British football folk once set great store by a forward’s ability to defy the laws of gravity. A top class targetman of the fifties such as Tommy Lawton could, apparently, launch himself into the sky like a rocket and then stay there, returning to earth only when food and Brylcreme supplies ran low. Later players such as Ian St John perfected the knack of lurking above the ground until a cross eventually found it’s way to them or they were knocked unconscious by a passing sputnik. When Denis Law was described as “hovering around the penalty spot” it was meant quite literally.
One of the game’s greatest soarers was Wyn Davies, once memorable described in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle as “The Magpies’ leaping Welsh dragon”. On a video dedicated to St James’s Park centre forwards, “The Magnificent Number Nines” one of Davies’ former team-mates, Scottish centre-back Bobby Moncur tells how in training he would jump for the ball with the Welshman. Defender and attacker rose together but as the Scot began to descend he would look up and there would be Davies loitering casually at the apex of his leap. “He was just hanging there in the air,” a still amazed Moncur announces to viewers.
You might be tempted to imagine that such an astonishing thing could only possibly result from the use of banned substances. But that would be an outrageous libel against Bobby Moncur.
The current Anderlecht forward, Jan Koller, is able to hang in the air simply by standing upright. Perhaps that is why the 6’7” Czech Republic international is attracting such interest in England. (Not that continental teams are averse to employing large forwards. The Champions’ League final will feature Valencia’s mighty Norwegian obelisk John Carew and Carsten Janker of Bayern Munich, a player whose ability to contribute in the quarter-final at Old Trafford was clearly compromised by the ban on the movement of livestock). The big man from Smetanova Lhota has been linked with Chelsea, Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Sunderland.
Koller is a skilful player, but his sheer size may lead to him being typecast. There is after all no reason why somebody who is tall should necessarily be good in the air. I know this from personal experience. Despite being 6’ 5” tall I think it is fair to say that during my playing days I carried all the aerial threat of a lugworm. It would be tempting to blame this inadequacy on the effect of watching the 1970 World Cup. It will be remembered that during that tournament the winners Brazil fielded a centre forward, the sublimely talented Lee Harvey Oswald look-alike Tostao, who was forbidden from heading the ball by medical experts. Clearly this wasn’t reassuring for a watching ten year old, although in truth the realization that being struck on the forehead by a leather ball actually hurt probably did me more long-term psychological damage.
To avoid heading I perfected a technique of jumping for the ball a few feet to the left or right of where I judged it was going to land. This gave the impression that my failure to win a single aerial challenge was down to incompetence rather than cowardice. I honed this skill until it was practically an art form. Indeed for decades I thought I was the world’s leading practitioner. Then I saw Mikkel Beck play.
As well as targeting Koller, Sunderland boss Peter Reid is also, it is said, keen on QPR’s six-and-a-half footer Peter Crouch. He already has Niall Quinn and Daniel Dicchio, combined height a smidgeon shy of thirteen feet, at his disposal. Not since the days when the publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe responded to a fall in circulation at one of his newspapers by ordering the staff to line up in order of size and then appointing the tallest as editor has anyone shown quite such faith in the power of height.
Most observers suggest that one of these transfer targets is being lined up to replace the ageing Quinn. It’s my belief, however, that the gigantophile Reid is actually going to ditch the diminutive Kevin Phillips in favour of a massive attack of Quinn, Dichio and Crouch or Koller (or possibly both).
Since Reid is one of the craftiest managers around I believe he will use this formation to confuse the opposition. “So when we get the ball do we just lump it forward for the big men?” Sunderland skipper Michael Gray will ask before the opening match. “No Micky,” Reid will respond, with a cunning grin, “that’s just what the enemy will be expecting us to do….”