It is possible to imagine Gordon Strachan pouring scorn on those who seek to make too many connections between football and art.
When Eric Cantona uttered those words about seagulls following trawlers they were interpreted by many as being deep and profound. Strachan wondered how he would have been greeted had he made such an observation. “I’d just be called a short Scottish bum talking crap,” he concluded.
But when it comes to Johan Cruyff, even Strachan is inspired to use words like “ballerina” and “graceful”. Even he risked steering into pretentious waters. That’s the Cruyff effect for you.
The Scotland manager was yesterday moved to offer his appreciation of the great Dutch footballer, whose death was announced on the afternoon of Scotland’s win over Czech Republic in Prague on Thursday.
They might seem to have had little in common; not even their football skills. While obviously abundant in Strachan, Cruyff’s cup simply overflowed with talent. One was famous for chain-smoking, even during his playing days, while the other was supremely health-conscious.
They never played against each other on the football pitch; Strachan was still figuring out how to evade bone-crunching tackles in the Scottish First Division with Dundee when Cruyff was coming to the end of his Barcelona days, prior to his United States sojourn.
But, even in his quest to avoid those intent on stopping him by whatever means possible, Cruyff could have offered the then less physically robust Strachan some pointers. The Dutch maestro was not all about stylish, trademarked turns and dinky feints and flicks. He was stronger than is suggested by his depiction as a long-haired poet of the game, this knight of total football.
The way be battled cancer also pointed to Cruyff’s resilience before he passed away in Barcelona on Thursday, aged 68.
“I’m a bit younger and we all remember the turn [against Sweden],” said Strachan, who turns 60 next birthday.
“The way he played against Argentina in the 1974 World Cup,” he added, referencing Cruyff’s two-goal performance in the 4-0 second round win. “You’ve got to remember he played in the days when you got the first kick free – and usually the second and third ones as well. You could go through the whole team having kicks at you but he never seemed to complain.
“He just got on with it. He might have looked slender but he had real core strength. That’s what we miss in Scottish football – players with core strength.”
Strachan was one of those Scots who did have such inner mettle; he kept coming back for more. This was also allied to skills that if not quite at Cruyff’s level, were as close as Scots tended to get.
Fate decreed that Strachan, by then with Aberdeen, would not come up against Cruyff in European competition after the Dutch master returned to Ajax and then signed for Feyenoord in the early 1980s. They would of course later meet where so many great footballers end up communing; at pro-am golf tournaments. “He was alright at that as well,” said Strachan, who remembered one occasion where he played in a group comprising Cruyff, Bobby Charlton and him: “Spot the odd one out there!”
Strachan described Cruyff as the first footballer the masses could truly enjoy due to the greater access to television sets in the 1970s, when the player was in his stylish pomp. The likes of Pele, Eusebio, Di Stefano and Puskas were born too early. Cruyff belongs to an age that while not nearly as well-recorded now, was still often captured on videotape, mostly in colour. It is one reason why Cruyff is so easy to associate with the colour orange.
“He was the first superhero we saw on telly,” noted Strachan. “We never saw Pele too much or Eusebio because it was just the start of television coming through and showing football more regularly.
“His movement was like a ballerina, he had the grace and the strength. And his ability was phenomenal.
“He was only 68, it’s nothing,” he added.
Few football people, Strachan pointed out, excel both as a player and then do so again as a coach, something Cruyff managed. He returned to Barcelona, where he was already adored, as manager and led them to their first European Cup title in 1992. “He was an incredible coach,” said Strachan. “It’s very hard to be one of these top, top players and then go on and become a top, top coach. There’s not many who have done that – you can count them on the fingers of one hand.”