The utility man - a dying breed? No chance, here's a look at one member of the all-rounder club and the position in general
It is a little known fact that Bertie Bassett was an unused substitute in the 1984 FA Cup final. The following year, Bertie reprised his role, as twelfth man, in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. In 1986, Bertie finally looked destined for a leading role when he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup semi-final: a measured lob at Villa Park. Alas, it was not to be, Bertie was once again overlooked, failing to make the team for that year’s final. He was destined to be remembered for his role as an understudy: a willing and able replacement; a versatile character actor appreciated by his peers, but an understudy nonetheless.
The all conquering Everton team of the eighties was packed with leading men; excellent footballers who were each specialists in their given positions: Neville Southall was the world’s best goalkeeper; Kevin Ratcliffe was a centre back who possessed style and bite; Kevin Sheedy’s left foot crafted some of the most memorable goals in the club’s proud history; Peter Reid was a central midfielder who tackled, harried and passed to his heart’s content. And the list goes on: Paul Bracewell, Trevor Steven, Gary Lineker, Graeme Sharp, and Andy Gray. They are all players who are remembered for being responsible for the most successful spell in the Merseyside club’s history. And yet no Everton aficionado would allow the list to be deemed complete without the inclusion of one Alan Harper, also affectionately known as Bertie Bassett.
Bertie’s ability to play in all sorts of positions gave Howard Kendall the luxury of naming his strongest line-up for the club’s biggest games knowing his substitute had every position covered, it also gave Alan Harper a reputation as football’s best utility man, and an iconic nickname to boot.
In the days of teams only being permitted one substitute, a versatile number 12 was a luxury many managers sought. Consequently, utility players, whilst never quite de rigeur, were perhaps valued more than they are in the modern game. After all, who needs one Jack on a bench, when you can name seven masters? They are still around of course; versatility is still a quality managers value, particularly those who haven’t got millions to furnish their teams with connoisseurs. But they are different than they were in the eighties, still acceptable, but like most things in football, not quite as stoic.
Appropriately, the role of the utility man has taken more than one guise over the years. The history of the game unearths many a player capable of adapting to a number of positions, many of who, like Harper, have achieved cult hero status; however, it rarely offers true, bona-fide legendary status to men of versatility: John Charles is one such exception. The Welshman, a talisman for both Leeds United and Juventus - still often strangely overlooked on lists of all time greats, was unique in many ways, not least in his ability to play centrally at both ends of the field. A masterful footballer, elegant of touch and graceful in both the finish and the tackle, he was, it is pretty safe to say, better than Alan Harper.
A true trend for centre backs plying their trade at the opposite end of the pitch in the English game did not come to pass until the nineties, when Dion Dublin, Chris Sutton and Paul Warhurst each turned solid careers into noteworthy ones with long goal-scoring sprees. Dublin and Sutton would go on to cost their suitors over £30 million in transfer fees, with Sutton briefly becoming English football’s most expensive player when he moved from Norwich City to Blackburn Rovers in July 1994. Whilst Warhurst’s striking prowess was not sustained over quite as long a period, his impact as an emergency striker for Sheffield Wednesday was startling and jolted the club to the 1993 FA Cup Final. His later spells back in defence and, as a sort of compromise, in midfield for Blackburn Rovers and Crystal Palace, confirmed his utility man status. There is something very straightforward, passé and perhaps a little ‘British’ about ye olde centre halves using their physicality to influence games at the other end of the pitch. Unsurprisingly, the European game tends to offer a more sophisticated approach to flexibility.
Many an average footballer has benefitted from being adaptable. But to imply that utility men are standard, regular and run of the mill is both unfair and, given the world’s admiration for teams such as Ajax and Barcelona, more than a little ironic: the Amsterdam Arena and Camp Nou are homes to football philosophies that decree versatility a basic requirement. Indeed, Total Football rules that a player is more effective the more positions he is comfortable in. Both academies base their schooling on ensuring players are comfortable in as many positions as possible, a concept which in turn ensures Gerard Pique is able to drop a shoulder and round a keeper and Andres Iniesta is as comfortable receiving balls from Victor Valdes in full back positions as he is finding himself one on one with the opposition’s goalkeeper.
In 1995, Ajax won the Champions League with a fluid 3-3-3-1 formation which required every player to cover every blade of grass. That remarkable team was ripped up by the vultures of clubs who were cosseted by wealthier leagues, but many of the players initially struggled to become accustomed to the rigid formations employed by their new teams. In truth, the only way to stop that Ajax team was to sign them up, they were truly potent from all areas and would, had they been given more years together, be considered equal to the current glorious Barca side. Their ability to interchange positions kept oppositions guessing: Seedorf and Davids excelled, Blind and Rijkaard swapped between defensive duties in midfield and at the back, and De Boer’s positional sense was so diverse you would swear he had a twin brother.
Then in July 1995, a month after Ajax’s crowning moment in Vienna, English football welcomed the Netherland’s most successful non-Ajax man, Ruud Gullit. Glenn Hoddle’s proclamation that Gullit would play as a sweeper caused intrigue. His stay at the back was not as successful as both men had envisaged, but his success as a deep lying central midfielder brought plaudits aplenty. Gullit, who was renowned as a forward of the highest calibre before his arrival at Chelsea, proved himself to be more than that: he was, quite simply, a footballer of the highest calibre.
Some would argue that there should be nothing surprising about that. Great footballers are great footballers right? Certainly that appeared to be Leo Beenhakker’s opinion during the 2006 World Cup. Identifying Dwight Yorke as Trinidad and Tobago’s best player was no masterstroke, realising that he was unlikely to see enough of the ball to influence games at centre forward and so asking him to play as a holding midfielder was.
Why should versatility raise so many eyebrows? After all, every jobbing right-back probably began as his junior team’s star striker. Carlos Puyol certainly did. A later incarnation as a marauding full back preceded his transformation into an iconic Braveheart of a centre half. Indeed, football is littered with players who are on record as having started life in very different positions to the ones that made them famous.
Perhaps English football is finally warming to the idea of versatility as an attribute rather than a quirky accessory. Two of England’s most promising prospects have used this change of mentality to their advantage: Phil Jones began the current Premiership season as Manchester United’s standout performer. Unperturbed by competition at centre-back he has popped up at full back, wing back and a number of positions in midfield.
Meanwhile, at Alan Harper’s former club, Jack Rodwell has spent the majority of his game time for Everton’s first team in positions other than the centre back slot in which he won so many plaudits at youth level. A word of caution might be to hope he does not become a Jack of all trades. But the most likely outcome is that when he does revert to his favoured position, his experience in many areas will help him become a master of one.
It is encouraging to see individual English footballers making the most of their genuinely general football talent. The ever-changing game will demand a new breed of utility player. Most likely trends in formations will soon dictate that players are required to adapt to a variety of positions. All the signs are there: assassins Messi and Ronaldo score previously unthinkable amounts of goals from new starting positions; 4-6-0 is already a workable formation in the modern game; full backs are morphing into their teams’ most threatening attacking options.
Football will soon demand that players can play in all sorts of positions. Top clubs will be out to find them. Ironically Everton’s great rivals Liverpool may well have an unexpected advantage when it comes to uncovering the new breed of utility player, for plying his trade these days as Anfield’s Head Scout, is none other than Bertie Bassett himself: step forward, Mr Alan Harper.