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Bafana: Listen to the Lawman or end up being shackled

John Robbie

John Robbie says Bafana must take a page from Denis Law when they face Mali in an Afcon clash tonight.

When I was a kid my favourite sportsman was not a rugby player. I had lots of rugby favourites but my overall hero, the person I most wanted to be, was Denis Law, the Manchester United striker. 

Of United's Holy Trinity, Bobby Charlton was regal and seemed almost too perfect. George Best was magic but, let’s be honest, too many girls liked him as well to be my champion.

Law, the King, was a striker of incredible reaction but more than that he played with an impudence that was irresistible.

 He took such delight in scoring and celebrated each with that raised arm and hand clutching the sleeve that we all copied him. He also had a temper and in one season, he actually served two separate month-long suspensions for ill-discipline. He was feisty but never cynical or cowardly. 

He played in the great 1968 side but missed the semi-finals and final in that first European victory with injury. That was cruel luck.

Some years ago, my dream came true when I met my idol in Johannesburg. He was fun, generous with his time and attention and clearly a deep thinker about the game and life in general. He sure did well for a kid who grew up as one of many kids of a poor Aberdeen fisherman. 

So often, heroes disappoint when you finally get to meet them. Not with Denis Law, and that intimate meal remains a treasured memory. He has gone on to do marvellous work attacking the stigma of prostate cancer. He has a CBE.

Some years ago, at the height of Beckham fever, I saw Denis Law being interviewed on television. The host was one of those annoying people who inserted his own views in each question. 

In turn he suggested to Law that Beckham's great gift was his energy and his vision. Law was non-committal.

He moved on to dead ball ability and even his rock star status as perhaps his great assets. Once again the Lawman seemed unimpressed. Finally the interviewer asked why Law was not a fan. Denis told him not to be stupid, that Beckham possessed a gift that made him priceless to a team like United, and indeed to any side.

Law said that his ability to cross the ball hard with, at most, a single touch was his unique selling point. Law explained that as a striker he worked tirelessly at losing his marker for a split second. This gave him a small window of opportunity where he had the advantage over the defender.

Any delay by the wingman, too many touches or a steadying, even for a split second, allowed the defender to close and to shut that window. Beckham, he explained, hit first time crosses as a matter of course and this, far more than anything else, was what made him special. 

Denis Law, normally very modest, ended by boasting that, had Beckham been in his United sides, he would have scored twice as many goals in his career there. He was not joking or displaying bravado. When you consider that in 404 appearances he scored 237 goals for the Reds you get the point.

Effective crossing is not so much about accuracy but about immediacy. It makes sense. With defences ever more organized a quick first time cross into the area becomes a lottery between attackers and defenders and, in general, who are the quicker and more skilled?

I thought of that watching the draw with Morocco. As in the first two games, so much of Bafana Bafana’s possession was wasted by high crosses into the box. They looked and were totally ineffectual. I thought it was due to inaccuracy but it wasn't. Too long was taken on the ball and the crucial moment was lost. 

Tonight Bafana Bafana have a hell of a task against Mali. They are big and strong and possess a very influential midfield. We must play them with pace and movement. However don't cut out crosses because they have looked impotent up to now. Learn from the King and hit them early. 

You have qualified. Well done. Now go out and shine.

John Robbie hosts the Breakfast Show weekdays 6-9am on Talk Radio 702. 

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