In the hole. It sounds like the worst part of a particularly unpleasant prison. Teddy Sheringham spent years ‘in the hole’. It was not a punishment, however, as much as an ongoing struggle to define him which, in its own way, liberated him and made him.
It reflected a wider issue in the English game, the lack of a name for what became the most significant role in many a team, a prestigious position that went overlooked in the sport’s nomenclature. Were he 20 years younger, Sheringham would probably be called a No. 10 now. It was the number he usually donned during his playing days. But one of his immediate predecessors in England’s No. 10 shirt was Gary Lineker; his successor was Michael Owen. Each was the kind of quick, comparatively short predator who was granted the number other countries reserved for the flair player.
Not English football. When Sheringham started his career, it was – or felt – trapped in its 4-4-2 straitjacket. He had many of the attributes of a conventional striker, particularly the aerial ability and the finishing prowess, but he prospered by dropping deeper, by finding space ‘in the hole’ between the opposition’s defence and midfielder where, because they also played 4-4-2, there was no holding player to pick him up.
It may be an exaggeration to call Sheringham a trailblazer. Kenny Dalglish and Peter Beardsley had excelled in similar positions, though each bore more similarities to an old-fashioned inside-forward than him. But for a while, ‘the Teddy Sheringham role’ became a thing; so, for that matter, did ‘the Teddy Sheringham corner’.
Then, as strike partnerships became rarer and as one man floated behind the sole front man, the support acts were described as being ‘between the lines’. Much like ‘in the hole’, it caught on for a while without being a lasting addition to the game’s vocabulary. Which, in one crucial respect, has remained stuck in the 1980s. Or, at least, stuck in the way the 1980s appeared to be.
Sir Alex Ferguson is seen as one of the great 4-4-2 managers, but has argued that, for around a quarter of a century at first Aberdeen and then Manchester United, he did not really play 4-4-2. Instead he had split strikers: Sheringham, of course, was the deeper one at times. And Sheringham, too, falls more under the category of striker than midfielder whereas the classic No. 10 may fall half-way between both.
He was too much of a finisher, not enough of a creator. The inspired imports of the 1990s, in Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola, brought a wave of pure No. 10s. They relished the extra room afforded by teams who were not configured to cope with a No. 10; no wonder, if there was not even a suitable designation. It is easier to ask someone to mark the right winger than to pick up the man ‘in the hole’.
It is more than a question of semantics. It reflected a different ethos. English football fell into talking about ‘the No. 10 position’. It does not feel an official term, whereas the significance of the role is reflected in the game’s language in many another country.
Tom Williams’ forthcoming book, Do You Speak Football? , contains some of them. In Argentina, where the No. 10 is fetishised as in few other places, the No. 10 is an enganche: literally a hook and far more descriptive than mentions of the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. The Italians have a literal, positional term, trequartista, that designates a station on the pitch far more accurately than mentioning a deep-lying striker. It highlights the way the definitive No. 10s are neither forwards nor midfielders as much as players who operate in what English football used to feel was the no-man’s land between sections of the side. In the hole.