John Charles – The Gentle Giant.

Two days after Christmas in 1931, the Charles family of 19 Alice Street in the Cwmbwrla district of Swansea had their second child. As the family grew, he would go on to be the eldest of three sons, and second eldest of five children born to Ned Charles and his wife Lilian. A younger son, Mel would go on to become a professional footballer, play at the highest club level in Britain, and represent Wales on the international stage, including at the World Cup of 1958 in Sweden. It’s an impressive pedigree, and yet Mel was only the second most famous son to emerge from that house in Alice Street. The boy who was born on that late December cold winter day in 1931 would also turn to professional football and carve out a career in Britain and abroad that would make him a legend of the game and forever written into the annals of Leeds United. His name was John Charles.

Charles was educated at the local Cwmdu Junior School and, when he at the age of 14, his burgeoning talent as a footballer had already been recognised by Swansea Town, then in the third tier of the English league pyramid, who signed him to their ground staff. With the physique of someone many years older, and a natural football ability, he was marked out for great progress, but the reality of his tender years made the club reluctant to push him too far too quickly, and he never graduated to the club’s first team. A number of appearances for the club’s Reserve team, competing in the Welsh Football League was the limit of his progress at the Vetch Field. Others would not be so reluctant to give the titan of a youngster the opportunity to prove that old footballing maxim that ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.

Gendros is another area of Swansea, half a mile or so from Cwmbwrla, and Charles played for a youth club team there. At 17, he was spotted by Jack Pickard, a scout for Leeds United, and invited for a trial with the Yorkshire club. It took little time to impress the coaching staff at Elland Road and Charles moved to Leeds. The one bone of contention for the club, at the time merely a fairly modest second tier outfit, was where the Welsh tyro should play. Such was the talent of the teenager that every position he was tried in – full back, centre-half, wing-half and even centre-forward – seemed well within Charles’s compass of ability to excel at.

At the time, the club was managed by the legendary Major Frank Buckley and, after reviewing the performances of the Welsh teenager in a variety of positions, across a number of reserve team games, he decided to give Charles his first team debut as a centre half. The game chosen to launch the untapped talents of John Charles upon an unsuspecting footballing world was a Friendly against Scottish club Queen of the South, on 19 April 1949.

Three weeks earlier, Scotland had visited Wembley for a Home International fixture, and returned with a convincing 1-3 victory in front of 98,000 spectators. An England defence captained by Billy Wright and also comprising Neil Franklin, Jack Aston and Jack Rowe had been tormented by the Scots, and especially their centre forward Billy Houliston. It would be the task of the novice centre half, John Charles, to harness Houliston and achieve something

that Wright, and similar luminaries of the English game had failed to do weeks earlier. The game ended in a goalless draw and, afterwards, a frustrated Houliston would remark that Charles was “the best centre half I’ve ever played against”. He wouldn’t be the last forward to voice that assessment across the coming years.

To no one’s great surprise, Charles was retained at the heart of the Leeds defence for the following Saturday, and a league game against Bristol Rovers at Elland Road. Another blank for the Yorkshire club’s opponents added the nascent belief that Leeds had a rare talent on their hands. There were two league games remaining to play out the season and Charles featured in both of them. In the summer, Tom Holley, the erstwhile stalwart centre half and skipper of the team of the team, recognised the reality of the changed situation, and retired from the game to pursue a career in journalism. John Charles had quickly made the elder man redundant and established himself as a key element in the Leeds team. In his new guise, Holley would later write of Charles. “Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week, Billy Wright was asked, who was the greatest centre forward he had faced, and he again answered John Charles.”

The following term Charles played every game in Leeds’s campaign, establishing himself as an outstanding defender and on 8 March 1950, his talents were recognised by the Wales national team when he made his debut for the country in a Home International fixture against Northern Ireland at Wrexham. Needless to say, the visitors failed to find a way past Charles and his fellow defenders, with the game ending in a goalless draw. He was still only 18 years of age, and had become the youngest player ever to represent Wales. It’s a record that stood for more than four decades, until broken by Ryan Giggs in 1991.

From 1950 until 1952, Charles completed two years of National Service with the 12th Royal Lancers, based in Carlisle. The journey was hardly a simple matter but he was allowed to travel back to Yorkshire to play for Leeds as well as fulfilling his duty by turning out for his regimental team that went on to win the Army Cup in 1952 with Charles captaining the team and lifting the trophy. The same period also saw his time on the pitch limited by two cartilage operations.

It was a time when Leeds began to take regular advantage of the versatile nature of Charles’s talents. With the club struggling to find the back of the net with any consistent reliability, Charles was pushed forward into the centre forward position. In October 1952, the move produced instant dividends, with 11 goals in six games. The move had worked but, at the same time, it also illustrated the growing dependence the club had on the young Welshman as, in his absence, the previously almost watertight defence was shown to have as many leaks as a colander. It meant a number of changes between front and back for Charles – often within a game – but he coped admirably and Leeds profited. In a number of games, he would begin as a forward, Leeds would establish a lead on the back of his talents, and then he would be switched back into defence to hold on to the advantage. It sounds like a strange, and somewhat unreal scenario, but it worked and, years later Juventus would adhere to the same formula in Serie A, with spectacular success.

In 1953-54 season, Charles was given an extended run at centre forward and netted an impressive 42 league goals in just 39 games. It was a club record haul and the remarkable strike rate made him the top scorer in the division. He was still in his early-twenties, but now unmistakably the most important, and potent, weapon at the Elland Road club. Inevitably, the Welshman’s success was also beginning to draw admiring glances from both First Division clubs and even abroad, such was the fame of his exploits. Understandably, Charles was keen to progress his career and a desire to play at the highest possible level fed his ambition. 

In 1955, he was appointed as club captain and led the club to runners-up spot in the Second Division and promotion to the top tier of English football. His 29 goals, in the 1955-56 season, as an ever-present across the 42-game league programme, was a key factor in the club’s success. Now at the top level of the English game, there were hopes among the Leeds hierarchy and fans that Charles’s ambition would be sated for a while and, conversely perhaps what would surely be less success for the player in the top tier may dissuade any potential suitors. It was a forlorn hope.

Promotion for any club can lead to a difficult initial period as players struggle to come to terms with the increased demands of higher-level competition, but for John Charles, this was hardly the case. Leading from the front the Welshman scored 38 goals in 40 league appearances establishing a record for the club in top flight competition, as Leeds finished in an impressive eighth position. By now, Buckley had been replaced by Raich Carter as manager of Leeds United, but there was only one man who was recognised as the most important asset of the club, and that was John Charles. In some newspapers, Leeds were even referred to as John Charles United. It was perhaps an exaggeration of his value to the club but, if so, only a slight one. Any doubts as to whether John Charles could deliver at the highest levels had already been brought into doubt with his performances for Wales – but his debut season in the First Division not only dispelled any lingering doubts, it also inevitably intensified interest in him from other clubs.

