Strikers. They grab the headlines, grab the glory and get paid the most money. They have broken my heart and my nose on more than one occasion. I have kicked, elbowed, nipped and scrapped with them, but when I look back over my career, I realise my CV would look rather different if it wasn’t for the top strikers I played with. There would be no league titles or promotions. For a center back, strikers are like women. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
There is a cliché in football that any team is only as good as their strikers and I firmly believe that. A look back at my own career confirms this theory. Iain Russell, Paddy Flannery, Marcus Stewart, Steven Elliot, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Andy Keogh, Sam Vokes, Chris Iwelumo and Jermaine Beckford. You may not recognise some of these names but I am indebted to them all. Without their goals, the teams I played alongside them for would have been also rans, nearly there but not quite, a footnote in the history books instead of history makers.
Now before anyone thinks I am suggesting a striker alone can carry you to glory, I am not. Even the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo needs help sometimes. Pepe was awesome at the back in helping Portugal to the European Championships and his teammates played their part but Ronaldo was the difference. At important moments when games could have gone either way, Ronaldo stepped up. He broke Welsh hearts in the semis when he rose like a salmon to break the deadlock. That’s what the good strikers do — score when it matters.
Anyone that has been a defender will understand how much the perception of your performance changes when you are playing in a team that can’t score goals. Imagine playing at center back and dominating your opponent for 85 minutes of the match. You don’t put a foot wrong. The score is tied at 0-0, your front men having missed various opportunities and you lose a late deflected effort. All of a sudden you are part of a losing team despite a strong personal performance. Compare this to a team that is clinical in front of goal. You go two-nil up and although you lose a late goal, your star striker scores another to give the team a comfortable 3-1 victory. I have experienced so many games like this where my performance level is the same but the outcome is dictated by your strikers’ ability to find the net. When your team scores goals, it hides a multitude of sins. When a team struggles to score everyone come under pressure. Goals don’t just change games they change people’s perception of an entire performance.
The importance of good strikers really hits home to me when I look back at my own career. I think it would be fair to say I played some of the best football of my career during seasons that ended in disappointment for the team. Yet, I’ve finished some seasons without the same level of personal consistency and won promotion. The difference in promotion-winning seasons hasn’t been down to my performances or that of the defence, but more often than not the teams’ ability to put the ball in the net. There are two seasons that come to mind that I think highlight the difference strikers really make.
In my first two years at Wolves, we kept the most clean sheets in the league with 18, yet only managed 5th and 7th place due to our profligacy in front of goal. During pre-season in my third year at the club, we were looking strong. Previously we had added the best striker in the league, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. Sylvan was accompanied by Andy Keogh and Sam Vokes. A fantastic trio of strikers at that level but still missing something to help us cross the threshold and into the Premier League. Chris Iwelumo was signed late in July and it was like the final piece in the jigsaw. All of a sudden we went from being a team that struggled in front of goal to having a plethora of strikers with a range of qualities and, most importantly, they could all find the net.
We won 15 out of the first 19 games. I wish I could say it was down to our fantastic defence or tiki-taka style of football, but truth be told, the difference from previous seasons was we could punish teams and capitalise on our chances. Anyone that watched or played against us that season will tell you how ruthless we were in front of goal. If we were playing well and creating chances, it could be a rout. If we weren’t at our best, our strikers would score out of nothing. It was the recipe for success. If the opposing team somehow did manage to stop Ebanks-Blake or Iwelumo, which was rare, then on would come Keogh or Vokes. When you play in a team with options like that, you feel like you can beat anyone. That confidence makes you such a dangerous proposition, while if you don’t have confidence in your team scoring, you feel very fragile.
The antithesis for this was my third season at Sheffield United, which was our second year in League One. We were top on Boxing Day and riding the crest of a wave. Sean Miller and Dave Kitson had formed a great partnership up top and were supported by Nick Blackman out wide, who was a regular source of goals and assists. As if struck by the same curse that had seen us lose Ched Evans the year before, Sean Miller suffered a season-ending knee injury on Boxing Day and Nick Blackman was sold in January. We lost our two best goal threats in one month. We went on to record a club record 21 clean sheets that season but could only finish fifth. We had four consecutive 0-0 draws at Bramall Lane. That is unheard of and certainly not the sign of Champions. There is not a doubt in my mind that had we not lost Miller to injury and kept Blackman, or at least adequately replaced them, Sheffield United would have returned to the Championship. Instead, we meekly surrendered in the playoff semifinals to Yeovil. We managed one goal over the two legs. The previous season, we had managed one goal in three playoff games and ultimately lost in the final on penalties.
