Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Greatest Team

Decision time.

STV’s Greatest Team concludes tonight as Tony Roper reveals the eleven players and manager who have made it into the nation’s fantasy Scotland line up.

You may recall that I was ever so slightly sarcastic when I previewed the series. I’d still argue that the arbitary 1967 cut off point means that it should have been called The Greatest Team (…Sort Of) but I’ve actually enjoyed the programmes so far.

So a not bad show with a dodgy premise resulting in an essentially futile exercise. But there are worse ways to spend a Thursday night.

And, as promised, here are my picks based on STV’s shortlist.

Goalkeeper: Andy Goram

This is the only category where I can say that I’ve seen all the contenders play. And they’re all worthy of inclusion. Alan Rough I’ve written about before and will always defend against some of the lazier insults flung his way. That Craig Gordon is the only nominee still playing is testament to his ability and the reliance Scotland now have on him. But Gordon's not ready and Rough was steady but not straight from the top drawer.

That leaves the two old rivals. Leighton’s career was longer and his dedication to Scotland could never be questioned. I would have no hesitations about putting him in an all time eleven and will always remember his performance at Ibrox when we beat Sweden 1-0 in 1996. Simply outstanding.

But Goram, for all his faults, had an indefinable quality, a touch of genius that couldn’t be extinguished by his relative lack of height, his dodgy knees, his physique and his questionable attitude to living the life of a professional athlete.

For that reason Goram gets the nod.

Full Back: Danny McGrain

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of their footballer of the year award the English PFA released a book with a profile of all the award winners. They asked the surviving winners to pick their all time greatest eleven. Despite never having played in England McGrain was their top choice at full back. As the football cliché would have it, he’s the first name on my teamsheet.


Full Back: Tommy Gemmell

A toss up here between Gemmell and Sandy Jardine. You’d hardly worry about picking either of them. Gemmell gets the nod because of Jock Stein. Stein described him as “the best left back in the world.” That kind of puts my opinions in the shade. He also scored in two European Cup finals. Not many people can say that and it also shows that Gemmell could weigh in up front as well as getting the job done at the back.

Centre Half: Willie Miller and Alex McLeish

A tough one again. The contenders are all more than worthy of inclusion from the leadership of Billy McNeill and John Greig to the ruggedness of Gordon McQueen and the artistry of Alan Hansen.

But I’ve gone for the package deal. In the 1980’s Alex Ferguson pulled something off at Aberdeen that will never be repeated in the Scottish game. And Miller and McLeish were the foundation. Maybe others on the list would edge them for individual talent. But this, as STV keep reminding us, is a team we’re building. So we’ll build it on the Aberdeen pair.

Midfield: Billy Bremner

Diminutive, red hair, terrier like. The stereotypical Scottish midfielder might have been based on Billy Bremner but few have ever come along to match his quality. The terrier quality is perhaps too well remembered, the Charity Shield sending off, that picture with Dave Mackay and the Copenhagen night club sometimes cloud the memories of how good a footballer he was. You’d want him on your side in a fight but you’d also look to him play a constructive role in any quality side.

Sir Alf Ramsay, who nurtured a passionate hatred of all things north of Hadrian’s Wall, once said to Bremner: “You’re a dirty little so and so – but you can play.” And so he could.

Midfield: Graeme Souness

A complex man with an opinion of himself that borders on narcissism Souness is an acquired taste. But Scotland teams suffered when he didn’t play and as far as this selection goes that’s the only criteria that matters.

He liked a tackle and he wasn’t slow to go in search for revenge for any slight, real or imagined, but he could control games with a coolness that has eluded so many Scottish players. Scotland teams, it is said, often suffer from a lack of belief. That wouldn’t be true of any dressing room influenced by Souness.

Midfield: Jimmy Johnstone

Another diminutive red head makes the list. Give him the ball and watch what he can do. It’s a simple enough tactic but it might be all a manager needed to say with Johnstone at his disposal. They're enjoying a resurgence of late wingers but went through a period of being dismissed as a luxury item that teams could simply not afford to accommodate. Surely that would never be said about Johnstone who used his position on the flank to become a fundamental part of Celtic’s greatest ever team.

He’d take a kicking, pick himself and get on with it. They don’t make them like this anymore. He struck up a friendship with Robert Duvall late in life: an incredibly bizarre development that somehow seemed entirely in keeping with the man Jinky was.

Midfield: Davie Cooper

Maybe this is my luxury pick. And he gets the nod over Jim Baxter which will surprise some. But Cooper was laidback, modest and a fantastic footballer. There’s not enough of that around anymore. He’d be out of place in the modern game – he was hardly the sort of player you expected to find in Scottish football in the 1980’s – but he’d still be magnificent. And I don’t care if he couldn’t tackle. Souness and Bremner can take care of that.

Cooper also scored what has been voted Scottish football’s greatest goal in the 1979 Drybrough Cup final:

The fact that the only footage of it comes from such a dodgy angle has enhanced that status; it is football's answer to a bootleg of Spike Island or Hendrix at Woodstock. It was also a fitting legacy for the late Cooper, a humble genius – no hyperbole in the use of the word 'genius' here – who wowed Ruud Gullit, and who Graeme Souness thought was more naturally gifted than even Kenny Dalglish. Brian Clough famously noted that there was a reason why God didn't put grass in the sky. If he'd seen this goal, the great man – and God – might have had a different opinion.

Striker: Kenny Dalglish

The best of the best? Possibly but that’s an argument for another time. Already a Celtic legend when he signed for Liverpool, there were those at Anfield who worried that he’d struggle to fill the gap left by Kevin Keegan. It’s safe to assume that they no longer cling to that view. He was even world class when using his backside.

Not convinced? Try this:
Liverpool manager Bob Paisley paid tribute to his star signing, saying: "Kevin was quicker off the mark, but Kenny run3s the first five yards in his head . Of all the players I have played alongside, managed and coached in more than forty years at Anfield, he is the most talented. When Kenny shines, the whole team is illuminated."

Liverpool and Scotland team mate Graeme Souness was no less stinting in his praise. "I never saw anyone in this country to touch him," he said. "I can think of only two players who could go ahead of him – Pele and possibly Cruyff. He was better than Maradona, Rummenigge or Platini. I would say that on his day he was, without any shadow of a doubt, the best player in the world."

Striker: Denis Law

Ah Denis. Denis with the dodgy accent, dodgier anecdotes and even dodgier hair. But what a player. Of all the players that I’ve selected the one I would most like to have seen play in his prime is Denis.

With George Best and Bobby Charlton, Law formed a team within a team at Manchester United. The Holy Trinity that could transform a good team into a fantastic team, three very different players all touched with their own brand of genius. He gets in this Scotland team like he’d get in any Scotland team.

Manager: Jock Stein

I don’t need to repeat that I don’t think STV should have included Walter Smith or Alex Ferguson in a list aimed at finding Scotland’s greatest manager. So that leaves Jock Stein battling it out with Willie Ormond. Jock gets the job – although I’m not sure he ever felt comfortable as an international manager – with Willie as his assistant. They’d probably have liked having these players to choose from.