Elegance as a quality in life, sport and the arts is hard to define but easily recognised. It’s surely something to do with speed of thought, economy of movement, grace under pressure. The elegant glide to triumphs without overt strain so that we catch our breath and sigh, ‘that’s how to do it!’. And, having seen the elegant work their magic with such panache we queue up to see them do it again so we can exclaim I was there and saw them do it.
Fred Astaire in every dance routine of his career. Lester Young launching into a saxophone soliloquy, Barry Richards caressing the cricket ball to the boundary, Barry John casually wrong footing an entire All Black defence. P G Woodhouse crafting a perfect inimitable paragraph. Maria Bueno conjuring a Wimbledon winner.
The elegant performer wins your heart and your allegiance to their cause. This is not a matter of statistics, of heaped titles or medals but of indelible memories, stories of famous feats to be retold to your own and the following generations.
My own exemplar of elegance is the one and only Alan Gilzean a footballer whose fabled history at Dundee, Spurs and for Scotland feels more wondrous as each season passes.
At Dundee he scored an incredible 169 goals in just 190 games between 1959 and 1964. He was the glory of the best side they ever had under the tutelage of the great Bill Shankly’s brother, Bob. With the Dark Blues he won the the league title in 1961/62 and the following year he was the spearhead of their thrilling run to the semi-final of the European Cup where they lost to the eventual winners – the lordly AC Milan.
At the end of 1964 the ever shrewd Bill Nicholson bought him for Spurs where he was to remain until the endof the 73/74 season. The Spurs fans quickly came to adore Gily recognising a player who met their demand for style as well as success. In no time he was lionised as the King of White Hart Lane – a title he will hold in perpetuity!
The statistics relate that he scored 133 goals for Spurs in 429 games and that he was a member of the sides that won an FA Cup, two League Cups and a EUFA cup. But, with Alan Gilzean it’s not the numbers that you remember it’s the breathtaking elegance of his play – the way he could amaze you game after game with the subtlety of his footballing imagination. He insouciantly brought off feats of skill and technique that other fine players could only dream of – leaving opponents admiringly bemused and teammates exhilerated.
Alan Gilzean was to use a fine Scots term a supremely canny player. He seemed to have an advanced football radar system that allowed him to know exactly where he was in relation to his markers and his team mates. He could compute the trajectory of any pass that came towards him on the ground or in the air and instantly assess whether the ball should be held up or delivered on. He had exquisite touch on the deck regularly wrong footing defenders before setting up goal chances for himself or one of his strike partners. His sense of football space and keen eye for opportunity made him one one of the great collaborators.
He forged a legendary striking partnership (the G men!) with the peerless Jimmy Greaves who profited greatly from Gilzean’s vision. No one has ever been better at coolly converting chances into goals than Jimmy Greaves and Gilzean provided him with a wealth of those chances. Indeed, Jimmy has called Gilzean the best player he ever worked with – some accolade. Where Jimmy was all poise and deadly sureness Gilzean’s other principal strike partner, Martin Chivers, was all power and swagger. Gilzean was a superb foil to both.
One of Alan’s great attributes was his ability to change the direction of play to open up seemingly closed paths to goal. He was the master of the shimmy, the feint and the dummy – leaving many a defender bewildered and bamboozled in his wake. He turned the back-heel into an art form and won the plaudits for artistic impression from the White Hart Lane faithful.
However, the defining skill of his genius was his heading of which he was the supreme master. To watch Alan Gilzean working his way through his heading repertoire was an intensely pleasurable privilege. The power header, the precisely placed in the corner of the net header, the chance on a plate for Jimmy header, the eternal glory of the Gilzean glancing header and the masterpieces that were the Gilzean back headers will forever define the art and science of heading a football. He seemed to intuitively understand a geometry too complex for Euclid when it came to directing headers.
Given his eminence and elegance as a player I propose some additions to the language to reflect his unique contribution to footballing and sporting culture.
Gilzean: Noun – A sporting term for a perfectly executed back header or back heel gemerally resulting in a goal being scored.
Gilzean: Verb – To display enormous technical skill with nonchalance.
Alan Gilzean was brave, hugely talented and gave unstintingly of those talents. He is a footballing immortal whose legend will burn bright wherever elegance and beauty of style are celebrated.
God bless you Alan Gilzean – long may you amble!
Further reading: Happily there is an excellent book on our hero, ‘In Search Of Alan Gilzean: The Lost Legacy of a Dundee and Spurs Legend’ by James Morgan.
Look out for forthcoming posts on The Shangri Las, Little Richard, Muhammad Ali,
Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Dolly Parton.