Could Past Greats Cope?

24 Mar

A question I get asked perhaps more than most is how well do I think the top players of past eras would get on today? Fergie and many others claim the best players of yesteryear would be great players in any era. Personally I have my doubts about this as I think you can only have so many great players at any one time, the very special ones stand out.

While I cannot conclusively answer the question I can give the reader some tools to analyse the question seriously and be able to give a more informed opinion. I will use the English league as the basis of most of the discussion but the analysis evidence can easily be transferred over to any league. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages of playing in both eras.

Firstly I will state that  the quality of modern-day football is at a far higher standard than it has ever been. In the past decade we have moved towards a global game with the best players from all over the world playing in the premiership, while in was rare to see non-British players playing in the prem during the 50s, 60s and 70s.The first World Class player from foreign shores was probably Ardiles in 1978. Over the past decade we have seen Ronaldo, Henry, Vieira, Drogba, Essien, Cech the list goes on and on and even the so-called average foreign player has lifted the standard unquestionably. Moreover the development of training methods and fitness regimes and medical advances help players to reach levels of fitness unseen in previous eras. The development of squads has allowed players to become athletes of the highest order, previously players were trained to last the season as squad rotation was never an option. If you have ever trained to the peak of fitness you will know it is much easier to get an injury. As a consequence of this each game fans get to see fresh players, much fitter, better prepared with less niggles turn out each week. This increases the level and players have to keep improving or they wont stay in the team or league very long. Having these advantages would almost certainly improve the players of previous eras.

The pitches are superb today and made for football, after a few months in the past eras players had to play in mud heaps, or/and frozen pitches, grass and smooth surfaces were soon gone. The balls when wet increased in weight  up to 20 percent, the boots and shorts hardly comparable to today’s designer technology. Moreover players were allowed to get away with GBH before being booked and skilful players were quite rare as they could be fouled out of games. These factors resulted in the type of play and the reason for the evolution of the long ball and physical demands of the English game and the emphasis on teamwork and work rate.

Perhaps the biggest change has been tactics, Busby’s favourite pre match saying go out and enjoy yourself with little consideration to the opposition is a thing of the past. Today tactics, systems and knowledge of individual players is critical to success.

However a critical factor is that if we look at players they go through eras without a mass exodus, this tells us that players rise to the challenge. And the incremental improvements in the standards most season are something players can and do take on board. Charlton was a top player in the 50s 60s and early 70s. Giggs I would argue has played some of his best football after the age of 35.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player and thought the standard of the game has surpassed him now without reference to his age.

I think however if a player was to be a top player in the 1950s and suddenly  moved in to the modern-day he would struggle, he would be lost, the game is so different but going through a timeline of gradual changes it is easier to adapt and change small parts of the player’s game.

And of course the size of players has changed considerably, a big strong player in the 50s may be seen as relatively small in today’s game. And that would have an enormous effect when he could brush players off with ease and out jump the opposition to find himself unable to do this his confidence would also take a battering.

I have attempted to look from past to modern-day but if we were to take the modern-day player back in time I have no doubt many would struggle. It was a time when men were men, and you had to take it, there was very little protection for skilful players only really your team mates who would protect you if the opposition tried to put you out of the game.

Another critical factor is the culture shock and sense of values, making such big jumps in time back or forward would be extremely difficult to cope with, things change incrementally and people learn to accept them even if they do not agree or like them, being placed in the modern-day game for a player brought up in the poverty years of the war and seeing the attitude of some team mates would be unbearable for some I suspect. Football is about doing things you do each day for years and feeling confident and at ease. If doubts, unhappiness lack of confidence seep in to a player’s game they will lose form.

Players I have no doubt would have made it in any era as a true greats are George Best and Bobby Charlton and would probably have been even better in today’s game than the eras they starred in. However I’m not sure if the likes of Law Moore and many others would have been stars in the modern game. I think the fact we see so many less English Scottish and Welsh players in the top division and so many African’s South American’s non-British Europeans etc is a clear demonstration that most of the players from the past would struggle to get in the premiership today.


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