The long trail to the top, by Ted Harston (famous forward of Liverpool)
No matter from what angle this game of football is looked at, whether in regard to clubs or individuals, the impression is just the same – a see-saw – now up, now down. Perhaps that’s part of the fascination of it. For a little while a club sits on top of the world; in a position to crow over all opposition. But that club, so string, so skilful, so dominant, comes tumbling down.
Take Sheffield Wednesday as an example, and there are two reasons for my mentioning them. One is that as a growing lad I was much interested in the club, having been born nearby, and the other is that it was the Wednesday who gave me my first professional engagement.
That, as many readers will probably recall, was at the time when the Wednesday were on top of the world.
Twice in succession the Sheffielders won the championship of the First Division, and sometimes, as I watched them in those learning days, I thought how wonderful it would be to play in the centre for such a forward line: Hooper, Seed, Gregg or Burgess and Rimmer.
But, of course, the Wednesday had well established centre-forwards in those days and my hopes of playing with such talented men on either side of me as those I have mentioned, were not fulfilled.
Since those days, when they were up, Sheffield Wednesday have come down – played their part in this see-saw game.
In those early days of mine I used to marvel at the skill and accuracy of First Division players in general, but I had to do much travelling ere again getting really in touch with the highest grade of football. To nearby Barnsley first, and then association with Reading, Bristol City, and Mansfield Town.
I struggled on, trying to climb upwards, for a matter of seven or eight years before I could really claim to have gained a regular place even in a Third Division side.
So to last season when I really found my feet in the goalscoring line, managing, with the real aid of my colleagues to score 55 League goals in the Northern Third.
The man who did most to set me on my feet, so far as help in the field is concerned, was Ernest Hart. This experienced centre-half from Leeds United, when playing behind me at Mansfield last season, did not join the band of purely stopper centre-halves.
He played in what might be called the old-fashioned way; following up when his side was attacking, and often pushing the ball through to me in the perfect way.
An ambition realized
When one is getting goals: possessing the necessary confidence, goal-getting is comparatively easy, but no centre-forward can get them consistently unless he has the right sort of support.
That remark applies in the general sense, and is not affected much by the class in which the would-be goalscorer is operating.
Having climbed the ladder laboriously and I think justifiably proud of the feat of scoring as many goals in a season as any Third Division player has ever done – Joe Payne, of Luton, got the same number last term – my chance came to renew association with a First Division club. I went to Liverpool.
The start in the top class was quite happy, for I scored three goals in my first two games in the First Division.
I had feeling that the years of trying, of struggling, were turning out to be well worth while.
The came the blow, in the shape of a nasty injury at Portsmouth in the middle of September – my fourth match of the season.
There is no need for me to dwell on the bitterness of the disappointment. It will be obvious to those who have had the feeling that a big ambition is being realized, and then being laid aside for several weeks.
I am now getting fit again after several games in the reserve side and looking forward to doing my bit in the class of football after which I have hankered since my boyhood days: the first Division.
The value of experience
By a strange coincidence in the first match in which I played in the top class I was opposed to a centre-half, Bob Griffiths, who had spent many years at Chelsea without getting a real opportunity to show his worth. Now he seems to be established as the centre half of the Chelsea team. My first – and as events proved my fleeting impressions, of First Division football led me to the conclusion that, after all, there is not so much difference between the quality of the football in that section and the Third Division as I had previously imagined.
There is a difference, of course. First Division football, so far as I have been able to judge by my few appearances, and while watching occasionally from the stand, has what I call the chessboard game developed to a greater extent.
There is less rushing hither and thither by the various players, and more calm and methodical covering by the defenders.
Probably the explanation of this lies in the fact that, generally speaking, the First Division players are more experienced. Because of their greater experience they play more with their head, in the thinking sense, than the players of the lower classes of football.
Where brains tell most
The marking of the First Division players is more methodical. Defenders, as I seem them, have developed the knack of making the forwards play as they want them to play. Let me give one example to illustrate the point.
When the winger in First Division football is in possession the full-back opposed to him positions himself in such a way that the winger experiences real difficulties in cutting in. The full back compels him to keep near the line, forces him outwards, rather than inwards, if you understand what I mean.
Because of this the centre half is less frequently drawn away from the opposing centre forward, and even if the ball is swung into the middle the centre forward finds his centre half opponent always there.
To put the difference in a nut-shell, it seem to me that First Division football in the general sense is more scientific. When I signed for Sheffield Wednesday years ago I asked one of the players what it was most necessary for me to learn in order to get on. His reply was apt: “You have to play with your head as well as your feet when you get on a bit.”
Today I know that old Sheffield player was right: players in the top class think a lot – and all the time.
Copyright - Portsmouth Evening News, 14-12-1937 - Transcribed by Kjell Hanssen