At the end of the season we had a clean sheet record and, on a personal note, I had scooped more than a few Player of the Year awards, yet the season finished as one of the most disappointing of my career. I would have swapped all the personal accolades for promotion and enthusiastically applauded our striker as he walked on stage to pick up all the awards and receive all the adulation if I was sitting with a league winners medal around my neck thanks to his goals. A look through the history books and you will struggle to find a team that won trophies without a twenty goal a season man.
One of my favorite teams of all time was the Manchester United treble winning team that had a quartet of strikers that was second to none. Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solsjkaer. I think it is fair to say history would be different if it hadn’t been for these guys. That United team was never beaten as it could always rely on a goal from one of these players. During that 98/99 season who can forget the late goals against Liverpool in the FA Cup or the European final against Bayern Munich? Coming off the bench Sheringham and Solsjkaer both notched a goal to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. These goals changed the whole context of their season. The difference between David May holding a Champions League medal or not came down to the quality of the teams’ strikers. At any level it I think it is vital to have options up top. It not only can change the whole dynamic of a game but can change a clubs’ history.
I have been very fortunate to play with some fantastic strikers through my career. Out of all them, Ebanks-Blake eptomised everything you would want in a striker. He would die to score a goal the way a top defender would die to keep one out. If the team won and he didn’t score he was disappointed. Not in a way that was detrimental to the team spirit, but he thrived on scoring goals. At the back I could often hear him moaning about one thing or another but it’s another “strength” that all strikers seem to have. If they don’t get the ball they will tell you about it so the next time you won’t think twice before giving it to them. Many people think defenders need to be aggressive and uncompromising, but so do strikers, just in a different way. Strikers can’t be the nice guy. They have to want to get that ball in the net. It has to really mean something to them.
I can’t talk about strikers and not mention Kris Boyd. I had the challenge (I was going to say pleasure but it was anything but) of playing against Kris during my teenage years. Boydy is the all-time top scorer in the SPL and I can’t say I am surprised.
It was as if he was born to score goals. Like Sylvan, he had all the typical striker traits. A nose for goal, composure under pressure, clean finishing and he was a moany b&@£%#d.
My school, Marr College, and Boydy’s school, Mainholm, were the best in the area so we often met in cup finals. I should point out at this stage in our lives, while we were the same age, we were at completely different stages in our development. Boydy was a hairy arsed man while I was a spotty, scrawny little boy. It was a complete mismatch physically. One cup final we got humped 5-2 and, you guessed it, the big man got all five.
The following year, my school got to the final again only to be met by Boyd and Mainholm. With half the school coming to watch, I couldn’t have a repeat of last year, a Kris Boyd exhibition of finishing. I took it upon myself to man mark him. When I say man mark, I mean you couldn’t have slipped a fag paper between us. It certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played, as I sacrificed joining in the play to stand next to Boydy and upset him. Pep Guardiola would have been disgusted with my lack of attempt to get on the ball, but I had one thing on my mind and that was to stop this boy in a man’s’ body from scoring and it worked. We won 1-0 and I could go to school the next day with my head held high, comfortable in the knowledge I had kept a professional footballer in waiting from scoring. There are no sure things in football but Boydy making a living of out the game was as close as it came. Many people in Scotland underestimate him and focus on what he didn’t have in his repertoire, but in terms of desire to score goals that fire has burned brightly since his schoolboy years.
One of the best theories I ever heard regarding strikers came from an old assistant manager, Frank Barlow, who knows the game inside out. His philosophy is that if you look at any good strikers’ record, they will have been scoring goals all through their career from youth level through reserves and into first team football. While you can improve your finishing and practice on making it better, the best front men have a nose for goal that can’t be taught, though it can be honed.
Alan Russell, an ex-player who I did battle with in my early years in Scotland, is now a striker coach. You may know him better as the man behind Superior Striker and his regular appearances on Soccer AM. It is a sign of the game evolving all the time that position specific coaches are starting to appear. Watching some clips of the sessions he puts his clients through should be enough to strike the fear of death into any defender. Gone are the days where the assistant stands at the edge of the 18-yard box and players line up to receive a one-two and lash the ball past the goalkeeper. It may be fun, but it’s not very realistic. Russell has strikers replicating game-like situations and movements that help improve timing and finishing. A quick glance at the players he works with and their record on the pitch is proof that he’s making a positive impact. Andre Gray is a fantastic example of how the extra work can pay off. He is managing to combine his power and pace with cool finishing. It’s something clubs should look at closely.
I think I have already covered how important it is to have your strikers firing on all cylinders. There is no shame in bringing in the “experts” to work 1-on-1 or in small groups with different parts of the team.
The English season is now moving into what Sir Alex Ferguson describes as “Squeaky bum time.” I would say your arse should be twitching if you don’t have confidence in your team finding the onion bag. Whether it is Costa, Kane or Sanchez in the Premiership or Billy Sharp, Ross McCormack and Glen Murray in the Football League, all these guys are going to need to produce the goods if their team is to be lifting silverware come May.