The white-hot heat of the John Charles talent was simply too hot for Leeds to hold onto, and a deal was agreed with Italian giants Juventus for him to move to Turin at the end of the 1956-57 season for a world record fee of £65,000.  In his final game for Leeds before departing for Italy, they faced Sunderland on 22 April 1957. In what was somewhat inevitably a hugely emotional game, Charles scored twice in 3-1 win to sign off his time at Elland Road. He had scored 157 goals in 257 games for the club, many of them coming from a defensive position. John Charles had joined Leeds United as a young promising teenager with potential as yet undiscovered. At 26 years of age, he left for Italy as the most valuable footballer on the planet. Tall and muscular, but with abundant skill coupled and irresistible determination, quite simply put, John Charles was one of the best footballers ever to draw breath, and comfortably the most complete talent to arise from the British Isles at the time. Years later, Sir Bobby Robson, a playing contemporary of the Welshman would eulogise on the talents of John Charles. “Where was he in the world’s pecking order? He was right up there with the very, very best. Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stephano, Best. But how many of them were world class in two positions? The answer to that is easy: None of them.”

In five years with Juventus, John Charles became a legend with the Turin club. The practise first deployed by Major Buckley, years earlier, of selecting Charles to play as a forward until a sufficient lead was established, before dropping him back to defend was turned into a fine art at the club and, of course he netted the winner in his debut for La Vecchia Signora in a 3-2 victory over Hellas Verona. His first season in Italy saw him become Serie A’s top scorer as Juventus won the Scudetto. It set a pattern. Together with Omar Sívori and Giampiero Boniperti, Charles formed what quickly became known as The Holy Trident as two more league titles followed, together with a brace of Coppa Italia tirumphs. The esteem that the fans had for Charles in Turin was exemplified when, in 1997 at the club’s centenary, the Welshman was voted as Juventus’s best ever foreign player.

In 1962, Don Reive, now in charge at Elland Road and seeking to build the club agreed a record fee of £53,000 to take Charles back to Elland Road. The move caused such excitement among supporters that admission fees were increased for the start of the new season. There’s an old adage in football though that you ‘should never go back’. John Charles was now past his thirtieth birthday and although much of the skill and physical prowess remained, five seasons in Europe’s toughest league had inevitably taken its toll and despite typical application to the cause, it was doomed to fail. Eleven games and three goals were a poor return on the investment and it quickly became clear to the player that, after years of the Italian lifestyle, a return to the British way of life was a bridge too far. Leeds agreed a fee with Roma that would give them a nominal profit on the money given to Juventus, and John Charles returned to Italy.

After once more scoring on his debut, his time in Rome was almost as short as that on his return to Yorkshire. Further moves followed, first back to Wales and Cardiff City – joining younger brother Mel – then to non-league Hereford United in a short period as Player-Manager, before going back to Wales and Merthyr Tydfil and eventually retiring in 1974. He passed away in 2004, aged 85. Perhaps it was appropriate that, in the end, his final illness struck him while in Italy, where had been invited to work as a television pundit. Juventus quickly offered to pay the costs to get him back to Britain alongside his wife, two doctors and a nurse. At 4.30pm on 21 February 2004, at Pinderfields Hospital, he passed away.

A ball boy for Juventus during the great days of Charles’s Italian adventure with Juventus, Roberto Bettega was now president of the club. Speaking after news of the death, his words were for the fans of Juventus, but they would echo the sentiments of the fans who worshipped Charles at Elland Road. “We cry for a great champion, and a great man. John is a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner and represented the sport in the best and purest manner.” Never cautioned or sent off in his entire career, it was a fitting tribute.

Jack Charlton, another of the great Leeds United defenders, and someone who inherited the shirt left by Charles had little doubt about where the Welshman should be ranked among the pantheon of the world’s greatest players, and why. “I had just arrived at Elland Road and they were all talking about John Charles,” Charlton recalled. “He was quick, he was strong, and he could run with the ball. He was half the team in himself. He was tremendous.” But there was to Charles than that. “John Charles was a team unto himself,” Charlton explained. “People often say to me, ‘Who was the best player you ever saw?’ and I answer that it was probably Eusébio, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, Pelé or our Bob (Bobby Charlton). But the most effective player I ever saw, the one that made the most difference to the performance of the whole team, was without question John Charles.” It’s an entirely apt and accurate description. In a period that saw Leeds United rise from being a mediocre second tier club, to one established in the top rank of English football, the overwhelming reason was the emergence and development of John Charles, the boy who came from the Welsh valleys to become a Leeds United legend.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ Leeds United magazine).

Robson – The Sporting Clube de Portugal seasons.

Following his dismissal at PSV, Bobby Robson joined Sporting Clube de Portugal. In a number of ways, the move would be a milestone in Robson’s career, although his time in Lisbon would only last a shade over seventeen months. Portuguese football had traditionally been dominated by the big three clubs in the Primeira Divisão, Benfica, Porto and Sporting. When Robson arrived in the Portuguese capital to take charge on 1 July 1992, between them, the three clubs have been national champions on 57 of the 58 seasons played since the Primeira Divisão was inaugurated in the 1930s. Benfica had triumphed 29 times, Sporting 16 times and Porto on 12 occasions. Only Belenenses had briefly unlocked the Triopoly’s domination – and that was back in the 1945-46 season.

On the face of it therefore, it appeared that Robson was joining one of the country’s elite clubs, with every chance of success. The reality he faced however was quite different. Sporting hadn’t won the league title for a decade – their longest absence from being anointed as the country’s top club in the history of the league – and, in the previous season had finished in an embarrassing fourth place, squeezed out of the top three positions by Boavista. In the season before that, they had finished in third place, but the gap to champions Benfica was a dozen clear points. For both of those seasons, Sporting had been led by the former Brazil captain, Marinho Peres. On 8 March 1992 however, with the club in third place and struggling to keep pace in the league, he was dismissed, António Luís Dominguez replaced him until the season’s end. Whilst, for any new manager, inheriting a successful club is rare indeed, the one that Bobby Robson took charge of on the first day of July 1992 was, in his own words, in ‘a terrible state’.

The former England manager had landed in a new country, to take over a club in decline and run by José de Sousa Cintra, a president that Robson would come to later describe as a ‘loose cannon’. On top of that, the new manager didn’t speak a word of Portuguese and, by and large, the playing staff had a similarly loose grasp of English. There was one major compensation however, that would make itself plain when Robson arrived at Lisbon’s airport. He was met by the man that the club had appointed to ease the new manager through those early difficult days and make communication between him and his players at least functionable. Often described at the time as an ‘interpreter’ even from the start José Mourinho was much more than that, as Manuel Fernandes, the former Sporting playing legend who served as Robson’s assistant explained.

