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Rodney Marsh: Forward thinking

"I basically didn't give a f**k what anyone said. Everyone should be a non-conformist because, if you listen to all those pricks telling you how to eat your breakfast or how to park your car, you end up with Big Brother. I played for the crowd. I wanted them to enjoy it as much as I did"

As anti-football tactics threatened to destroy artistry in the football world, there have always been those who have played in the cause of the entertainment. In England, amid the violent tactics of the 1960s, George Best paved the way for a new type of player, for long-haired, superstar pin-ups who could light up a game. Standing alongside him was Rodney Marsh. "We came onto the scene at the same time but he was the catalyst," Marsh said in the 1994 book The Mavericks. "He made it possible to play with freedom."

Marsh was not like other players. "Unlike most of the blokes I played with, I think I could have done something else with my life, something just as exciting," he said. "I could have been a painter, for instance." He was an intelligent man, with four A-Levels, but arrogant too. He worked hard to maintain his skills, but baulked at requests to work harder on the pitch.

Born in October 1944, Marsh had a poor childhood in the London docklands. He had linked up with West Ham as a youth, but began his career with Fulham. Having scored 40 goals for the junior side, he was given his senior debut in March 1963 at the age of 18, scoring the winning goal against Aston Villa. "No boy could have had a better first game," manager Bedford Jezzard said.

His fledgling career suffered a major setback early in the following season: while scoring the winner against Leicester in September, he collided with a goalpost. Ruled out for several months, he suffered a broken jaw, a permanent loss of hearing in his left ear, a narrowing of vision and a loss of balance. He was fit again for the 1964-65 campaign, but Jezzard left the club to be replaced by Vic Buckingham, and Marsh had little time for his new manager, whose distaste for the youngster's dribbling was always likely to end badly.

There is a tale - though many key details appear to change with each telling - that has been touted as playing a significant role in his departure from Craven Cottage. As Jimmy Greaves told it in The Heart of the Game, Marsh had been performing party tricks during a reserve game against Birmingham and, at half-time, Buckingham savaged the forward, who responded by saying he was merely trying to entertain the fans. "If I wanted players to go out on the pitch and entertain, I'd go to Billy Smart's and sign two clowns," Buckingham said. Marsh replied: "You've got a first team full of them. What would you want two more for?"

In March 1966, Marsh signed for Queens Park Rangers, then in the Third Division. He was given the freedom he desired under manager Alec Stock, whose only tactic, Marsh later said, was "all-out attack". Stock certainly admired Marsh's talent. "He would run at fellas, looking at them and chatting to them while dribbling the ball between his heels," Stock later said. "I used to tell his father he could charm the birds off the trees."

In his first full season, Marsh scored 44 goals in 53 games. QPR secured promotion to the Second Division and also defeated top-flight side West Brom in the League Cup final in March. They had been 2-0 down with an hour gone before battling back to win 3-2, and Marsh's equaliser went down in legend: he collected the ball and gracefully danced past a sea of defenders before unleashing a controlled shot into the net via the post.

Marsh missed three months at the start of the following season with a broken foot, but QPR - a fine side even without their star forward - did well in his absence and eventually secured promotion to the top-flight.

However, Stock left that summer and, although Marsh committed to a new four-year deal, he was quickly given cause to regret it. By December 1, they had appointed their third manager, Les Allen, in three months. Marsh had barely featured and when Allen, having been in the role a matter of weeks, told him he would not be picked for a game against Manchester United, the forward responded by submitting a transfer request. He agreed to remain at the club a fortnight later, but he could do nothing to avert their fate: they won only one game from December onwards, and were relegated with only 18 points.

Marsh's increasing frustration was becoming evident. In a 1969 pre-season friendly against Rangers, he responded to a strong tackle from full-back Kai Johansen by attacking him and then butting Bobby Watson when he tried to intervene. He was fined £50 for his actions. Three months later, an FA commission gave him a four-week suspension, and another £50 fine, after he had collected three bookings for retaliation. "This changes you whole outlook on football," Marsh said. "It's worrying. I'll just have to let myself be kicked. So often I've blown up near the end of the game after being kicked for the umpteenth time."

QPR missed out on promotion after a poor run-in, and in the summer of 1970 Marsh issued another transfer request, insisting he needed to play in the top-flight if he was to represent England. Again, though, he relented, and by the end of July he had signed a new contract.

The club made a dismal start, but Marsh was still world-class on his day - his hat-trick in the 5-2 win over Birmingham was a particular highlight - and was still the big star at the club. When Allen resigned in January and was replaced by Gordon Jago, Marsh claims to have responded to the new manager's pep talk by raising his hand and joking: "Mr Jago, I'd like to say on behalf of the lads: We're 40% behind you."

