Today’s money driven world of football, with its massive TV deals and worldwide audiences, has caused the game to lose one of its most endearing qualities – The Entertainer.
The last entertainer, in real true sense of the word, was Paul Gascoigne in my opinion. Since then we have become more and more accustomed to the dour faced ultra high levels of professionalism in the modern game.
We still have wonderful players in today’s world, but they are stone faced and so focused that it’s difficult to get a sense of their personality. I’m sure these guys are great lads, but they are never going to be true entertainers. It’s my own feeling that today’s footballers have the game drilled into them, whereas the players of yesteryear had their talent coached out of them.
The financial stakes are so high in 2015 that when you look around the world of football and ask who is the closest to a genuine old world true entertainer there is only one name that springs to mind, Liverpool’s Mario Balotelli. Mario comes with his baggage and issues, but also comes with a genuine talent that none of his managers have ever really been able to harness and utilise in the more controlled environment of modern football.
I have wondered many times: how different it would have been if Mario had been playing in the 1970’s. Mario has been sent to train with the reserves at Liverpool as we are led to believe his behaviour does not warrant a place to even train with the main squad. With that in mind one could ponder on how modern managers would have coped with the pair of boys who arrived at Fulham in the late 70’s.
At the start of the 1976/77 season Fulham Football Club, then in the old second division, pulled off a coup. Their squad at that time were made up of an ageing England legend Bobby Moore surrounded by what is best described as journeymen pros by comparison to the stature of Moore. That was all about to change.
In what can only be described as a master-stroke, Fulham brought not just one of the great entertainers, but two. George Best and Rodney Marsh arrived to link up with Moore to provide a spectacle that I fear we may never see the like of again.
Back in 1976 football was not as easy to view. There was no constant diet of games from around the world streaming to TV’s and computers worldwide. There was no global marketing, there were very few, if any, millionaire players. As a kid of that era, unless you access to a radio, you waited patiently for Final Score on Grandstand on any given Saturday, as it was your first source of the day’s results. Match of the Day ran for 45/60 minutes with highlights in the true sense of the word. We also had On the Ball on Sundays, which was like a showcase for London clubs in the old First Division.
I mention how football was broadcast back then to highlight the effect that Best and Marsh had on the English game that season. All of a sudden Fulham’s games were commonplace on On the Ball. It was unheard of that second tier football was getting TV exposure, but Best and Marsh together at the Cottage had fired the imagination of the public. They were genuine box office.
By 1976 George Best’s career was deemed to be over, reduced to playing in the USA during the infancy years of the game in the States. The glory days at Manchester United had fizzled out and his life off the field was making bigger headlines than on it. He left United in 1974, after 474 games and 181 goals for the Red Devils.
He also had a European Cup winners medal to add to his two league winners medals. We all know George was fond of a drink. We know he had a keen eye for the ladies too. Sadly the combination of the two, not only led to his football career being shorter than anyone would have liked, but also led to him losing his life far too early.
“In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life.” – George Best
George’s antics of the 60’s and 70’s would make today’s Mario Balotelli look like a model pro. George would go missing from training for long periods but had the natural talent and ability to still be a valuable asset to the team when he decided to come back.
Imagine today’s managers dealing with that dilemma? Here you have the most gifted footballer, arguably of all time, but his lifestyle is counterproductive to your team. Managers of that time simply had to bite the bullet and play him so rare was his talent.
“I used to go missing a lot… Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.” – George Best
In my opinion George Best still is the greatest player of all time. Whilst that will draw many counter arguments, none more heated than in my own home with my Pelé worshipping Brazilian wife, at least I can take comfort in the fact that such legends as Pelé, Maradonna, Beckenbauer, and Cruyff share my opinion of Best.
“Pele said he thought I was the greatest ever player. I have always thought I was the best ever player – that’s the way you have to look at it. I have never looked at another player and felt inferior.” – George Best
George Best was a force of nature. With a ball at his feet he was untouchable, and when he was in the mood it didn’t matter who he was playing against, he could destroy an opposition team single handed. Fire up the old YouTube videos of George and you lose hours in wonderment at such outrageous talent. We have the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo debate of this generation, but to me Best was just that, the Best.
I am always wary about making the somewhat bold statement that Best is better than the world class players of the game today, and before writing this I spoke with Simon Brundish, a UEFA registered Sports Scientist, about how fair it is to make comparisons between these football generations.
Simon informed me that while there are huge differences, they also help to level the playing field in making the comparison. When describing the playing equipment and conditions of Best/Marsh era he stated: “try running around with a 5kg weight on each ankle (boots) and trying to kick a wet telephone directory (ball) on the old uneven, boggy pitches of that era. The pitches acted as an obstacle for both players and ball and increased the force required to do the basics like running and jumping”.
He stated of today’s players that “they play on firm pitches that are smooth like pool tables. The ball runs much truer and allows for players to run and perform at higher levels. Players of Best/Marsh generation ran an average of 5.5 miles per game, today they run an average 9.5 miles per game. They also have state of the art equipment at their disposal, but overall the game is harder today.”
When you factor in the much more aggressive tackling and physicality of the Best/Marsh era, and the fact they were able to ride those challenges which would be red cards in today’s world, if George Best and Rodney Marsh were at their peak today, they could have been even better players in the modern game. In short their sort of talent would be priceless.
Rodney Marsh joined Fulham in the same season as Best. They hit it off socially off the field and they ended up complimenting each other perfectly on it.