Fernandes knew Mourinho from the time they had worked together at Vitoria de Setubal and Estrela da Amadora. Just 29 at the time, and developing his coaching and tactical knowledge, Fernandes recalled how the Mourinho had studied at school and become fluent in English, and recommended his services to the club – but not only for his translation skills. ‘He was never just a translator at Sporting,’ Fernandes emphasised. ‘I was the first assistant and he was the second assistant. Mr Robson distributed tasks for me and Ze [Mourinho] every day. When he eventually left Sporting, Mr Robson wanted to take Ze with him because he saw what he could do.’

Even with Mourinho there to ease the communication and assist in coaching, plus the services of Dutch defender Stan Valckx, who had followed him from PSV to Lisbon, the first season would always be difficult as Robson sought to bring some order to what was a largely chaotic club run by a president who thought it correct practise to sign players without the manager’s knowledge, let alone his approval.

There was the basis of a more than decent squad present at the club however, with perhaps just the right leadership required to make it blossom. As well as Portugal striker Jorge Cadete, who Robson would turn into the league’s leading marksman in his first season with Sporting, there was also the still largely untapped talents of a young Luís Figo. Still a few months short of his twentieth birthday, the midfielder would be a major asset for the new manager and so impress him, that he would take him to Barcelona a few years later.

The previous term’s fourth place finish in the league had at least ensured European football for Sporting, and they faced Grasshoppers Zurich in the first round of the UEFA Cup. The Swiss club was managed by Leo Beenhakker who had previously been in charge of Ajax, Real Madrid and the Dutch national team amongst many others. Despite their celebrated manager however, Sporting would have considered themselves as strong favourites to progress against a club from what was realistically considered at the time to be very much a second-rate league – especially following the first leg.

On 16 September, with the Primeira Divisão just underway, Robson led Sporting into Europe. Playing the first leg of the tie away, Sporting fell behind to a penalty, ten minutes ahead of the break, converted by Switzerland international Alain Sutter, after Harald Gämperle had been fouled inside the area. With a minute to play before half-time though, Krasimir Balakov, restored parity and secured an important away goal, heading home from a José Leal cross. Things got even better for Robson inside the final ten minutes, as Balakov set up a chance for Andrzej Juskowiak, whose left-footed strike gave Robson and his new team a more than satisfactory away victory. With the home game to come, things were looking bright. Just two weeks later, such assumptions would be swept away as the extent of Robson’s task became clearer.

On 30 September, at the Estádio José Alvalade in front of 40,000 expectant fans, Sporting fell behind to a goal from Brazilian forward Giovane Elber just past the half-hour mark. They still held the advantage thanks to those two away goals, but the lead that had seemed secure was now looking tenuous in the extreme. One more goal for the visitors would drastically swing the balance of the tie. The scoreline remained unchanged until the final half-dozen or so minutes of the game when things deteriorated in a rush of goals.

On 84 minutes, Joël Magnin put the visitors two goals ahead in the game and into the lead on aggregate. Cadete scored a minute later to mirror the scores from the first leg, heading home a cross from José Leal, but it was a temporary respite. In extra-time, it was Elber again putting the Swiss team ahead, and this time the advantage was decisive. Needing to score twice, Sporting fell away and were eliminated.

The old maxim of now being able to concentrate on the league would have offered little comfort to Robson, who needed a period of success to build some momentum to his team. Additionally, Sousa Cintra had, perhaps unrealistic, aspirations of European triumph for his club and, while for the moment, Robson would have been forgiven for failing with a team that had clearly underperformed recently and was new to the Englishman, the following season, European elimination would cost Robson his job.

Former manager Marinho Peres had now landed at Vitória Guimarães, who had finished just one place and three points behind Sporting at the end of the 1991-92 season. Given that the new English coach had been chosen as the long-term replacement for the Brazilian, it’s safe to say that had the Braga-based club performed better than Sporting, Robson’s position would have been in peril. On 28 March though, with Vitória Guimarães in 15th position and in danger of relegation, Marinho Peres was again shown the door. At least Robson had nothing to fear from the Ghost of Seasons Past. 

The league season was very much a mixed bag for Sporting as Robson wrestled to arrest the decline that had set in and point the club in the right direction. They would finish in third place, an improvement on the previous season, and the gap to the top club had closed from 12 points to nine. It was very much a season of transition though, with the benefits hopefully to follow in the new term.

The potential benefits of Robson’s work were already beginning to deliver hints of revival though. In the four games against the other two major clubs, Sporting only suffered a single defeat. A 1-0 loss, at the Estádio da Luz, to a Benfica side boasting the talents of Paulo Futre, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa and Stefan Schwarz was hardly a significant reverse at all though. The next season promised more progress but, three months into the season with prospects very much on the up, the hair-trigger volatility of the club president, would bring Robson’s time in the Portuguese capital to an abrupt end.

In the summer, Sporting had acquired the services of Paulo Sousa from Benfica, and the Portugal international was the ideal creative influence for the side in midfield and the 1993-94 season began spectacularly well. Robson’s team went undefeated for the first eight games, winning seven games and drawing one, including a run of six successive victories from the start of the term. On 24 October, a 3-0 victory over Vitória Guimarães confirmed Sporting’s position at the top of the table and favourites for the title. It seemed that Robson had delivered a spectacularly quick turnaround of the club’s domestic fortunes. Similar progress had been achieved in the UEFA Cup. A first-round victory over the Turkish club Kocaelispor, was followed by success over Celtic. A 1-0 defeat at Parkhead left Sporting with something to do in the return, but a brace by Cadete, with a goal either side of half-time was sufficient to turn the tables and send Sporting into the Round of Sixteen.

Between the two legs of the Celtic tie, Sporting suffered their first league defeat of the season, losing 2-1 at Boavista. It was a blow for the club but, given their electric start, it hardly put a pause into their march forward. Returning to league action after eliminating the Scottish club, a home game against Porto offered the ideal opportunity to restate their title credentials. In a bad-tempered game however, Sporting fell behind to an early goal by Domingos Paciência and, despite pressing, couldn’t get a foothold back in the game.  Successive losses after an eight-game unbeaten run including seven victors, felt like a looming crisis, but Sporting were still top of the league and a home 2-0 win over SV Austria Salzburg in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Round of Sixteen suggested that there was still plenty of hope for the club in European competition.

