A tradition in Arsenal

Arsenal's Theo Walcott (right) is one of the best wingers in the English game today.-AP Arsenal's Theo Walcott (right) is one of the best wingers in the English game today.

The Gunners have always been blessed with incisive wingers. Their tremendous pre-war triumphs owed so much to their wing play. Joe Hulme on the right and the prolific Cliff Bastin on the left were essential figures in those successes. Now they have the prolific Theo Walcott. Over to Brian Glanville.

Recently at Norwich, one saw Arsenal's Theo Walcott give a devastating performance at outside right, tormenting poor Marc Tierney, his opposing left back, whom he went past at will. Somehow or other a spectacular clearance by the Norwich City centre back Russell Martin denied Walcott a well deserved goal. But with the Gunners undeservedly 1-0 down, thanks to a clumsy blunder by their suspect German international centre back Per Mertesacker, Walcott duly and dramatically set up the equaliser.

He did so with a classic winger's manoeuvre, playing the ball past poor Tierney on one side while racing past him on the other, en route to picking out Robin van Persie — with whom he delights in playing — to score an easy equaliser. Four days earlier, one had seen him in excellent form on England's right flank at Wembley against Sweden, though he was substituted at half-time.

Yet how often, despite his various feats, has one seen him criticised for allegedly not having “a football brain,” whatever that may be, not least in the shape of the former England winger, Chris Waddle, who in his earlier days was notably erratic for all his gifts of pace and skill. Too easily forgotten, it seems, is Walcott's irresistible display in Zagreb against a Croatia team which had previously and humiliatingly beaten England there. He scored three times. Memorable, too, was his astonishing 80 yard run up the right flank against Liverpool at Anfield, resulting in a goal. Football brain, indeed! Did one of the most dangerous right wingers of all time Brazil's Garrincha, star of two winning World Cups, have one, or did that child of nature simply possess a glorious natural swerve which took him past hapless defenders? And while it is true that Theo Walcott's “final ball” is not always what it might be, surely this doesn't invalidate his manifest talents.

How maddening it is still to see wingers classified as so called midfielders when they are nothing of the sort. Was Garrincha a midfielder? Or the peerless Stanley Matthews? Perhaps it dates back to the 1966 World Cup triumphs of Alf Ramsey's so called ‘Wingless Wonders' when they dispensed with various right wingers who didn't meet his demands. And we have to remember that even Brazil, who gave us not only Garrincha but Julinho and Jairzinho, have long ago looked askance at true wingers, Fortunately, you cannot continuously keep them down.

Not least at Arsenal, whose tremendous pre-war triumphs owed so much to their wing play. Joe Hulme on the right and the prolific Cliff Bastin on the left were essential figures in those successes. Bastin from the left wing once scored an astonishing 33 goals in a season, while Hulme's exceptional pace made him the nemesis of left backs.

Ironically Bastin, whose autobiography ‘Cliff Bastin Remembers', I “ghosted” as a teenager, had never wanted to play on the wing when the legendary manager, Herbert Chapman, coaxed him away, with difficulty, from Exeter City as a 17-year-old, in 1929. He saw himself as an inside-left and played for England in that role too, but most of his 178 record goals for the Gunners came from the wing and from his famed partnership with the creative little Scot, Alex James.

Hulme, who figured in no fewer than five Wembley Cup finals, three of them for Arsenal, and was also a Middlesex cricketer, was succeeded by the fast and powerful Alf Kirchen, a Norfolk countryman and an adept shooter of game, who could and did pester on either flank; including England's. Sadly his career would be truncated during the last war when he ran into the wall behind the goal at West Ham. He'd tell them all too the significant story of how in his RAF uniform he turned up at a Glasgow hotel to play for England, to be greeted by a selector who asked him who he was. “You ought to know, sir,” responded Kirchen, “You picked me to play on the wing.” “Oh yes,” said the selector, “How are you Matthews?”

Post war there was the dazzling blond right winger, Arthur Milton who, like that splendid left winger Denis Compton played both soccer and cricket for England. A major war time star and a superb batsman Denis never won a full soccer cap for England. Milton got just one, surprisingly pitchforked into the England team to play then powerful Austria at Wembley. He laid on two fine early chances for inside-right Ivor Broadis, both of them missed, then faded from view never to be capped again. But he made many runs for Gloucestershire. Only, on retirement, to work as a postman.

Arsenal's 1970-71 Cup and League double team could hardly have succeeded without little Geordie Armstrong, effective on either flank. From the left flank, beating Spurs back Joe Kimmear, he set up the 1-0 headed winner from Ray Kennedy in the Monday night game — just five days before the FA Cup final, which gave Arsenal the Championship.

Bastin? His 178 goals were a club record set pre-war; till Ian Wright overtook it in 1997! And in Bastin's time, there was no league Cup and no European competition. He'd have scored many more official goals, were it not for the war, when with pace diminished, he remained a resourceful inside left, thus finally regaining the role he had wanted, when Chapman so perceptively moved him to the left wing. Now there is Walcott; and the recent incisive, acquisition, Gervinho to operate on the left. A tradition.