had been a prominent member in two of the country’s greatest club sides. In the fifties, he played under Fulvio Bernardini at Fiorentina as I Viola topped Italian football securing the Scudetto in 1955-56, and losing controversially to Real Madrid in the second European Cup tournament. The Coppa Italia and European Cup Winners Cup were later added with legendary Hungarian Nándor Hidegkuti in charge. After almost a decade in Florence, he would join Inter Milan in 1963, becoming a key element in the success of Helenio Herrera’s ‘Grande Inter’ team, winning a further two Scudetti, successive European Cups and Intercontinental Cups. On the way, he would also become the only Italian goalkeeper to appear in four European Cup Finals. Continue reading →

Dancing shoes and explosive goals – The varied career of ‘Dinamita!’ Joffre Guerrón.

Dinamita

If asked to suggest the greatest players to emerge from South America this century, very few, if any, would raise a hand to make a case for Joffre Guerrón. Perhaps however such lack of recognition would be inappropriate. Despite often being regarded as merely one of the better, rather than greats, of his era, he was twice lauded as the MVP of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club tournament. Such rare accolades that fall to very few once, let alone twice. Continue reading →

Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s Pass Master.

On 1 June 2018, the man who, less than a week later, would be appointed as manager of Segunda División B club Real Sociedad B, quietly settled into his seat at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. He was there to watch former club, at which he collected a Champions League winner’s medal, and the words inevitably playing through his mind were of a different song, one that asserted no-one who was part of that footballing family – one he felt strongly that he belonged to – should ever feel alone.  Xabi Alonso, was there to watch Liverpool win their sixth title as Champions of Europe. Continue reading →

The tragic tale of Roma legend Agostino Di Bartolomei.

Any footballer’s career can have many peaks and troughs, almost regardless of the level at which they play. Games won or lost. Goals scored or conceded. Moments of exaltation mixing freely with others spent in sad reflection of errors made or chances missed can be a toxic and highly volatile cocktail. It’s rarely the case however that the absolute zenith and nadir of a career can occur at almost one and the same time. For Agostino Di Bartolomei, captain of AS Roma at the time, some would argue that is precisely what happened on the penultimate day of May 1984, when his club faced Liverpool in the European Cup Final staged at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Continue reading →