Four days later, another win, this time in a league fixture away to GD Estoril reaffirmed the Sporting’s domestic credentials and, with a two-goal lead to defend in Austria in the second leg against Salzburg, those two league defeats were now looking like a blip, rather than a sustained problem. The return leg against Salzburg in Austria at the Lehener Stadion on 7 December would, however, be Robson’s last one in charge of Sporting.

Entering the final seconds of the game, all seemed well. Sporting had played out the first 45 minutes without any major problems and, although defender Leo Lainer’s long-range left-footed strike had somehow deceived Costinha in the Sporting goal, two minutes after the restart and offered some hope to the Austrians, entering the last minute of the game, Sporting still led on aggregate. The home team were also down to ten men by this time, after Kurt Garger had been dismissed for a second yellow card offence, handling the ball to prevent Cadete breaking clear of the Salzburg back line, as the home team desperately pressed for the goal that would level the tie. The sending off surely settled the issue.

The 90 minutes had passed with injury time drifting away when a final desperate Salzburg assault saw the ball with Adi Hütter 30 yards or so from goal. With little else on, he chanced his arm with a long shot on goal. The ball bounced on its way, but still, improbably beat a diving Costinha, perhaps hampered by injury, who seemed to misread the pace of the ball. A few second were all that separated sporting, and their English manager, from a place in the quarter-finals. Deep into injury time, the scores were level and extra-time would be required to settle the game.

With both teams tiring, the extra 30 minutes ebbed and flowed, Sporting hit the post but, when the goal came it would be a killer strike for Robson’s team. With six minutes remaining, a fumbled clearance in the Sporting box saw the ball fall towards Hütter who underscored his hero status by volleying an unstoppable shot past Costinha. Shortly afterwards, a truculent Sousa Cintra sacked Robson in a fit of pique.

As with the sacking of Robson at PSV, the move hardly did the club any favours in the short or longer term. Carlos Queiroz was brought in to take over, but the club stumbled from the top spot Robson had taken them to, and finished back in third place. When the Englishman had taken over the club Sporting had been waiting a decade for their next title win. That delay would be extended until the turn of the century, and a further 11 managers would pass through the club before Sporting were crowned as champions once more.

Sousa Cintra’s rationale for sacking Robson had been his failure to deliver European success. The former England manager was dismissed in December 1994. More than a quarter of a century later, Sporting are still waiting for a European triumph. As for Robson, he made the short trip to Porto and began a new project in Portuguese football, delivering success that would have frustrated Sousa Cintra even more.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).

Where ‘Eagles’ Dare – Estádio da Luz.

Since 2011, for every Benfica home game, the Águia Vitória (victory eagle) – in fact a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) – flies over the stadium, alighting on the crest of the club. It is one of the things that marks out this particular stadium as something special. Constructed in 2003 for the UEFA Championships of the following year, Benfica’s Estádio da Luz – Stadium of Light – where the Eagles dare to play such successful football is one of the more iconic football grounds in Europe. Such status if often reserved for stadiums with longer periods of history and whose longevity is replete with episodes of drama or legends of outstanding players, but the stadium located in the aptly named Avienda Eusébio da Silva Ferreira happily, and comprehensively, bucks that trend. Continue reading →

The home of the Dutch Master –  The Johan Cruijff ArenA (The Amsterdam ArenA)

In 1993, work began on a new home for AFC Ajax of Amsterdam. The club had outgrown its previous stadium, the ‘De Meer Stadion,’ where the club had been domiciled since December 1934. Although the old arena had, at one time, held 29,500 spectators, its official capacity of 22,000 was too small for the country’s premier club. Continue reading →

Vicente Calderon Stadium – Dating the Party Girl

Time to ‘fess up straight away. I feel sad that this old stadium has now been earmarked for demolition after Atletico decamped to their new home at the Wanda Metroplitano. I’ve been to games at the Camp Nou many times and – for the main part – watched Barca triumph, and for sure enjoyed the entertainment. For me though it was almost always a scripted sort of fare, as with a theatre, you are promised a quality delivery and get it. Everyone expected a certain outcome, and that’s what happened. There was no glory in the unexpected, no hopes to be fulfilled, and hardly a fear of disappointment. But, on a November day in 2015, I experienced something entirely different at the Vicente Calderón, and that’s why it will always have a place in my heart. Continue reading →

The Stade Louis II – A monument to the innovative design.

In Monaco, the playground of the rich, where untold riches are won and squandered on the turn of a card or where a little silver ball lands on a roulette wheel, and where millionaires’ yachts are but the poor relations of those owned by the billionaires, there’s only one thing more highly prized than money – land. The whole principality covers a little over 200 hectares and, with prices at more than 44 euros per square metre at the time of writing – the highest in Europe, almost double that of the UK, which ranks second – complete utilisation of each precious hectare is of the highest priority. Continue reading →

Fellows Park – Former home of Walsall FC.

It’s a Morrison’s supermarket currently. But where there are now trolleys and aisles, there were once terraces and a football pitch, if not exactly the pristine green sward of poetic verse. I’m talking about Fellows Park, the previous home of Walsall Football Club before they moved to a new ground a few hundred yards away. That the new ground was built on an old sewage works, and the old one was sold for commercial use seems fitting to some, but Fellows Park was the ground where I first fell in love with football, so let’s have none of that sort of talk.

Whilst so many stadiums these days have commercial leanings to their name, Fellows Park was one of a very few, I can only find two more – Bournemouth’s Dean Court and Cardiff’s Ninian Park – who are – or were – named after a person. For anyone interested, it was christened in the 1930’s for the then chairman of the club Mr H L Fellows. Walsall moved to the ground, then merely named Hillary Street for its location in 1896, and aside from a brief interlude due to lack of finance in the early years, played there right up until they left for the new Bescot Stadium in 1990.

I guess my first visit to the ground must have been in the early 1960’s as a callow youth, but attending regularly with my father for the next decade or so, I came to know the ground pretty well. It was basically four-sided with a wooden stand dating back to the 1930’s with a small concrete terrace to one side of the pitch, which had the dugouts in front of it and the dressing-rooms adjacent by one of the corners. Rolling around that end to behind the goal was the ‘Hillary Street’ end. The turnstiles that allowed access to that area being sited in said thoroughfare. Largely crumbling concrete with ill-matching and rusting barriers, that area behind the goal was were the more vociferous fans stood, tightly congregated in small knots of vocal support.

What was then known as the ‘Cow Shed’ perhaps due to the construction covering that side of the pitch was accessed by a pathway of shale and ash behind the Hillary Street end’s corrugated backdrop, which provided a robust bass section to the chants when slapped or kicked in time. The pathway also led to what was obliquely called the ‘Gents.’ This comprised a dug-out area perhaps three metres or so deep surrounded with walls of concrete blocks that formed urinals. At ground level, the blocks were probably a metre or so high, so there was little chance of any discretion. The floor was always awash. There was no roof, but the liquid on the floor was never exclusively rain.

