Match day at Springfield Park, early sixties. The smell of meat pies and the familiar marching band music before kick off. Standing in the paddock ready to hear the clip-clopping of the boots as the players emerge from the tunnel. That familiar smell of oil of wintergreen. There must be two thousand here today. The excitement is buliding up: will it be Harry Lyon or Peter Higham at centre forward today? It was a cause for debate between me and my Dad at the time. The to-become-legendary Harry had arrived from Burscough and the classy Peter Higham’s place was now threatened. Which one was our manager, Johnny Ball, going to pick? Higham was a fine centre forward, leading his line with determination and skill, his “league” experience showing through. Lyon was a raw recruit from a tiny club on the railway route to Southport. “Leading the line” was not his great strength. Scoring goals was what Lyon was all about. Ball tried something different for a little while by playing Higham at number 9 and Lyon on the left wing. I can remember Harry scoring a header from that position: a cross to the far post and there he was, having drifted in from the wing. The experiment did not last long. Strikers in those days relied on service from the wings and Lyon could not provide that for Higham . Besides he was wasted there. He was to get a Lyon’s share of goals – 68 in one season – so many of them coming from the crosses from wingers like Walter Stanley.
Times have indeed changed. Latics were in the Cheshire League then, after having left the Lancashire Combination with its “big boot” approach. We would deride teams like Chorley for playing “kick and rush”. Latics were more sophisticated than that: they tried to play good football (although not always succeeding). Alf Ramsey was to step in and win the World Cup for England with his 4-4-2 system: the wingless wonders. The winger became a dying breed, wide midfielders becoming the norm. The game became more defensive worldwide and the number of goals per game in the old First Division dropped.
So what’s new? Well the Latics are now in their seventh season in the Premier League. Hugo Rodallega is our most recognized centre forward. He has scored 22 goals in 89 appearances for the Latics and rumour tells us that Arsenal now want him. But he only scores one goal every four games, a far cry from the days of Harry Lyon. Yes the game has changed since Harry’s time but shouldn’t our centre forwards be scoring more? Jason Scotland couldn’t score goals for Latics, neither could Mauro Boselli, despite their previous successes in other leagues. Henri Camara could but then he lost it. Even the legendary Emile Heskey only scored 15 goals in 82 appearances for us. Why can’t our centre forwards score more goals? Are they not good enough or are they not getting the service they need?
The role of the lone central striker is not much fun. You have two giant and speedy centre halves ready to crunch you as soon as you get the ball. You have to be super-fit and resilient. You have to ”lead the line”, holding the ball up for teammates. Then when you are wiped out from doing that you are expected to score goals too! Latics’ tactics are not dissimilar to those of Barcelona. Even David Villa plays on the left wing sometimes, as does Hugo. But Barcelona score around three goals per game in a pretty strong league. Villa scores a few, whether he plays centrally or wide. So why can’t Rodallega (or Sammon or Di Santo) get more goals? Is the most important aspect of the role of the Latics centre forward to score goals or to lead the line? Di Santo is pretty good at the latter, but one never expects him to score. Sammon poses more of a goal threat but is raw and does not have the Argentinian’s ball skills. Rodallega can do both, but so many times he looks a forlorn figure.
Unlike Lyon, Rodallega is unlikely to get lovely crosses from wingers to get goals (don’t get me wrong, Harry also scored a lot of goals by getting in where it hurts). The wingers are there to turn inside and shoot. The overlapping full back is the better bet. Boyce’s passing and crossing has hugely improved since Martinez took over. Figueroa too can put in a nice cross. What a beauty he put in for Rodallega at Stoke last season! If you put more men forward you have more chance of scoring. However, when you have a porous defence you need to hold back your midfielders for protection. Look at Barcelona – they do not have the best defenders around, but their defensive record is excellent. I read a statistic recently that their right back, Dani Alves, spent more time last season in the opponents’ half of the field than his own. I doubt that will be the case with Boyce and Figueroa. So how do Barcelona defend so well? They defend from the front, often pressing defenders in their own half. They attack and defend as a block. Their movement is fantastic. Every time one of their players has the ball there is a player in space, ready to receive it. They retain the ball and by about sixty minutes the opposing team is tiring from chasing it. They also have players like Xavi and Iniesta who can put in that defence-splitting pass, something we sadly lack. The hope is that players like McCarthy and Diame will eventually have the poise and confidence to do this. Maybe David Jones? If not then I cannot see Rodallega or whoever plays centre forward getting a better goal ratio.
The Martinez project remains a work in progress. He has changed the approach and shows great long-term vision for the club. Latics players have clearly learned something about “movement” (aka “running off the ball”). Hopefully they will mature this season and really get it together as a unit. There has been so much promise but we have lacked consistency in the delivery. Oh for that telling pass or cross for the centre forward!