Robust tackling used to be regarded as all part of the game whether you did it yourself or got someone to do it for you...


Several of the old-timers I talk to while writing When Footballers Were Skint refer to robust tackling as clogging, an uncomplicated term for what was accepted as being all part of the game. Its modern counterpart tends to be more subtle, more deceitful and – the biggest difference – those on the receiving end today are inclined to squeal regardless of whether or not they are hurt.

The Manchester City defender Bill Leivers, in completing a story about tangling with Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse, quotes the unwritten etiquette of how a player used to react to a heavy tackle, particularly a retaliatory one: ‘You got up and grinned about it, you didn’t roll about on the ground for ten minutes.’

The nimble-footed winger Stanley Matthews of Stoke City, Blackpool and England had to deal with being clogged more often than most. But Matthews neither grinned nor whimpered.

He developed a response straight out of the Al Capone handbook: he turned a stony face on all who assaulted him and, if the attack was bad enough to qualify for physical retribution, he deployed a hitman to do his dirty work for him.

Over his long career he had two minders he regarded as special. One was Jock Dodds, an energetic Scot who was a teammate in Blackpool’s formidable wartime team. Dodds was particularly effective at sorting out those who caused Matthews aggravation in a way that referees accepted. But not always.

On one occasion he overdid it when giving the Oldham fullback Tommy Shipman his comeuppance for harassing Matthews. He knew this to be the case by the look on the referee’s face, at which point he feigned injury himself, falling to the ground, to try to win the official’s sympathy.

‘Are you too OK to walk,’ the ref asked Dodds in a kindly tone.

‘Yes, I think I can, ref,’ Dodds said, falling for the ref’s concern.

‘Then you can walk off down the tunnel,’ the official said, pointing to the tunnel in the days before red cards.

Late in his career, when Matthews was nearer 50 than 40 and back at Stoke, Eddie Clamp was responsible for protecting the club’s ageing asset. Clamp had been passed on to Stoke by Arsenal, whose manager Billy Wright was looking for more finesse from his players than Clamp was offering.

Clamp’s finest moment was in the battle of the Choppers, a nickname he shared with Ron Harris of Chelsea. From the first minute of a Second Division promotion match at Stamford Bridge Harris had been hacking away at Matthews until the referee finally intervened with a warning Clamp considered insufficient for the crimes that had been committed.

When the opportunity presented itself, Clamp took Harris by the shirt, called him a little sod and warned him that he would be well advised to pick on someone other than Matthews for the remainder of the match.

Harris ignored this advice and soon afterwards Clamp delivered a tackle the like of which, Matthews said, he had not seen in 30 years of football. ‘I never had a spot of bother from Chopper Harris for the remainder of the match,’ Matthews said.

Occasionally, Matthews would instruct his hitmen to deploy psychological rather than physical retribution.

Don Ratfcliffe, the popular Ratter who was another team-mate of Matthews’s in his second spell at Stoke, says: ‘I got on very well with Stan and used to fire his bullets for him. He was a very quiet fella, but he was funny and used to tell me things to say to their defenders.

‘He’d say, “Tell ’em they can’t play. If they were any good they’d be up here with us in the forward line” – that type of thing.’


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.