The Cow Shed was of very similar construction, and was usually where I stood, part way back to get a view of the whole game, but near enough to the action. At the back of this area was a refreshments bar. Yes, you could get beer in those days at games. It was probably the best option. Although tea and coffee and the ubiquitous but unnamed pies and pasties were also available, despite the earnest efforts of the staff, it’s pretty safe to say hygiene regulations of today would have precluded any sales from there.

Sweeping around, the Cow Shed ended a little way short of the corner, leaving a shale and unconcreted terrace open to the elements, where another concessions stand was open from time to time. The end behind the goal next was, for a long time termed the Laundry end, as such an establishment was one located there, although it was demolished a few years before I started attending. As it backed onto a railway line, it became known as the Railway End, and was the spot allocated to any hardy away fans.

Yes, looking back, it was probably as grim as it sounds. It smelt of stale cigarettes and sweat – by the ‘Gents’ it smelt even worse – but to a young kid venturing into the world of football Fellows Park was magical.

(This article was completed to complement the’ Stadiums’ series of ‘These Football Times’ website.

‘Beautiful Bridesmaids Dressed in Oranje.

My latest book, ‘Beautiful Bridesmaids Dressed in Oranje’ hits the shelves on 16 June.

Beautiful Bridesmaids Dressed in Oranje is the story of Dutch football and the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. From the history of the game in the Netherlands, it charts the ‘totaalvoetbal’ era in a celebration of the beautiful football that came so close to making Holland world champions.”

There’s no need to wait until June to secure your copy though. The book is available for pre-order now. Use this link: https://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/beautiful-bridesmaids-dressed-oranje. to take you to options of where to buy. At time of writing, it appears that amazon have sold out their pre-order quota but are looking to refill it soon. In the interim, there are a number of other options on the link where you can secure your copy.

Bobby Robson – The PSV Years.

After enduring a dismal qualifying campaign for the 1984 European Championships, a crestfallen Bobby Robson spoke with Sir Bert Millichip, Chairman of The Football Association. Conceding that he had failed, Robson offered to resign from his post as England manager, and recommended that The FA should approach Brian Clough to be his successor. Millichip refused to accept the resignation, many consider because the thought of the bluff and putspoken Clough in charge of England was too much for the stuffed shirts at Lancaster Gate to stomach. Robson was told to soldier on – but do better.

Six years later, approaching the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Robson who had been eliminated from the World Cup in Mexico through Maradona’s sleight of hand, and had led England through the qualifying tournament unbeaten was still in charge. It was at that delicate moment, however, that the very same Bert Millichip decided to indulge in the sort of ‘foot in mouth’ demagoguery that would lead to the Three Lions’ most successful manager since 1966 being ousted from his post. In 2009, after Robson had passed away, Graham Kelly, Secretary to the Football league from 1978 to 1989 and Chief Executive of The FA between 1989 and 1998 detailed the events of the time in an interview with The Guardian. Kelly recalled that Millichip, “let his tongue run away with him, and said Robson either had to win the World Cup or go, and Bobby reacted by approaching PSV Eindhoven.” In Italy, Robson became only the second manager, after Sir Alf Ramsey, in the history of the World Cup to take England to a semi-final of football’s premier tournament, and the first one to do so on foreign soil.  That achievement would not be matched until Gareth Southgate took the Three Lions to Russia nearly 30 years later. Strangely and with the sort of perverse logic that often defines football’s ruling bodies, after backing Robson when he failed to qualify for a European Championship, they had painted themselves into a corner that meant they were losing his services after England’s best World Cup performance for 24 years.

Intemperate decisions are often pinned on organisations like The FA, but this seemed to have been the crassest of ill-considered outbursts. Robson guided England to within a penalty shootout of reaching the World Cup Final. In any other circumstances, his tenure with the national team would have been assured, but when Millichip “let his tongue run away with him” that possibility disappeared into the ether. England’s loss however would very much be to the gain of PSV Eindhoven. To his credit, Robson kept his opinions on the matter very much to himself and merely sought the alternative employment made necessary by Millichip’s errant oratory.

When news of his appointment with the Eredivisie club broke, ahead of the World Cup’s opening game, some media outlets – either bereft of the facts, or with little apparent care for them – took to calling Robson out as a traitor, and accusing him of betraying the national team. An honourable man, Robson was very much a proud Englishman and patriot. The slurs pushed him too far, and led to a successful legal case being prosecuted against the ‘Today’ newspaper.

With the success on Italia ’90 banked, Robson’s stock as a manager was very much at its height and there was every possibility that a top club job would be available back in England for the ex-England manager. Eschewing the easy option however, he had chosen to venture into continental club football with PSV. At the time, some pundits painted a picture of a backwater club offering a semi-retirement role for a manager worn down by the trials and tribulations – not to mention the political backstabbing and intrigues – inherent in managing England. Such descriptions however only portray a lack of understanding of the level of football once the English Channel had been crossed.

In March 1987, after serving four years as assistant to Hans Kraay, Guus Hiddink was promoted to take charge of PSV Eindhoven. The move ushered in a three-year period of outstanding success, both domestically and at the highest level of continental competition. Despite trailing Ajax by three points with just ten games remaining when he was appointed, Hiddink demonstrated the club’s ability to appoint the right man at the right time by guiding the club to the Eredivisie title, coasting to the championship six points clear of the Amsterdam club. It was the opening course to a banquet of silverware.

The following season Hiddink not only delivered a domestic double of league and KNVB Cup, but also took PSV to the heights of emulating Ajax and Feyenoord, by bringing the European Cup back to the Netherlands after defeating Benfica on penalties in the final at Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion. After securing another double in the 1988-89 season, a mere KNVB triumph in 1990 seemed almost like a failure. It wasn’t, of course, But the Dutchman considered it was time to move on and began a journey across clubs the length of breadth of Europe, and beyond, by joining Fenerbahçe.

The move left PSV with a difficult problem. After such a sumptuous period of success choosing the next manager would decide probably dictate the fate of the next decade or so. Select the wrong man and a tumble from the top table of European football would be an inevitable consequence. Make the correct selection however and there was a chance that the ship, left rocking by Hiddink’s departure, could be steadied and success maintained.  

There’s a constant theme of Dutch club success over the years. It seems to require a squad of strong-willed players, often pulling in different directions, but guided by a coach with the skills and man-management ability to both control the players and harness their emotional requirements to produce a united front. Hiddink had demonstrated his ability to do so and, in Bobby Robson, the PSV hierarchy had again demonstrated their ability to pick the right man for the job. 

