I’ve pulled on my white coat and got into the top secret Pejic Laboratory this week to try to create a bionic footballer.
I want to make our very own Stoke City version of Steve Austin, using the best parts of players we have seen – and a couple I’ve been lucky enough to play alongside – over the last 50 years or so.
I’ve tried to mix the old with the new – and how I’d like to see this six-million dollar man run down the tunnel for Michael O’Neill once football gets going again.
George Eastham. Off the pitch, he was the footballer bright enough to break down clubs’ power over contracts – so in a way he’s probably to blame for a lot we see today! People wouldn’t believe how it used to be and it took brains and guts to sort it out.
On the pitch, he was a genius. He was the link between our back line and front line. When you look at the goal he scored in the League Cup final, most of the time you only see a short clip and I don’t think people realise how it started. He was involved at the start of the move towards the edge of his own area and was the most advanced player when he scored.
He read the game perfectly and very rarely gave the ball away even under intense pressure – at a time when opponents could and would clatter you.
We had some very clever players as I was growing up, like Jimmy McIlroy and Dennis Viollet and it was a privilege to play with George.
John Ritchie. Reg was quite adept with his feet and probably didn’t have the reputation he deserved on that score – but with his head he was second to none. When you think about the centre-backs he was up against who would knock six bells out of you, he was never afraid to put himself in dangerous situations and he always came out on top. He could take care of himself and he was brave and his positional play and technique were first class.
Marko Arnautovic. There are that many support staff on a match day in the modern game that they look like bees buzzing around a hive. The only thing missing is a hairdresser – and you can bet if there was one, Marko would be over to make adjustments rather than rush to the manager about tactics during any break in play!
He would come out with a different trim or a different colour from man bun to mullet week by week. As a player, he had an immense power and close control that made him so difficult to knock off the ball. I think he probably got frustrated sometimes being used on the left and benefited when David Moyes let him roam up front with more freedom.
THE HANDS AND ARMS
Gordon Banks. Most of Banksy’s brilliance was in his mind and getting in the right place to make everything else look easy – but if you were having anyone’s hands and arms, it has to be him. He was the best I’ve ever witnessed. The best the world has ever seen and probably will ever see. Nobody comes near him.
He was so calm. His footwork, his positional sense… he didn’t have to think, he just did it. But he still worked as hard as anyone to try to be even better.
We used to work him in afternoon sessions and even then sometimes you’d look at him in disbelief. How has he done that?
A lot of the times, he’d just be there. When he had to stretch, it was like in slow motion. Everything worked fluently, his whole body. His flow, rhythm, timing.
When the ball was crossed from the right, I’d already be running down the left ready to receive the ball from him. If he hadn’t been injured we’d have gone on to win quite a few trophies.
Ryan Shawcross. He leads by example and performance and he has a determination to continue against all odds. He’s seen the good, he’s seen the bad and he’s seen the ugly with his injuries up to the present day and he’s still there giving his all. Tony Pulis said that it’s on players like Shawcross that you build a football club and he’s not wrong. He’s played under a series of different managers and always delivered.
THE LEFT FOOT
Harry Burrows. I remember when I was an apprentice. We’d play for the B team in a morning and come back and open the changing room window into the paddock to watch the A team in the afternoon. Every time the game went dead for a free-kick, a group of fans used to shout, “Harrrrrrrrry Burrows!”
And when you think about a great left foot, he screams to my mind more than anyone. Even now when I meet him I still shout, “Harrrrrrrrry Burrows!”
He used to take penalties and they would always fly like a bullet into the bottom right corner, the keeper’s bottom left. He could hit the same square of the net. Such a strong player, he could open tin cans with that left foot.
THE RIGHT FOOT
Mike Sheron. I coached Mike in the mid-90s and he used to practise one-touch finishing every day, cutting the ball back from the by-line.
He wasn’t as fit as he could have been when he arrived but that was soon fixed with his hard work and, with his head thinking quicker, he was clinical inside the penalty area. Such a sharp finisher. He was similar in type to Gary Lineker and for the time he was with us he could get you back in games out of nothing when you were under the cosh.
He’d create a yard of space and that’s very hard to teach. He was a diamond.
Unfortunately he was sold far too easily and when he was gone, boy was he missed.