Well, we managed something of a discussion on here last night and today, and following on from that, here are the next three in this very brief series. As per part one, these are my favourite players, and not the ones that I rate as the best of all time. And, to save any arguments, none of tonight’s selection are Welsh or former Liverpool players (I jest, of course). Now, on with the show!
1. Socrates (Brazil): Well, a 6’4″ heavy drinker who smoked forty a day and trained as a doctor (hence, of course, the nickname) was always going to be something of a shoo-in, wasn’t he? The debate over whether the 1982 Brazilian team was better than the 1970 one is probably for another time and place (and it usually comes down to whether one was ten years old during the 1970 or 1982 World Cup), but the case for the 1982 vintage is a strong one. Of course, they demolished New Zealand (who wouldn’t have done?), but they also murdered a decent Scotland team, saw off the USSR, and comfortably beat Argentina before losing to Italy in possibly the greatest World Cup match of all time. In 1986, perhaps past his peak, he still took the time to score against Spain and Poland before Brazil went out against France in the quarter-finals.
In the 1980s, we didn’t see much of foreign football on the television, and this wasn’t far short of what we saw of Socrates. He had one decent season at Fiorentina in Italy, but the tail end of his career was blighted by a restlessness that saw him go from club to club before retiring in 1989 and returning to medicine. His performances on the rare occasions that we saw him were so alien that he might as well as have come from a different planet. We’re often told that “football is a simple game”, but have made such brilliance look so effortless as Socrates. He drank, smoked, had a fantastic beard, and captained Brazil with as much style as anyone in the history of their game. Oh, and he even turned up in the English non-league game, when we was lured to Yorkshire to play one match for Garforth Town in the North East Counties League at the age of fifty. Twenty-two years after that World Cup in Spain, the ground sold out in hours. What a man.
2. Allan Cockram – St Albans City: In non-league football, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, there aren’t many flair players. You’ll get the occasional great goalscorer, and the scene is over-flowing with colourful characters, but better players tend to get dragged to a higher level. Every once in a while, though, one slips through the net, and Allan Cockram was one such player. Having started out as a professional with Spurs, Bristol Rovers and Brentford, before dropping down to Farnborough Town and, eventually, St Albans City. His like had not been seen at a moribund Clarence Park for a number of years, and for those of us that gotten used to the likes of the hatchet-faced Bob Dowie (Iain’s uglier brother) and the supremely hapless Alan Paradise (I’ve never seen a player with less hap), well, they might as well have dropped Diego Maradona onto the pitch in front of us. There was plenty wrong with Cockram – he couldn’t tackle for toffee and seemed to occasionally lose interest if he wasn’t getting much of the ball, but this was thoroughly out-weighed by his passing, shooting and free-kicks that seemed to be on a parallel with anything seen on “Match Of The Day”.
It couldn’t last, of course. Brentford came calling again, and coughed up £40,000 (I think – I’m doing this all from memory) for his services. In 1989, he played for The Bees in an FA Cup Quarter-Final at Anfield against Liverpool (and almost 100 in total) before leaving for brief spells at Reading and Farnborough Town (again), before surprisingly resurfacing at Clarence Park in 1992. He is still remembered with some affection by Brentford supporters. He enjoyed an Indian Summer with St Albans, starring in the midfield of a team that nearly won a place in the Conference (which they wouldn’t have been able to take), and taking over as manager. Cockram’s St Albans team was attacking to the point of recklessness (they scored 96 and conceded 81 in 1994-95), and ridiculous results became part of our staple diet. The highlights of the season included: an 11-1 win against Hillingdon Borough in the FA Cup and an 8-3 win against Kingstonian in the league. They scored at least four goals in nineteen matches in all competitions, and conceded four on eight occasions. There were seven goals in a match on twelve occasions. Also, this was the season that the Isthmian League allowed itself to be used for a FIFA experiment on kick-ins to replace throw-ins, but Cockram led a small group of managers that refused to implement it (they were, in all matches, voluntary), and played brilliant, exasperating football. He loses brownie points for chasing the dollar to briefly-enriched Chertsey Town, but left soon after and is now out of football altogether. I can think of a few good reasons why he should have been invited back to Clarence Park as manager in recent years.
3. Steve Bull – Wolverhampton Wanderers: Just in case you were thinking that it was all fancy dans. Wouldn’t all clubs love to have had a Steve Bull figure in recent times? Discarded by West Bromwich Albion for £50,000 in 1986 to their bitter Midlands rivals, Bull would go on to break more or less every record in the book, and showed unshakeable loyalty in a relatively unfashionable club in an era when footballers were starting to first learn the happiness that a bulging wallet could bring. Consider, if you will, some of these figures: 306 career goals in 13 years, 52 goals in the 1987-88 season alone (and a further 50 the following season), 18 hat-tricks, 13 England caps and 4 goals (he also hit the post for England against Holland at Italia 90). Amazing stuff. In December 1999, he was awarded an MBE – not far off unheard-of for a player that only ever played a handful of games in the top division of English football. And the thing about Bull is this: he was a complete throw-back. With never-changing cropped hair and a thick Black Country accent, he was regarded by some (including Graham Taylor, who never picked him for England and repeatedly tried to sell him against his wishes while he was the Wolves manager) as merely an unsophisticated thug, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was just quicker-witted, faster and stronger than everybody else, had a right foot which seemed to have received an iron implant and was excellent in the air, as well.
In the end, though, it all comes down to my opening question. These days, only the big clubs, who can offer the financial package to match the aspirations of the players, can allow said players the luxury of letting emotion into their career moves (or lack thereof). Steve Bull may just turn out to be the last of the old style “professionals”, and we should all mourn their passing.