It would however be wrong to suggest that the move into Dutch football was smooth and success accomplished with some comfort. Both as a player and coach, Robson had been brought to appreciate the English ethics of the game and how a club should be structured with the manager exerting a measure of control over the players, and an acceptance of that from the squad. What he found initially in Eindhoven was therefore very much of a ‘culture shock’. As well as the Dutch players living up to the reputation of being both forthright in opinion and convinced of the validity of their views on most things, Robson also had to contend with the particularly individual approach of Brazilian star striker Romário.

The South American had been acquired by the club in 1988 and been a key element in the success of Hiddink’s team – much as he would continue to be so for Robson’s. The relationship was however, challenging at best and borderline impossible at worst. It required not only the steely determination to insist on matters when required, but also the empathy to understand the amount of latitude that should be given to a player who delivered scintillating performances on the pitch. At one stage Robson even called the Brazilian to a crisis meeting supported by his assistant Frank Arnesen to convince Romário of the need to change his attitude to training and his work ethic in general. It had little effect but, for Robson, there was the compensation of glut of goals delivered by his errant star on the pitch.

In Robson’s two years at the club, the Brazilian delivered 30 goals in 30 games across all competitions in 1990-91 and, despite suffering injuries the following term, still kept his strike rate up, finding the back of the net 19 times in 18 games. Experienced and astute enough to know the difference between the times when authority and empathy are required, Robson accepted the man and his goals as a package that could not be picked apart. The manager’s ability to bend like grass in the wind, rather than remain taut, straightlaced and risk being broken, reaped handsome dividends on the pitch.

There’s one particular story about Robson’s time at PSV that, if true, offers both an insight into his approach to people regardless of their perceived standing, the humility of the man and total lack of arrogance. One day, whilst walking along the corridors of the Philips Stadion, Robson happened upon a fairly low-level worker as they passed. After exchanging the normal greetings, the worker commented on how nice Robson’s shoes were. Without a moment’s hesitation, the story goes, Robson took off the shoes and handed them the worker as a gift. It’s difficult to know if there’s at least a semblance of truth in the tale but, if there is, it offers a glimpse of how Robson not only understood the value of the job he had, but also of those around him too. It’s not quite a ‘give you the shirt off his back’ situation, but it’s certainly heading in that direction. 

In his first season, Robson took PSV back to the top of the tree of Netherlands football, delivering the Eredivisie title on goal difference from Ajax, with Romário the league’s joint top scorer netting 25 times in 25 games. The victory took PSV back into the European Cup, but it would be a short journey. The first round paired them with Turkish club, Beşiktaş, and a 1-1 draw in the feverish atmosphere of Istanbul’s İnönü Stadyumu, in front of around 32,000 partisan home fans was a creditable result.  A couple of weeks later though, things were looking decidedly unsteady when Metin Tekin put the visitors ahead in the return leg. It took until midway through the first period for Gerald Vanenburg to level the aggregate scores, before Kalusha Bwalya secured progress for PSV in the second half.

It had been anything but an encouraging start to the campaign and set the tone for what was a disappointingly short European excursion. A goalless draw at home to Anderlecht in the next round always looked like presenting a difficult task in the return leg away in Brussels, and so it was. An early goal by Marc Degryse and a last-minute confirmation by Danny Boffin closed the door on any hopes of a run towards the later stages of the tournament. The elimination was clearly a disappointment for Robson. For the club however, with memories of Hiddink’s success a siren’s call for more of the same, it flagged up what was perceived to be a weakness in Robson’s management abilities, and a doubt about his future with the club.

The following season, despite losing Romário due to injury, Robson guided PSV to another Eredivisie title, and a further shot at European club football’s ultimate prize. Robson, however wouldn’t have the chance to take the club on another European Cup campaign. Despite the Englishman delivering two league titles in his couple of seasons with the club, there was a hunger – as things transpired, a perhaps unreasonable hunger – to regain the continental success achieved under Hiddink. The perception was that Robson wouldn’t deliver on that, and he was advised that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season.

With typical dignity, Robson accepted the decision and continued his European Odyssey, moving on to another club – and another period of success in a different country. He was replaced by Hans Westerhof, who won the Dutch Super Cup the following season but, compared to Robson’s achievements, it was a paltry triumph. Westerhof only lasted a single season before being moved on, as Ada de Mos and then Kees Rijvers occupied the manager’s chair briefly, and without success. The PSV board had sought to replace Robson with someone who would bring continental success back to the club. Sadly, their ability to choose the right man for the task had deserted them. Even the domestic honours that had become staple fare under Hiddink and then Robson eluded the club. It would take four years and four different managers before the Eredivisie title came back to the Philips Stadion under Dick Advocaat. As with England, who suffered a fallow period under Graham Taylor after Robson was pointed to the exit door, PSV learnt the same harsh lesson that removing Bobby Robson was not the smartest of moves.

It was a decision that the club clearly came to regret and, in July 1998, after success in Portugal and Spain, Robson was invited back on a short-term contract to replace Advocaat who had moved to Scotland and Glasgow Rangers. A single season was hardly sufficient time for Robson to re-establish the success he had achieved but he still delivered silverware with the Dutch Super Cup, now rebranded as the Johann Cruyff Shield, and also ensured qualification for the Champions League. Would he have stayed in Eindhoven had the invitation been offered? It’s difficult to say, but with the opportunity to take over at his home town club, Newcastle united, the lure of going ‘home’ was always likely to have been irresistible.

(This article was originally produced for the Footy Analyst website).

Ronaldo at PSV. The birth of a legend.

In 1994, the Brazil squad that travelled to the USA to compete for the World Cup included a skinny 17-year-old striker named Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. The teenager had only played a single season with Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte but had scored a dozen goals in just 14 league appearances for the club. That record and, more importantly, the promise it held for the future, were sufficient for Seleção coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to include the precocious youngster in his squad.

Although being with the squad was an experience the young striker would rapidly become accustomed to, it was another giddying step along a career path that would mark him out as one of the greatest players of all time. Even at this early age, he had already impressed legendary Seleção defender Cafu, with his goalscoring feats for Cruzeiro. The World Cup winner once watched him score five times in a single game for El Raposa against Bahia on 7 November 1993. “From that point on,” Cafu recalled. “He showed that he was truly a phenomenon.” It was a sound assessment. That young player would grow up to claim that name for himself, becoming known throughout the footballing world as “El Fenomeno” – or simply Ronaldo.

