Open to Dispute: When Stanley was wizard and George was Best

“It was better in my day!”

I’ve lost count of the number of times an elderly gentleman and I have been discussing football, and the inevitable comment has come from him whilst waving his stick manically in the air.

I’ve read football magazines where the editor, and several of the writers, long for the days of “good old football.”

One that springs to mind is World Soccer, an excellent magazine of which I am a subscriber, that does tend to get caught up in nostalgia trips from time to time. But I ask the question: Was it really better in their day?

A player who often crops up when “incredible footballers” from days past are mentioned is England’s ‘Wizard of Dribble’ Sir Stanley Matthews.

The one thing I always remember about Matthews is that he kept playing until he was 50. Now is that just an extremely fit athlete? Or were the defenders awfully slow?

Obviously, there is no doubting Matthews’ talent – he won the European Footballer of The Year during his career and has also been inducted into the England Hall of Fame. But were the defenders back then really as good as they are now?

Was Stanley Matthews up against a 1950s version of John Terry or Nemanja Vidic?

The way I see it, players nowadays are a lot fitter, faster, stronger and more skilful than they were 50, 40 or 30 years ago. It’s generally accepted that today’s athletes are in tip-top condition, better than ever before.

So surely, with better fitness et al, doesn’t that mean the standard of your average player has risen?

Another brilliant footballer of yesteryear was George Best. A magnificent player, of that there is no doubt – but was he really as good as say, Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Or even players like Arjen Robben or Jesus Navas?

Was Best faster, stronger, fitter, more skilled than today’s equivalent? And was the opposition he faced faster, stronger, fitter or more skilled than today?

OK, so I hope you agree with me that due to things like technology, advances in science and even through training, players are now better than they were in years gone by.

However, this is not the entire argument. Many of our older generation say football as a whole was better in the olden days – but do they really mean skill-wise? Or do they mean that football, as a game, was better?

Many rules have been introduced since the 1950s, with even simple things like the passback and tweaks to the offside rule being introduced. Football used to be a simple sport – stick the ball in the back of the net. But now, rules are being changed and rolled out all the time.

Most recently, video technology has been mooted as a solution to cut out cheating and debatable decisions. However, although this would help cut out cheating and poor refereeing decisions, it complicates football further.

Back when my dad was a kid, if a referee made a bad decision, the teams just got on with it. So does that mean football was better years ago when it was simpler, and with less stopagges and regulations?

Another bonus point to the oldies’ argument is that in decades past, there doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of serious cheating or feigning injury to waste time.

Obviously, the Hand of God is the one stand-out example of cheating in the last 30 years – but back then, in the English First Division, the players were mainly based in England. And thinking back to various cheaters who stick in my mind – Rivaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry – the majority of them are foreign.

Now although that sounds massively stereotypical and prejudiced, it is based mostly on statistics. Although there have been English cheaters too (Gerrard and Rooney spring to mind), the majority of injury-feigners are Latin American. That’s not to say British players don’t do it either, but back in the day, with Englishmen playing in England, cheating was basically non-existent.

So. It’s clear that your average player today is of a much higher standard. And in my opinion, I’d say footballers are better than they’ve ever been before. Messi has, arguably, the potential to become the finest player there has ever been in the history of football.

But on the flip side, football nowadays is a lot more complicated for some of the older generation than it was back when they were kicking a ball about – and even for our generation, football is no longer just a case of sticking the ball in the net. And also, cheating and feigning injury is far more commonplace than it was in years gone by.

But, finally, you have to look at the other side of the argument – when we’re all old and grey, will we be the ones saying, “It was better in my day!”?

Colin Stone

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