Soccer scholars

Cultured passes, not rustic tackles, make the beautiful game

What is a football brain? Is it like an ordinary brain? Would you have a better chance of acquiring one if you went to Eton or joined Wallsend Boys Club? Do they do transplants?

I've received lots of such questions recently from Newcastle United fans who now sit with their eyes closed whenever Titus Bramble gets the ball. Titus is a fine defender, jolly strong, but he reacts slowly, doesn't appear able to look ahead. Off the pitch he could well be chairman of his local Mensa group, do the Times crossword before breakfast, always listen to In Our Time, because what we term a football brain has little to do with other forms of intelligence. There used to be a Spurs defender called John Lacy who made me scream, he was so lumpen and dozy, yet he had a degree. He couldn't have been stupid, could he? Paul Scholes clearly has a football brain, but I bet his Latin is rubbish.

It is usually fairly easy to recognise it, although in the case of Martin Peters it took fans a long time to realise he was even on the park. But he was ten years ahead of his time. Those with football brains can pass to people wearing the same colour shirts. That's often a good clue. They are aware of what's happening around them, and what's about to happen.

Foreign Johnnies are particularly good at this, which is why they come over here with their educated left feet and make cultured passes, clever one-twos, leaving our rustic native players on their bums. It's often said that, in England, football is played with the heart not the head, which can make for exciting, high-speed entertainment, loved by rustic fans all over the world, the sort who enjoy watching headless chickens.

I think there could be a historic element. The game, as founded in England, had two sources. There was folk football when villages had an annual game, trying to get a ball from one end of the village to the other. The participants used it as an excuse to injure their enemies and/or wreck the village. Much the same happens today in rural high streets on Friday evenings, though the aim now is to drink your way from one end to the other.

When the public-school chaps took football over in 1863 and formalised the rules, one area of contention was "hacking". By this they meant a brutal form of tackling, usually from behind, whether the player had the ball or not. This was how they had played the game back at school.

Foreign persons took the game up only when it was refined, and all the nasty stuff eliminated, but clearly in the genes of all true Brits, of whatever class, this propensity for brainless football has been handed down.

Can it be taught? It's interesting that we now have "academies", a nomenclature which attempts to upgrade the intellectual level of football education. In the old days, young footballers were "apprentices". That obviously smacks of horny-handed, rough-hewn lads who could get stuck in.

So far these academies are not working, judging by England's performances against Macedonia and Croatia. The students play a lot of games but don't learn the clever stuff. In fact, our academies appear to be turning out football thickos. Obviously the FA, which has billions to spend and is known for its fine brains, will eventually turn this around.

But there remains a final conundrum. If we agree there is such a thing as a football brain, as applied to individuals, is there also a team brain? When 11 English players get on the pitch, will there ever be a way of making them play as one sentient being? Over to you, Steve . . .

Next Article