5 Players who I believed were a class apart in the 4th tier of football. How have they got on since?

Having watched football in the lower leagues since the start of the millennium, I’ve seen my fair share of technical dross and anti-football, yet spattered in between I’ve been witness to marvelous attacking football, teams keeping the ball down, and the odd player with a real touch of class.

Despite being a no-nonsense, hard-hitting aerial beast of a centre back in my teenage playing years, where winning was everything (At Uni, knowing we didn’t have the personnel to play sexy football, we once played an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 formation against The Jews, looking to win cheap free kicks so we could pump diagonal set-piece balls into their box and feed off scraps, in something of a homage to Sam Allardyce), as a spectator, I’ve always demanded slick passing football and appreciated the ‘crack’, the one player abounding in technical ability and who really stands out from the other players on show.

This considered, I’ve picked out 5 players I’ve seen live whilst watching Rochdale AFC playing to see how their careers have taken off, or not.

1. GEORGE BOYD – EVENTUALLY GOT THERE

George Boyd
George Boyd

Going into a final day encounter at Peterborough in 2007, us Rochdale fans were in high spirits. Keith Hill had come in the previous Christmas and lifted us from the bottom two to ninth through playing no-fear attacking football. At the time Peterborough had a knack of picking up excellent young non-league players and also played in a gung-ho attacking style. The architect of their team was a young, even then head-banded George Boyd, who ran the show without really breaking sweat and chipped in with 2 excellent goals, the moves for a glancing header and a thundering strike both started and finished by him. Technically, he was way above anyone on the pitch that day (we incidentally managed a 3-3 draw) and I wondered for a long time why he stayed so long at The Posh. Evidently, natural talent reared at the lower end of the football pyramid can eventually reap its reward, though he has yet to really take off at Hull or Burnley.

2. BEN DAVIES – DIDN’T QUITE MAKE IT TO THE TOP LEVEL

Ben Davies in blue and white
Ben Davies in blue and white

Going back to an autumn Friday night in 2005, Rochdale left Chester’s Deva Stadium with 3 points after an amazing 3-2 comeback win sealed in the dying moments by Rickie Lambert. How that happened I’ll never know, as I’ve never seen us so under the cosh as on that night. Chester rattled the woodwork what seemed at least half a dozen times, and their relentless attacking was orchestrated by a young Ben Davies, complete with flowing blond locks. Every time he stood over a dead ball or picked up possession anywhere near the edge of the box, nervous squeals could be heard in the Dale end such was his prowess for long range shooting. His career took him as high as Derby in the Championship a couple of years back, but I get the impression he was reined back in a defensive midfield role, and for whatever reason, never went beyond that level.

3. PADDY MCCOURT – THE WHITE KANU

Paddy McCourt
Paddy McCourt

We ‘Dale fans have the wonderful privelege of witnessing Irish Paddy in his late teenage years at Spotland. The best dribbler of a ball I’ve ever seen, he found, and still finds at Brighton apparently, a way to mesmerisingly drift past other players despite having zero pace and the physical fitness of long grass blowing in the wind. Why we called him the ‘White Kanu’ I’ll never know, as I always considered our Nwankwo as an awkward player who fortuitously bundled the ball around. Our then manager in 2004ish, Steve Parkin, saw fit to release him and he played in Ireland for several years before popping up at Celtic and scoring worldies in the SPL. He’s gained fame amongst the Youtube fans for his ridiculous goals, but there’s a part of me which really wishes he’d made it really big, such was his talent, but his apparent fondness for cigarettes and alcohol put paid to that a long while ago.

4. ALAN TATE – A GRADUAL RISE, THEN AN ACCIDENT  AT GOLF

Alan Tate
Alan Tate

Back in the early 2000s Swansea were in real trouble of dropping out of the football league, but when they came and snatched 3 points at Spotland in that season they almost went down, they had a young defender on loan from Manchester United called Alan Tate. He oozed class on the ball, swept up any dangers that our attack could cause. Rarely does a defender stand out to me at this level of football, and Swansea fans may argue otherwise, but Tate seemed a large part of the reason they stayed up that season, and the subsequent 10 seasons he spent with the club as they rose to the Premiership demonstrate his importance to their success. Unfortunately, by the time they got to the top tier, a recent Google search shows me that he apparently had a leg-breaking accident with a golf-buggy, which it seems he has never really recovered from. Such a shame that it prevented him from making his mark on the Premier League.

5. JOE HART – HOW DID HE DO IT?

Joe Hart
Joe Hart

And finally we come to Joe Hart, the current England first-choice goalkeeper who made his name as a baby-faced teenager at Shrewsbury Town. As an exception to the rule, upon seeing him line up against Rochdale at the end of the 2004-2005 season when we were making a late push for a play-off place, I asserted that he was a crap keeper. As I remember, the Shrews came to park the bus and opened the scoring through someone’s grandad Mike Sheron early on. For about 70 minutes thereon we absolutely battered them and God knows how we only managed a 1-1 draw. Well, it would be because of Hart, unorthodoxly getting in the way of any attempt at goal, though I saw it more as luck, and the ball merely hitting his face, chest and every other body part you can think of on its way to spinning against the bar or trickling just wide of the post. Yet he’s gone on to be the best ‘keeper in the country, so he was doing something right. Can’t fault someone for being lucky, can you?

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