When I was growing up on Teesside, my favourite Boro player was a massive man who originated from near Mansfield called Stuart Boam. He was a centre-half who was carved out of pink granite and coal tar soap, a man that had a face like an abandoned quarry. If you’d detonated a small thermonuclear device under him, he wouldn’t have felt it. It wasn’t just that he was a hard man, though he most certainly was; it was the sheer physicality he brought to the game. At 6’2″ and shoulders like an oak mantelpiece, he was an imposing and scary-looking physical specimen.
We also had a man called Graeme Souness playing for us at the time who, though not a six-footer, was one of the most physically assertive men on the pitch. To see him scythe through players was a thing of terrible beauty. At times it was as if the pitch was a charnel house as Souey disposed of bloodied bodies left, right and underneath. One time, after he had – and let’s not dress this up – violently assaulted a man with his feet, he leaned over his prone opponent and with a malevolent jab of his finger, made it clear that this was HIS midfield and the fact his victim was bleeding on it was an act of frightful rudeness, sir.
If you had combined Boam and Souey you would have had the most awesome Terminator. Since then I’ve never lost my love for big, physically imposing, aggressive footballers. Physicality used to be so important in the game, it was something fans came to see, something fans loved. The loudest cheer of the day always came when the biggest defender powered to the touchline and cleared out the nippy winger into Row Z. Always. We loved the little fella for surviving it and the big fella for making the effort. But along with rule changes to outlaw the more beastly behaviour came something worse: snobbery.
During that awful phase when so many were hypnotised by smaller Barcelona players passing it around a lot, clouting people with your legs began to be frowned upon. It was an awful moment in football when drooling over possession stats as a kind of pornography replaced physicality, and when crossing and heading became outlawed as a crude, Luddite approach. I always thought the fanny-around-with-it-a-lot lot were the real Luddites.
At the time I suggested, to the opprobrium of many, that well-executed long ball football, that getting it wide and getting it into the box, that having huge defenders who could head the ball a long way, would all eventually return to fashion when we all got tired of the second-rate hipper-than-thou, all-foreplay-and-no-f**king thing. It was inevitable. Yes we enjoy high skill but there is something primal about also enjoying physicality.
Good news Luddites. It’s back. Oh yes.
If you’re still in doubt, you need only look at Manchester United playing West Ham United on Sunday to see how having huge blokes playing for you can be very, very impressive. United can now hurt the opposition, in all senses of the word. They look so physically intimidating. Matic is 6’4″, Pogba 6’3″, Lukaku likewise. It’s entirely possible they could field a side that are all over six feet tall. Brilliant. They will look like the football equivalent of the Prussian Guard.
They are the biggest team in the league and will be hard to beat. Tony Pulis has long since got average teams to over-perform by employing a four centre-half defence comprising of basically huge slabs of flesh. Being big and physical works. Even though they were very limited players, they still got results. But crucially, United have coupled massive-osity with speed and talented feet: that is an awesome triple-powered whammy. And when you can physically dominate the opposition, it feeds directly into a team’s confidence, so they’ll have half-won a game just in the tunnel, as they tower over the opposition like Easter Island statues. And if successful, it will finally put to bed the idea that you have to have a team of 5’7″ dancers or that football is all about skill and tactics and not physical prowess.
Even though the rules have been changed to diminish the worst effects of the stamp-stampy tendency, the simply visceral thrill at seeing a big athletic man pounding up the pitch, defenders bouncing off him, remains. There is also a visceral thrill to seeing a big forward rising through the air to connect to a crossed ball.
We mere mortals, who go to the gym three times a week in order to keep the decay of age at bay for a few hours more, look on in awe at these incredible physical specimens.
If you were raised on the game being played by wee fellas, it must all look a bit Land of the Giants but trust me, you’ll grow to love it and there’s nothing to worry about – not unless you’re playing United, anyway.