Some words on football at a time when I loved it with a passion that excluded all else. With the possible exception of Diana Rigg. Here are three players who stirred my emotions in the days when football was still capable of such things.
Luigi Riva. Was there ever a player with a more exciting name? A name that rolls off the tongue and promises much. Particularly in an age when there weren’t any foreign players in England, and we only saw the likes of Pelé every four years. Although we might get an occasional glimpse of Gerd Müller when the European Cup was on – provided Bayern didn’t get knocked out in the first round by Barcelona or Juventus. Because in the glorious days of knockout ties from round one onwards, such anarchic delights could happen, and all the more interesting it was too.
Luigi Riva, he played for Cagliari. Which was so exotic that I’d never heard of it, and had to search the Collin’s Family Atlas for clues. It’s on the south coast of Sardinia, and one day I shall go to Cagliari and drink grappa. Which will make a sunny change from drinking grappa by the bushel-load in this country. Sardinia also boasts a town up the coast called Buggerru, which is in the island’s favour, and one smack in the middle called Bono, which isn’t. (Free Offer! Compile and insert your own ‘smack Bono’ joke here!)
Luigi Riva was the greatest forward of his generation (so says Wikipedia) but to some of us, he was the greatest of all time.
I was a goalkeeper for a while. Not a ‘goalie’ please. Don’t cheapen it, I was a ‘keeper, if you must. Not that I stank up the outfield when I played up there, like so many do who are destined for the ‘keepers jersey. I could do that Alan Hansen thing about the first yard being in my head, but my legs could never quite catch up with what my mind told me was about to happen, so I was quite happy to volunteer to be the man between the sticks, the ‘keeper. Looking back, I see now that it suited my personality, being in a team yet not truly being part of it. Strolling around the edge of my own box, contemplating, while up ahead everyone else was running around like directionless fools, and all in the same outfits too.
My hero? No, not the Gordon’s Banks or West, or Alex Stepney, nor Peter Bonetti or Pat Jennings. It wasn’t Lev Yashin either – quiet at the back – although he came close, no, Ivo Viktor was my man.
He played for Czechoslovakia 63 times, including appearances in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, and in the thrilling Czech side which won the European Championship in 1976, which was the year that Ivo was 3rd in the European Player of the Year awards – a rare gong for a goalkeeper, being rated so high and thus squeezing out quite a few white-booted number 10’s and all-round Fancy Dans whose main claim to fame was not having a patch of mud or a grass stain on their kit after ninety-minutes strolling around on a muck-heap while the likes of Ivo and the rest of the ‘keepers union ensured the glory boys got their win bonuses. He got ‘Keeper of the Year in ’76, at least.
The Man in Black, the best around, my goalkeeping hero was Ivo Viktor.
No Englishman on the list, I hear you cavil?
Nope, not one.
My third choice is Dundee, Spurs and Scotland legend, Alan Gilzean. Gilly, to those of us who used to stand on the Park Lane End at Tottenham.
We loved Gilly. He was big and brawny, mean and grumpy, and superb in the air. There wasn’t a cross that came over that Gilly couldn’t nail, or at least prevent somebody else from getting anywhere near. Almost best of all, to us lads barely into our teens or indeed, double figures, Gilly looked really old, although at this time he would have been in his early thirties at the most.
We once heard him swear at a linesman – gaining enormous, stand-rattling cheers – a stentorian volley of such vituperative invective that half the ground was set back on its heels. Well, to be honest, Gilly’s outburst was indistinguishable from the growls and grumbles you might hear from a big old grizzly bear who’s been woken up before the salmon have started jumping and has nothing to breakfast on in the chill but bugs and berries. He may well have been enquiring about the linesman’s wife and kids, and wishing him – in the manner of Luigi Riva – buona fortuna – whatever, it was a most impressive outburst, if it served only to build the legend then that was more than enough for us.
Like Ivo Viktor in my ‘keeping guise, I tried to emulate Gilly when I returned to the outfield.
I was often first to crosses and corners, mainly because I was taller than everyone else, and sometimes I managed to apply head to ball and propel it in the rough direction intended. On one occasion, I ghosted in from the edge of the box (much like Martin Peters – and if you’ve read this far, I need say no more) and met the outswinging corner perfectly with the old nut. The ball, to general amazement and gratifying cries of, “GILLY!” flew into the top right-hand corner of the net. Or at least where the net would have been. For although the coats on the ground did a fine job of signifying the bottom end of the imaginary goalposts, the upper reaches were something of a fluid concept, and arguments about whether a goal attempt had gone over, hit the bar, or gone in-off the underside (even top QCs struggled to prove this last one) had been known to last longer than injury-time did when we were 0 -1 down to the team from the next village and one of our dads was reffing.
However, this time, there was tacit agreement, friend and foe were united like never before in agreeing that mine was such a glorious strike that to call it anything other than a goal would be bordering on blasphemy (I may be paraphrasing here), still, if only real life was like that.
Or like this:
“There was nothing that even the great Ivo Viktor could do about that fabulous header. His striking partner Luigi Riva offers a simple handshake as Bryer trots back to the halfway line, his socks rolled down to his ankles in trademark style. He pauses only to wave to someone in the stands – ah, it’s Miss Diana Rigg, who appears to have rushed here straight from the set of The Avengers….”