Marsh had started his professional career with Fulham in 1962 before moving to QPR in 1966 where he enjoyed the most productive time of his career. In 1972 Marsh moved to Maine Road to play for Big Malcolm Allison at Manchester City where he is still held in high regard by the supporters.
In 1976 he left City and flirted with Cork Hibernians before heading to the USA to play for Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was from Tampa Bay that Marsh was loaned back to his first club, Fulham, and the start of that short lived but illustrious partnership with Best.
Like all the old entertainers Marsh had as much to say off the pitch as he did on it. Love him or hate him, the guy spoke his mind and, like Best, was a master of wit. Together they were terrific, whether you watched them play, or in their later careers as broadcasters.
He also had a rare playing talent. However, I’m sure he would not have any problem accepting that while he was a great player, he never reached the same levels as Best. Fans of the clubs he played for in his career still hold him with fond memory and high regard. Those are the traits of an entertainer, you never forget them.
Many feel that Marsh did not fully reach his full potential as a player. He was a striker who could dribble a ball with ease, possessed great technical ability, and had that rare talent of making something from nothing with moments of absolute genius.
Marsh scored goals no matter where he went and on his day he, like Best, was unplayable. Many had compared the skills of Marsh to those of Best, so to have both on the same team, regardless of the stage of their respective careers, was the equivalent of football utopia.
People may question Marsh’s consistency, but I have never heard anyone question his undoubted talent as a footballer.
Best + Marsh + Fulham = Utopia
When Best Marsh and Moore took the field back in 1976 it didn’t take very long for attendances to spike at Craven Cottage. Attendances moved from under 5,000 spectators to capacity every game, and, as I mentioned earlier, they even made it to our TV screens.
I was only a kid at this time, but I never forgot this partnership. It was crazy, it was fun, it was something I had ever seen before. Best had taken 71 seconds on his début to score.
While they both had lost the pace of their prime, they still possessed the ability and the football brains to leave their opponents bewildered and demoralised. It seemed they were given free license to go out and express themselves as they chose to.
The result was two guys playing exhibition football with a smile on their faces. Such were the smiles it infected you, you couldn’t not watch it without a smile on your face too. Even their teammates looked on in awe, they had never seen the like of it either.
Tony Gale spoke of his experience at Fulham that season as a 16 year old apprentice playing with Moore Best and Marsh: “Imagine, Fulham were a Division Two side – full of journeymen really – then all of a sudden you have those three with you.” Gale went on to describe them as football royalty.
The most famous of the games they played together was the legendary match against Hereford where they won 4-1 with Best and Marsh stealing the show as only entertainers of their calibre could. Marsh tackling Best for the ball, the silky skills of both set them apart, they were having a great time and so were the crowd. Marsh scored two goals that day; the most memorable being a brilliant curler into the top right hand corner of the net. I call it utopia, it was the kind of football we had only associated with the great Brazil sides and it still gives me a buzz watching it nearly 40 years later.
Sadly this football revolution was to be short lived. Best and Marsh both went back to the USA to ply their trade, but the memories of that time are something worth cherishing.
Careers after football
Best and Marsh went on to do plenty of TV and live chat shows together. They were quite similar in character and had very complimentary personalities. I used to watch Sky’s Soccer Saturday programme religiously just to hear the banter between them, and their insight of the game. Both had quite strong opinions on the players of that time and the direction the game was moving in as demonstrated in a newspaper interview in 2005.
George Best: “The game’s changed so much. For instance, whatever happened to the playmakers? Johnny Haynes was the first, but then you had Glenn Hoddle, Stan Bowles, Trevor Brooking, Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, the creative types. In our day, teams were made up the same. Great goalkeeper — and all teams had great, British goalkeepers then — big centrehalves, another player alongside him to kick the s*** out of you, decent full backs, wingers, a playmaker. Teams were geared to attack, to create, to score. It’s terribly sad, where’s that type of lovely passing player now?”
Rodney Marsh: “They’ve been killed off by athletes. Today’s game is about athletes. It started about six years ago when Arsenal signed Patrick Vieira. He became the prototype, 6ft 2in and a 15-stone powerhouse. Since then, everyone has been trying to replicate that. There is no room for the playmaker now.”
George Best: “The fans don’t want to see teams packed with Vieiras. He was a decent player, but he was a destroyer. He wouldn’t have become a superstar in our era. Dave Mackay is my definition of a superstar. The man broke his leg three times, but wouldn’t be carried off. He walked off.”
Rodney Marsh: “He limped off. Or hopped. How could be have walked if he had broken a leg?
George Best: OK, you know what I mean. These day’s so-called superstars have six weeks off with a broken finger.”
“He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals. Apart from that he’s all right.”
Best’s view on David Beckham.
They had strong opinions, but they were very difficult to argue with given their calibre as players.
Rodney Marsh is still involved in broadcasting in the UK and USA. He remains as controversial and outspoken as ever, but in my opinion it’s an endearing quality as his candour is somewhat refreshing in today’s world of journalism. He is very active on Twitter and is really fun to follow.
George sadly left us in 2005, losing his battle with alcoholism. Many have come and many have gone since George graced football fields, but none have ever replaced his memory as the greatest I ever saw.
He once said “They’ll forget all the rubbish when I’ve gone and they’ll remember the football. If only one person thinks I’m the best player in the world, that’s good enough for me.” Well George, I for one think you are, and I’m very sure that many, many more share the same opinion.
You may disagree with what I have written here, but if you had the chance to sit down with Messi and Ronaldo or Best and Marsh for a pint and a football chat, there would only be the one winner! Best and Marsh every time. They are the true entertainers in every sense of the word!
Thanks for the memories guys!