Appreciating aerial prowess – a very English thing?

Andy Carroll playing for West HamSometimes I think we get so caught up by the obsession of playing like Barcelona that we overlook the skill of being able to head a ball. Andy Carroll’s performance on Saturday against Swansea – in which he set up both goals for Kevin Nolan in West Ham’s 2-0 win – was one that got me thinking about aerial prowess – and how few teams at the top level can deal with it effectively.

Jose Mourinho may have called it 19th century tactics but I don’t mind watching a side that plays route one football. It’s effective. After all, it’s a tactic that even the best sides in the world resort to when they get desperate. They understand that launching the ball to a bunch of brutish bastards in the opposition’s penalty box is a much quicker way to grab a goal (if not aesthetically pleasing).

However, it’s also worth noting that there’s nothing worse than watching a team play direct football when they’re really not good at it.

I dunno… maybe it’s because I’m English, and there’s something inside me that ignites when I see a really effective target man doing his duties up top. Alan Shearer was never blessed with pace but was devastating in the air. Even at Grimsby Town we had Steve Livingstone, who was prepared to sacrifice his looks on order to throw his face into the ball at every opportunity. Mind you, when you have no looks to write home about in the first place, maybe it’s easier to make that decision to throw your head into an area where other players’ football boots are flying around.

There was lots to admire about Carroll’s performance at the weekend. In my eyes he represents a style that has been slowly squeezed out of the English leagues because it’s just not sexy, but his assists for Nolan’s goals demonstrated the skill that’s needed to be a powerful player in the air. And for all the extra inches Peter Crouch has on his opponents, I’d rather have Carroll underneath a ball that’s coming down into the six yard box with snow on it.

When I was younger my grandad used to tell me about an old Grimsby forward by the name of Billy Cairns. He used to claim that Cairns was the best player he’d ever seen when it came to heading a ball – and, as I understand it, Cairns wasn’t particularly tall either. I wouldn’t mind being able to travel back in time to see just one Cairns performance – mainly to see how good he really was, but partly to watch the Mariners play as a Football League side at a time when Blundell Park could pack in more than 20,000 fans.

There’s something quintessentially English about the workhorse up front. It represents someone that may not be regarded as the most talented, but has the strength and commitment to do the job that very few others are prepared to do. Carroll may not get all the goals, but he, like any other battering ram up front, should take an equal share of the glory that comes from when his smaller, nippier strike partner scores the goals.

In December 2002 Grimsby beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 in a second division clash. In the 49th minute our central defender at the time, Georges Santos, towered above everyone to power a header into the top corner. There’s a picture of that moment somewhere online, but after a quick search I wasn’t able to find it. In that moment you get to appreciate both the force and skill of a headed goal. Santos climbed so high that at the moment his head connected with the ball, he was at a height greater than the crossbar. The image just oozes power.

Just because it’s not pretty, it doesn’t make a good headed goal any less admirable. Carroll, like many other target men before him, must be a nightmare to defend against – especially for those modern ball-playing centre backs.

A lot has been said about the technical ability of English players – it’s not part of our culture. It’s never been part of our DNA. So nothing would give me greater pride than to see England go to the World Cup in Brazil later this year and out-do their opponents with old fashioned centre forward play.

English football has always been about power, strength, honesty and bravery. There’s obviously more than one way to play football and I’m not for one minute trying to suggest that route one is the best way (or that England are going to win the World Cup). Against Swansea, Carroll reminded me that old fashioned, direct centre forward play can still be appreciated on a technical level – and there will always be a place for it (even in modern football).

Oh, and if anyone knows where I can see that image of Santos scoring against Sheffield Wednesday then I’d really appreciate a link!


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