The club improved under Jago's leadership and, while they remained in Division Two, Marsh was given his international debut in November of the following season. By the time of his next international appearance, a 3-1 defeat to West Germany in a Euro 1972 play-off at the end of April, he was a Manchester City player.

His arrival at Maine Road has gone down as one of the most significant events in the club's history. Malcolm Allison, having been assistant to Joe Mercer, had been installed as manager in October, with Mercer forced to move upstairs. Allison had taken City four points clear at the top of the table when he resolved to break the club's transfer record by spending £200,000 on Marsh. In the manager's defence, most had expected Marsh to take the club to new heights. "He is admirably suited to the way we play, and is regarded as a great player in the City style," forward Franny Lee had said ahead of the deal.

However, Marsh had been unfit at the time of his arrival and made a slow start. City were to finish fourth, and the signing has gone down in history as the decisive moment in the title race. Marsh has done nothing to discourage that view - "They f**ked up by signing me," he later said - while Mercer rather sardonically said: "£200,000 is a lot of money to spend to throw away the championship."

Allison remained bullish about the signing, backing Marsh to "score 23 or 24 goals for us in the league next season", and he was not far wrong: he hit 19 goals the following year, and established a strong bond with the manager.

In most respects, though, Marsh's season was disappointing. In February 1973, after seven consecutive starts for England, Sir Alf Ramsey told him his international career was over. Ramsey had long been telling Marsh to forego flair for industry, and when the forward played his natural game during a 3-0 win over Wales, he was warned he would be dropped if he did not change his attitude. Before his final game, a 1-1 draw with Wales, Marsh said he received another warning: "I'll be watching you for the first 45 minutes and if you don't work harder I'll pull you off at half-time." He claims to have replied: "Crikey, Alf, at Manchester City all we get is an orange and a cup of tea."

In March, with City struggling in the league, Allison resigned. Marsh had vowed to leave if Allison moved on, and submitted a transfer request, but by July he had resolved to stay and said his decision to leave had been "very stupid". He impressed during the 1973-74 season, and helped a side managed by Ron Saunders to the 1974 League Cup final against Wolves in March. "I know a lot of pros would call me mad, but I'm not that bothered who wins," Marsh had said ahead of the final. "I would feel more elation if we lost 4-3 in a match which really touched the heights than us sneaking through 1-0 in one of those grey matches. If we cannot remind people what a great game it is then we will have missed a tremendous opportunity." City failed to perform in a 2-1 defeat, and Marsh, who had been struggling with injury, did nothing to help. After the final whistle, he left Wembley, neglecting to collect his runners-up medal, and prompted some furious editorials from the nation's sports reporters.

Tony Book, Saunders' assistant, was installed as manager the following month; Marsh, who later said Book had no interest in playing the game as it was intended, was less than enamoured.

The manager's influence seemed to loom large in December when City, in contention for the title, ground out a 0-0 at West Ham. Marsh had played the spoiler, saying he had deliberately set out to "stifle the flow of the game", and he added: "I'm sorry for the fans but caring too much for them becomes a mug's game."

Such compliance with Book's philosophy could not last, particularly as City's fortunes faded in the second half of the season. Marsh had told the chairman that Book was not fit for the job, and in October 1975 he was placed on the transfer list after the pair had what Marsh described as a "face to face, very physical" ruck.

In January 1976, despite the club having apparently received 7,000 letters of complaint from City fans, Marsh joined Tampa Bay Rowdies for £40,000. Given star billing in the NASL, the forward was introduced in a radio interview as the "White Pele", to which Marsh controversially joked: "No, he's the black Rodney Marsh." In the summer, after a clash with manager Eddie Firmani, he returned to Fulham on a short-term deal, signing alongside George Best. "The only reason I went back was to play with George. I wanted to enjoy that moment, the carpe diem," he later said. "The only player I've ever felt simpatico with is Bestie. We think so similarly about the game and about life."

While Fulham failed to perform in the Second Division that season, Marsh and Best ensured the fans were given some of the greatest entertainment they would ever see at Craven Cottage. In September, Fulham thrashed Hereford 4-1 at home, and Marsh scored twice, describing his second - a curling strike into the top corner - as a "once in a lifetime" goal. He had been keen to complete his hat-trick but felt Best was hogging the ball, so tackled his team-mate. Best then tackled Marsh. "I keep passing to him and he doesn't pass back to me and the only way I can get the ball is to tackle him," Marsh joked in a post-match TV interview. "It's all good fun."

He returned to the Rowdies in March, with Firmani having departed, and relished his time there, ultimately spending many years in America across various roles. Life across the Atlantic clearly suited Marsh, who like the other mavericks of the '60s and '70s had felt restricted in an era in which the flair players were pinned down by conservative, and often violent, tactics. "Soccer in England," he once said, "is a grey game played on grey days and watched by grey people."


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