Back then, to be the centre-forward in a football team was the glory role. There was always one kid who did not want to run around, just lurk in the six-yard box, waiting to pounce on the chances others created. It was Ben in my year at school. Even in five-aside football as an adult there was Prenno.
The No 9 shirt was the one all the glory boys (and most probably glory girls) wanted, to the point where, once squad numbers became a thing, when Inter Milan took it off Ivan Zamorano, he insisted on having 18 and putting a plus sign in the middle.
Now, though, being the No 9 is no longer what the gloryhunters most want to do. To be “the 10” is the ultimate status position in this country, bringing us into line with others.
Before Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Benito Carbone, Eric Cantona et al, “No 10” was not really part of the English footballing lexicon. The man who used to wear that number was usually just the other centre-forward, or perhaps a central midfielder. With only a few exceptions, our creators were usually told to play wide and get chalk on their boots.
Like holding midfielder, it was a position that barely existed in a country where 4-4-2 ruled.
No 10s play in the hole between attack and midfield, as much about creating goals as scoring them – more eye-catching on the highlights, less prominent on the now-defunct vidiprinter. Although goalscoring, like tackling, is a skill in itself, it is seen as the most skilful position.
Most modern centre-forwards like to have a bit of that to their game, the ability to drop off and join in the play. Those who start as the furthest upfield often play as “false nines”, leaving a vacuum at the head of the attack to flood the midfield. Without wanting to overdo the hipster buzzwords, for the purpose of this article I will call the people who try to do a bit of both jobs “nine-and-a-halves”.
Then there are wide forwards like Mohamed Salah, Son Heung-Min, Jarrod Bowen or Marcus Rashford, who play wide of a front three, but not as wingers, dodging the hits of a targetman but getting in plenty of shots.
The game is better for the evolution of styles but the No 9 is an endangered species.
Harry Kane seemed to lose interest in it a bit last year, preferring to be more of a false nine, and England went into the European Championship with Sheffield-born Dominic Calvert-Lewin as the only other person who could play there. Jamie Vardy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michail Antonio and Neal Maupay are the only genuine centre-forwards in the Premier League’s top 15 goalscorers this season.
You can be successful without a No 9 as the two best teams in the country, Manchester City and Liverpool, are showing but it helps if you have a genius manager and lots of brilliant attacking players.
Watching Rotherham United win at Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday was a reminder of the importance of those players, just as too many Leeds United games played without Patrick Bamford this season have been.
The Owls have a proper No 9 in Lee Gregory, unfashionable and invaluable. Josh Windass is more of a wide attacker, Tyreece John-Jules a natural “nine-and-a-half”. All three were injured on Sunday, leaving Callum Paterson and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing in their place.
Paterson is more of a nine than Windass or John-Jules but like Mendez-Laing, his versatility means he has a less selfish mindset than – and the whole point of this piece is it is not a criticism – Gregory. He has not scored in 21 games.
The result: an absolute stack of Owls chances came and went.
Rotherham also had a nine injured in Will Grigg but in their slightly (but not as much as is made out) old-fashioned ways, they had others to fall back on and Freddie Ladapo and Michael Smith snaffled up just about the only good chances they created in a 2-0 win. The value of a proper centre-forward could not have been better demonstrated.
Leeds too are suffering badly for a lack of anyone to fill in for Bamford, whose value is almost as obvious this season as in his 17-goal campaign last. Rodrigo is a more natural 10, Tyler Roberts is no targetman.
Joe Gelhardt is in development but like an over-precious artist, coach Marcelo Bielsa does not seem to want the public to see him until he is perfect. His two goals at Aston Villa suggested winger Dan James is learning the role but more evidence is needed before he can be declared a success.
Leeds could have done with buying one in January but their scarcity means their value has gone up even as their popularity has declined. It is not hard to work out why Barnsley are the Football League’s lowest scorers. Since their nine-and-a-half Cauley Woodrow got injured before Christmas they have had no one single-mindedly focused on scoring.
Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United have alternatives but their form means the Yorkshire pair’s Championship play-off hopes may rest on Danny Ward and Billy Sharp staying fit and firing.
For as long as football matches are decided by who scores the most goals, there will always be a place for proper centre-forwards.