Born in September 1976, like so many celebrated Brazil internationals, Ronaldo was a child of the streets of Rio, learning his game in the  compact backstreets and alleyways of the city, where an ability to control a ball on an irregularly cobbled surface was a prerequisite to even compete, let alone excel. Even amongst the crop of talent that thronged those streets, a nascent ability shone out and he was spotted by another former Brazil star, Jairzinho then working with minor club São Cristóvão, and at 16, he recommended the teenager to his old club Cruzeiro. When the move happened, Roberto Gaglianone, the coach at Sao Cristovao remarked sagely that, “In December 1992 I said I’ve sent a boy to Cruzeiro who is going to be Brazil’s next striker. He will play in the 1998 World Cup. They asked the name and I said ‘Ronaldo’.” The move opened a pathway that would lead to a World Cup adventure and then a move across the Atlantic to join PSV and build a legendary status

For the stars of Brazilian football, the route from South America to Europe’s top clubs was well established, and there was an ever increasing drive for scouting networks to identify potential stars at younger ages to both ensure that their club had the pick of the emerging talent and, just as importantly, to ensure value for money by buying potential, rather than established stars. This meant that word of the young Brazilian striker was already hot news among European clubs, with many keen to sign the gleaming but, as yet unpolished, diamond.

Juventus and Milan had both scouted the player but, at 17, such a move would be a huge gamble for both club and player. A more sensible approach would be to move to a less high-profile club initially, as a kind of stepping-stone, before launching into the rarefied atmosphere of top tier European football. Then under the control of Louis van Gaal and on their way to a Champions League triumph, and despite already having the burgeoning talent of Patrick Kluivert in their ranks, Ajax was considered to be a favoured destination. The 1994 World Cup though would change all of that. Although the young Ronaldo wouldn’t kick a ball in the World Cup, a conversation with a fellow squad member was key in the decision that, instead, took Ronaldo to PSV Eindhoven.

In 1988, then aged 19, Romário had been in a similar situation, and had chosen PSV ahead of other potential suitors, enjoying five successful seasons with the Dutch club, winning three Eredivisie titles and two KNVB Cups, and scoring 128 goals in 148 games before moving to Barcelona in a £2million deal in the summer of 1993. After enduring a trophy-less season following Romário’s departure, PSV were now looking for the next Brazilian star to ignite the new term. As Ronaldo explained, “Romário told me that PSV is one of the most professional and best organised clubs in Europe. He said it would be best to acclimatise in Europe and the learn about European football. I think he is right.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, not only would Ronaldo follow his Seleção team-mate to Eindhoven, he would also later retrace his steps to Catalunya as well. It had been sage advice. Van Gaal publicly consoled himself to the loss saying, “We have Kluivert.” It was true of course, and the Dutchman would become a top European striker. Few however would have chosen him over Ronaldo had they been given the choice – not even Van Gaal.

Despite the encouragement of Romário and the fact that Dutch domestic football was far less a feverish environment than the goldfish bowl existence of players in Serie A or La Liga, moving to a different continent and an unknown language was still a challenge for a teenager and, despite a commitment to learn Dutch, the social transition was not easy even living with both his mother and girlfriend. On the pitch though, things were very different. The ball was still round, the goals were still square, and Ronaldo’s ability to insert the former into the latter was undiminished.

Initially paired with Belgian striker Luc Nilis, Ronaldo’s career with PSV remained goalless for a mere ten minutes. On 28 August 1994, a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, Ronaldo made his debut in an Eredivisie match against Vitesse Arnhem. Entering the tenth minute, a pass was played behind the Vitesse backline. With cool confidence and practised ease, the Brazilian brought the ball under control with his first touch, before firing home right-footed into the far corner of the net. Many more goals would follow. In Romário’s debut season with PSV, he notched a highly impressive 26 goals in 34 appearances across all competitions. Ronaldo would eclipse that total with plenty to spare. In his first season with the club, he played in 36 games, scoring a staggering 35 goals. As part of that haul, 30 goals in 33 league appearances him the Eredivisie’s top goalscorer. The club totalled 85 league goals that term. That skinny teenager contributed almost 40% of them.  There was little doubt that PSV Eindhoven had a burgeoning global star in their hands. It wasn’t however, merely the goals he scored that led to such conclusions, it was also the manner of his performances.

Writing in The Guardian, Nick Miller described the impact that the teenager had in his debut season. “What’s striking about Ronaldo in that first year at PSV is how complete he looks, even as a skinny teenager. Everything that would come to define him – the lightning pace, the blurry stepovers, the implausible impression that he was faster with the ball than without it, even the exceptional upper-body strength – was all there.” The phrase “those blurry stepovers” were a reference to the move that Ronaldo perfected and continued to deploy throughout his career. In modern parlance it’s often described as a ‘Flip Flap’ but to all of those at the Philips Stadion, who watched in awe as the Brazilian tyro bewildered and befuddled his opponents. The move will always be known as Ronaldo’s “Elastico”.

Faced with an opponent Ronaldo would pause for a moment over the ball, swaying slightly like a cobra hypnotising its prey. Then, with the defender’s concentration awaiting the first move, he would slightly nudge the ball in one direction, hypnotically inducing the defender to shift his balance and counter the anticipated move, and in that moment Ronaldo had his opponent beaten. A quick snap of the ankle would then flick the ball in the opposite direction allowing the Mercurial striker to scamper past the beaten defender, leaving him floundering like some dupe, a victim of a conjurer’s sleight of hand. Guardian columnist Rob Smyth would concur with the magician metaphor. “In many ways Ronaldo was the first PlayStation footballer. His stepover was a form of hypnosis, and his signature trick, the elastico, could certainly have come from a computer screen.”

It wasn’t however only the scribes who were impressed by his play. On 13 September, PSV visited Bayer Leverkusen, for the first leg of the UEFA Cup’s opening round. Still five days short of his eighteenth birthday, and only a month or so into his season with a new club, in a new country, on a different continent, Ronaldo would notch a hat-trick and produce a performance that even had the opposition’s players purring with astonishment.

A goal down after five minutes following a strike from Ulf Kirsten, Ronaldo seemed inspired. The first warning came early when a pass allowed the striker to accelerate into a gap and flick the ball past an advancing Vollborn in the Bundesliga club’s goal, but the slightest of deflections from the goalkeeper saw the ball narrowly evade the post. Leverkusen should have heeded the earning. Soon after another chance was created. A neat control and turn deceived a defender, around 25 yards from goal, but the shot flew over the bar, again following intervention of the overworked Vollborn.

Ronaldo would simply not be denied though and, on 11 minutes another scything run saw him latch onto a pass and drive into the penalty area. Playing the ball past Vollburn, the goalkeeper was beaten and resorted to the only recourse open to him to prevent a goal, tripping the teenager as he flew past him. It was the clearest of penalties, and the conversion was the clearest of goals, the ball flying powerfully beyond the reach of Vollburn.

