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Life in the fast lane

Gavin Strachan | 10:30 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009

Hi, hope you are all well.

If a fairy godmother came down to me and said: "Gavin, I can give you one attribute to aide your (ailing) footballing career," I would not have to think very hard about what I would want the most. It would be pace.....and lots of it!

I have lost track of the number of conversations I have had with fellow professionals about the advantages of having this string to your bow. There is no doubt that life as a footballer is so much easier if pace is among your primary attributes.

Usually, the conversations on this subject drifts on to the various players we have come across during our careers who would have made it at the very top level if they had been gifted with that extra yard of pace.

adamboyd282_getty.jpgOne of the best examples I can give is my former Hartlepool United team-mate Adam Boyd, now at Leyton Orient. He is a very talented striker and some of the things I have seen him do in training have defied belief. However, although he has had a decent career in the lower leagues, his lack of pace has restricted him from breaking into the upper echelons of the game.

As I have said before, the pace and tempo at which modern-day top-flight football is played is faster than ever before and the emphasis on clubs to nurture or purchase players who have pace has become greater.

When you have one of these jet-heeled players in your team, the opposition tend to drop back to nullify the threat of the ball being played into the space behind their defence. By defending deeper, they give you more space to exploit in the middle of the pitch. You also have more ammunition to hit teams on the counter-attack, which the top teams do very well.

From a midfielder's perspective, one of the great things about playing with fast wingers and strikers is that you can occasionally afford not to be inch-perfect with your passes to them. Sometimes, a simple pass into a big open space will do.

I have to make the point that a number of these ultra-quick players are, for some reason, noticeably slower when it comes to tracking back and defending! Still, because of what they bring to a team they tend to be easily forgiven for it!

From time-to-time you hear about clubs employing sprint coaches. It is not something that I have come across in my career, which is a shame because it would be interesting to see the methods they employ and, ultimately, whether or not they make a difference. Rightly or wrongly, they seem to be viewed as something of a "luxury" type of coach within the football fraternity.

If you are not blessed with pace, then in order to be classed as a world-class player you have to be an absolute master at other aspects of the game. Take David Beckham or Xabi Alonso, who have compensated for their lack of pace with amazing passing ability. These are two of my favourite players - I can't help but marvel at the way they effortlessly ping balls about the pitch. A lot of fans cannot begin to imagine how difficult their passing skills can be and the amount of practice these players have invested in it.

If at any point during this article you sense that my views of players with great pace are tinged with a bit of jealousy, you will be right (tongue in cheek, I might add). The fact is that footballers blessed in this way have an instant advantage. In my experience, players who have pace can forge relatively successful careers without always being particularly proficient in the other aspects of the game.

A name that always springs to mind in this respect is another former Hartlepool United team-mate of mine, Marcus Richardson. I am sure this much-travelled centre-forward, now with Farnborough in the Southern League Premier Division, will be the first to agree that the technical side of the game - control, passing etc - was not his forte but he was able to carve out a career in the lower leagues solely through his pace and strength. It got to the point that, if he came short wanting the ball played in to his feet, people would ignore that option and give him a ball to chase in behind the opposing defence. This is where he has been at his most effective.

The fact that Marcus has played for some 16 clubs at League and non-League level highlights the belief that when you have pace and strength you will always be in demand.

League Two has had its fair share of flying machines this season. Among the most notable are Omar Daley at Bradford City, Jonathan Forte (who joined Notts County on loan from Scunthorpe United but has recently returned to his parent club) and Lincoln City's Dany N'Guessan.

However, the two players in this mould who have caught my eye the most this season are Myles Weston (Notts County) and Sam Saunders of Dagenham & Redbridge. Both were in action in last Saturday's fixture between the two sides at Meadow Lane. I had heard a lot about Saunders and after witnessing at first hand what he can do and also having him whiz past me a few times, I can testify that the praise he has received has not been misplaced. The goal he scored - the first in a 3-0 Dagenham win - was an absolute stunner.

As for Weston, I have to admit that the task of defending against him in the one v one drills that form part of our training work is something I try to avoid. Whenever these drills take place we split into groups of defenders and attackers. If I am in the group defending, I always look at the line of possible "opponents" opposite me and try to work out which player I will come up against. If it looks like it will be Myles I am not ashamed to admit that a strategic bit of queue jumping takes place!

Myles is well aware that he is not quite the finished article. He knows his control and other technical aspects of his game need improving. However, what he has in his favour is the fact that he is willing to learn and put in the work required to polish up those rough edges.


On the subject of flying wingers, Ryan Giggs (who it is probably fair to say can now be classed as a former flying winger), was crowned PFA Player of the Year. It is not surprising that there has been some controversy over some of the awards. It does seem hard to believe that Chelsea's Frank Lampard was not among the nominees and there have certainly been plenty of raised eyebrows over some of the players selected - or not selected - for the divisional teams of the year.

I think it is important to bear in mind that the ballots take place in February and human nature dictates that you vote for people who are in good form at that time. It is worth pointing out that February was the month when Giggs scored that fantastic goal against West Ham United and Manchester United were in particularly good form.

For what it's worth, I voted for Wayne Rooney as the PFA Player of the Year and Ashley Young as Young Player of the Year. Thinking of players who had the strongest claims for such distinction was not difficult, given the amount of Premier League football we see on television. As I pointed out in my previous blog regarding the awards, it is a different matter when you are trying to assess the best players in Leagues One and Two, which helps explain why no Brentford players were included in the League Two team of the year nor any from Dagenham & Redbridge - one of the surprise teams of the season.


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