“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts but the size of the fight in the dog’
— Barry McGuigan
The Clones Cyclone stands at a far from imposing 5’ 6”.
He weighed no more than nine stone during a professional career that peaked in 1985 when he claimed the WBA featherweight title with the defeat of Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road.
And he successfully defended that belt twice before relinquishing it after 12 months. McGuigan was boxing against men of his own standing, of course. In a physical sense anyway.
But to hear Gordon Strachan talking about genetics last Sunday after his side’s draw against Slovenia in Ljubljana was to imagine a platoon of plucky Scottish pygmies going toe to toe with a horde of Eastern European supermen.
“Genetically we are behind,” he said after their World Cup chances had been ended. “In the last campaign, we were the second smallest, apart from Spain.
"We had to pick a team to combat the height and strength at set-plays. Genetically we have to work at things. Maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do.”
Strachan made, forgive the pun, a really big deal of this. He spoke about how his wee guys had to jump higher and fight harder for every ball than anybody else.
He detailed how they had to work more on the ball than opponents who stand 6’ 2” and 6’ 3”.
Set plays, in particular, were singled out as problem areas.
It’s true to say that the two goals Scotland conceded in the second-half came from set plays, but we shouldn’t neglect to point out here that the man who claimed both, Roman Bezjak, isn’t quite 5’9”.
Darren Fletcher, his marker when he registered the first from a header, had three inches on him. And the second? Scored with his right foot along the deck.
To be fair though, there may be something to Strachan’s idea.
Much the same point, this time on the small stature of modern Dutch players and how they struggle in the robust Premier League, is made in an article in the latest edition of the ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine.
And Gareth Southgate has remarked on the shrinking size of players progressing through England’s underage ranks.
A ‘Demographic Study of Professional Footballers in Europe’ was carried out by a body going by the name of the Professional Football Players’ Observatory back in 2008.
The first of its kind, it trawled through 30 leagues, 456 clubs and over 11,000 players and it netted an abundance of info on trends spanning age, size, nationalities and more.
Scottish players were indeed amongst the smallest judging by domestic league statistics.
Down at the bottom of the chart with them were Spain, Portugal and … the Republic of Ireland.
But. The average height of a European player was found to be just under 5’ 10”.
The average height of Strachan’s first XI last weekend? Just under 5’ 10”.
Now, there’s no doubting that kids are getting bigger at what appears to be a quickening rate - but the point here is that the men representing the Tartan Army in this latest campaign were never likely to be mistaken for a long lost tribe of leprechauns.
Slovenia, for instance, ranked just below midway in that same survey. Not giants, then, but men.
And yet events in Cardiff showed that size and how you use it as a player and as a collective can still have an overbearing influence on the result of games.
Even in a sport which is positively non-contact now compared to the days when Strachan was himself a nippy 5’ 5” midfielder.
Martin O’Neill will have known that Wales, so smooth and silky against a tidy side like Belgium in the Euros, struggled against the meatier challenges of England and Northern Ireland with their ‘British’ traditions in that same tournament.
So he opted for size and physical presence over, well, Wes Hoolahan, basically.
Ireland fielded a team with an average height of well over six foot. Wales stood shorter by about two inches a man, just as Scotland had with Slovenia.
That may well be of some minor significance — the height of a credit card, basically — but it wasn’t so much the extra bulk so much as what they did with it that allowed Ireland claim the three points.
Scotland played more passes in their draw but Ireland committed almost twice as many fouls despite making less tackles.
They also booted the ball away from the danger area a dozen more times, 47 in all, and picked up five yellow cards to Scotland’s four. But seeing it with our own eyes told us all that anyway.
“I think it’s just the determination to want to win,” said Harry Arter when asked how it is that Ireland manage to succeed without the ball.
“I’m not saying Wales didn’t have that tonight, but you go through the whole team and they’re putting their heads in places that others wouldn’t necessarily.”
Quite literally, in Robbie Brady’s case, of course.
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