The problem for PSV though was that while Ronaldo was a constant threat at one end of the pitch, they were conceding goals with alarming regularity at the other end. As half-time approached, PSV were 4-1 down. New hope was given though when the Brazilian rifled in his second goal. Instant control, a shimmy to create a small space and a shot that hit the net before Vollburn had completed his forlorn drive were the hallmarks of a master marksman, and PSV had a foothold in the game again. Climbing to his feet, as the PSV players mobbed the teenager, the goalkeeper merely stood there and shook his head in sad acceptance of the fact that sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do.

The second period began in the same way as the first had ended. The game was simply a battle of who could score the most goals. Would it be the entire Leverkusen team, or Ronaldo. Eleven against one. With that one being Ronaldo, it was just about a fair contest. On the hour mark the Brazilian closed the gap even further, coolly converting a cross from the left. From a position of comfort, the Leverkusen game plan had been torn asunder by the teenager. In the end the Germans would score once more, before an exhausted Ronaldo was withdrawn. Nilis added a late goal for PSV, but there was only one star of the game. In a post-match press conference, Germany World Cup winner Rudi Völler spoke for so many who had watched the virtuoso performance. “Never in my life have I seen an 18-year-old play in this way.” How good was Ronaldo? Nick Miller reckoned that he “was a force of nature, a blast of hellfire with a velcro touch and jealous refusal to give up the ball.” It was the birth of a legend. Strangely, in a weird juxtaposition of events, the return leg ended goalless and PSV were eliminated.

PSV would end the Eredivisie season in third place, some 14 points adrift of champions Ajax, but the promise of Ronaldo developing even further, with a full season of European football behind him, was enough to whet the appetite of any PSV fan. It had been a glorious season. On the opening day, PSV fans had welcomed that skinny kid from South America with the long name as a young hopeful, someone who would have done amazingly well if he could even come close to emulating what Romário had brought to the club in terms of goals, excitement and exhilaration. By the end of the season, everyone knew the name of Ronaldo, his compatriot’s achievements had been cantered past and erased from the record books. The greatest prospect in world football was wearing a PSV shirt.

That Ronaldo was exceptional in his first term at PSG is beyond debate but, indulging briefly in that endlessly pointless debate of comparing across eras, just how outstanding was he? At the same age, the two players now regarded as being possibly the best players of all time, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, were still battling to establish themselves. At approximately the same age, the former had played a mere nine first team games for the Blaugrana, scoring just once; still some way from establishing himself as a first-team player, let alone as the most important element in the team. Meanwhile Ronaldo had just moved to Old Trafford and was still regarded as something of a show pony with fancy tricks and step-overs that beat defenders, but with lots still to learn.

In comparison, Ronaldo at 18 was widely regarded as the hottest striking prospect in Europe, if not the world. Surely the future would be even brighter. Fate however had a cruel twist in store for one who it seemed had been favoured so abundantly with the smile of the Gods. Whilst Messi and CR7 would go on to great heights with careers benevolently blessed by an absence of serious injury, Ronaldo would be compelled to endure the things they avoided.

Sadly, although he still managed to notch 19 goals in 21 games across all competitions and a dozen in 13 league appearances, maintaining a spectacular goalscoring ratio, Ronaldo’s 1995-96 season was marred by injury.  His knee had been causing him increasing amounts of discomfort from Autumn, and moving towards Christmas, it was clear that the issue simply wouldn’t just heal on its own. A case of Osgood-Schlatter Disease was diagnosed. Despite the name, the condition isn’t a disease, but a problem often brought on by an excess of high-level physical activity in adolescents undergoing a growth spurt, leading to overuse injury. The opportunities offered by Ronaldo’s precocious talent had also been complicit in his injury.  

Still in his teenage years, the decision was made to undergo an operation to relieve the condition, followed by a period of rehabilitation. For a young man with the world apparently at his hugely talented feet, the shock of realisation cut like a surgeon’s knife. “Football is my life,” he lamented. “If I am not able to play, I am broken.” Fortunately, he was able to return, but the issue of knee problems would persist throughout his career. Although the injury absence meant that his second season was less spectacular than the first, it saw him win his only title with PSV, as they lifted the KNVB Cup.

The double-edged sword of having such a talent at the club was now being felt by PSV. The continent’s richest clubs were circling, casting envious towards the young striker. Soon newspaper reports were dropping heavy hints, doubtless fed by agents or covetous clubs, that a move in the summer was inevitable. It’s not difficult to understand how such coquettish whispers can turn the head of a teenager far from home and fired with ambition. The injury dissuaded some, but down in Spain, Bobby Robson, a former PSV manager now ensconced in the Camp Nou hot seat was firmly recommending the young striker as the man to fire Barcelona back to glory.

The fates were set. PSV would only cherish the exquisite joys of Ronaldo for two seasons before he followed in the footsteps of Romário once more. The Catalans would be forced to pay a reported £12.5million fee to secure Ronaldo’s services as PSV extracted full value for losing their prize asset. Despite the injury, in two seasons he had scored 54 goals in just 58 games.

Two years later, aged just 21, Ronaldo would become the youngest ever player to win the Ballon d’Or. In a landside of votes, 38 ballots were cast in his favour. No one else received any more than two. Robson clearly knew what he was getting. When asked to state the best signing he had made in his long career, there was no hesitation. “Ronaldo was marvellous. He had one year with me at Barcelona, I bought him from PSV, and he was out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete, a nice character, respected me and it was sad he only played eight months for us there. […] The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.”

In the remainder of his career, before returning briefly to Brazil to play out his career with Corinthians, Ronaldo would not only play for Barcelona, but also Real Madrid, and both Inter and Milan as he completed a tour of the continents most celebrated clubs. Across his time in league football for the various clubs he played for, 343 appearances would bring almost 250 goals. Given that so many of these were delivered at the highest levels of competition, it’s a hugely impressive record. He would also play 98 times for the Seleção, scoring 62 goals.

On so many occasions, it’s often only the wealthiest clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Inter, Juventus, perhaps Manchester United, or latterly PSG – that can claim to have numbered the world’s greatest stars amongst their players, and counted their ‘golden days’ in their colours. Sometimes though, just sometimes, a new star is not only revealed at a different club but achieves legendary status there. Such an occasion was when that skinny 17-year-old Brazilian kid landed in the Netherlands and joined PSV Eindhoven. In two seasons he became a legend. It’s a legacy few clubs outside the elite half dozen or so can claim, but at the Philips Stadion, the memory of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima wearing the red and white striped shirt is treasured for all time.

(This article was originally prioduced for the These Football Times ‘PSV Eindhoven’ magazine).