There is a leather ball in my hand, slightly smaller than a clenched fist, dark red and shiny, with a white seam around the centre, and a stamped gold logo on each side. It is a cricket ball. My fingers and wrist go through all the different bowling positions: the middle and index finger parallel with the seam and thumb tucked underneath for a fast delivery; index, middle and ring finger nestling the ball, this time with the seam perpendicular and thumb held away for a leg spin delivery. There are almost as many wrist and finger positions as there are Overs in a One-Day International, and each bowler has his own idiosyncrasies.
James Anderson has just become England's record Wicket-taker, overtaking Sir Ian "Beefy" Botham. Anderson is not the fastest bowler around, nor is he the most influential, nor parsimonious. What he does have is a technique unique to him. After a few successful early years he was pulled out because it was thought his style would eventually cause trouble for his back -- his style was 'corrected'. Then in 2006 he broke down with a stress fracture -- the very injury the tweaking was trying to prevent. After a few years he reverted to his natural style, and what followed was success after success. And the rest, they say, is history.
You may be wondering how this relates to football, and more specifically, to Rangers. The answer is: Style.
Cricketers have an inordinate variety of techniques and idiosyncrasies. Batsmen in particular, being the centre of attention, are more noticeable. The great batsmen of history are revered for their ability and style -- Sachin Tendulkar is worshipped like a god in India -- but there is now a distinct lack of them. There are more coaches in the game than ever before, but they are more concerned with producing better and harder hitters, than they are with artistry. Their styles have been praised but never preached. The best worked things out for themselves.
If I were to ask people for a list of the best football players in the world at the minute, I could pretty much guarantee that those lists would invariably include the following: Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez, Rooney etc. What they all have in common is a certain unique style, an idiosyncrasy. Messi is small and nimble, the ball never leaves his feet as he weaves past defenders; Suarez has a bit of a street footballer about him, as he explodes past players allowing the ball to deflect any which way; Ronaldo has an immense physicality, a game build on speed and an incredibly powerful shot; Neymar glides, and has the tricks; Rooney also looks like he has developed his game on the streets, but also possesses a deftness of touch and an impressive range of passing. They each have an individual game that they know inside out, and they don't try to do what they're not good at.
When I come to look at Scottish players, whether that's in the Leagues or the National team, I see one homogeneous group. There is no significant difference between each player, and there is certainly no style. One has to look very closely to see any difference at all. It seems like they have been 'developed' to be bigger, stronger, faster; like modern cricketers, they're coached to hit harder, but not allowed to develop their own styles. And this is prevalent at Rangers.
There have been a good selection of young players coming through Auchenhowie over the past few years. Macleod, Murdoch, Crawford, Aird, Gallagher, McKay, Walsh, Hardie and Stoney. Of those, only Macleod and Murdoch have been able to flourish -- Walsh, Hardie and Crawford have been given a few more games recently, but I shall overlook them for now. I think the reason they have been able to flourish is that they have been able to fit into the prevailing structure: their natural game has allowed them to fit.
Murdoch is like nothing we have currently, but has been able to slot into the defensive-midfield role without much disruption. The same goes for Macleod; he has a natural talent, and was asked to fit into the left of midfield, which he was also able to do without much disruption. However, whereas Murdoch has slot in quite comfortably -- his natural style suits that role -- Macleod's game was hindered by the way the management used him, and was never used to his full potential. It's as if they have been shoehorned into the structure: if they can fit, they'll play, but if they can't, they're not good enough.
The problem with this is that it overlooks their natural game, their idiosyncrasies. McKay clearly has a lot of talent, but has been sidelined for the past few seasons, simply because he doesn't fit the Scottish mold of being big, strong and fast. It's an outdated view that must be corrected. McKay's focus may be a problem, but he's not the first player to have a bit of an attitude.
Even the best players have had problems, where their natural game has not quite fit with their teams system. Andrea Pirlo started out as an Attacking-Midfielder at Brescia, and then moved to Inter Milan but couldn't break into the first-team; it was only once he moved to AC Milan where Ancelotti gave him a run in the team as a deep-lying playmaker that his skills were fully recognised. Henry played out wide with Monaco and Juventus to average success, but it was only when Arsene Wenger moved him up front that his world-class ability was revealed.
(Please bare with me for a moment, for I am about to mention Fraser Aird in the same breath as Pirlo and Henry.)
Pirlo and Henry are two examples of players only being able to show their true ability once their natural game and idiosyncrasies matched with their position on the park -- could the same be true of Aird? Aird was put out wide by McCoist because he is quick, and that seemed to fit a wingers role. However, because he is quick does it then follow that he is a winger? I don't think so. I think that is a Scottish mentality, where the player fits the system rather than the system fits the players. Would Pirlo have been dropped back into a deep-lying playmaker role at a Scottish club? Would Henry have been moved up front? I doubt it -- they would have been shoehorned into a role that would not match their natural game. Aird is not naturally tricky; but he is quick and he has a good shot on him, so could he perhaps play up front, on the shoulder of the defender? Who knows?
I believe every player has a natural game, and that every player has a position or role that suits them best. Every player must be allowed to develop their natural style; every player must be allowed to do what they do best. The fans have a part to play. We must be patient, and allow our young Rangers time to express themselves. We also need a coach that will give our young players freedom to develop their own style. It is certainly not something anyone can teach, but it can be encouraged. James Anderson become England's record wicket-taker not because he is the fastest bowler, nor because he is the greatest, but because he played his own natural, idiosyncratic game.
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