England’s best?

Many would opine that George Best was the finest footballer produced by Britain since the last war.

Of the making of lists, there is no end. Some being more interesting than others. Latest to come to attention in England has been a poll among club supporters to choose their team’s finest player ever. All 92 League clubs were involved. I’m never very happy when English soccer fans are called to make such choices. Far too often they tend to live in the present with no historical perspective. Come to think of it, this applies all too generally to the players the mselves.

Ask an Arsenal player — not just the bunch of foreigners who now represent them — what they know of such past giants pre-War as Cliff Bastin and Eddie Hapgood, and a blank look would be the response. But all credit to Manchester United’s supporters who have chosen not George Best, not Bobby Charlton, not Denis Law, but Duncan Edwards. A player so cruelly killed by the horrific Munich air crash of February, 1958. A death made all the sadder by the fact that by contrast with so many others in that catastrophe, it did not take place immediately, but later in hospital when there did, for a while, seem a chance that the powerfully built young Edwards, still a mere 21-year-old, could pull through.

Duncan was what we then used to call a wing-half. The first time I saw him in action was in Bologna, early in 1954, playing in the first game ever undertaken by the England Under-23 side. They lost 3-0 to the Italians.

Physically powerful with a tremendous goal-scoring left-foot, Edwards was already one of the best players in Europe when he died. Had he only lived, England would surely have fared better in Sweden that summer in the 1958 World Cup finals.

But was he United’s best ever? All a matter of opinion of course, but most of us, if asked whom would we select, would have replied George Best. Indeed many would opine that George was the finest footballer produced by Britain since the last war. He had glorious techniques, complete versatility, great pace, supreme control, huge courage, and though only some 5 foot 8 inches tall, was deadly in the air. Sadly, he never played in the World Cup finals either, but in his case, it was because his country was Northern Ireland. They had boldly and sensationally qualified for the 1958 World Cup, eliminating mighty Italy, but the team which featured Danny Blanchflower as the captain and right-half, Jimmy McIlroy, picked as Burnley’s best in this poll, at inside-right had no successor for years to come. And when, post-Best, they did qualify for World Cup finals, it was only because two teams from their group in which they came second rather than just one were admitted to the finals!

Bobby Charlton would obviously be another Manchester United candidate though the odd thing was that he wasn’t wholly a prophet in his own country. In his day, the United players were split between the Celts, who favoured Best and Denis Law, and the Anglos. I once heard a Scottish international United player refer to Bobby as “an impostor.” The fair-haired Law was a gloriously versatile attacker, sharp as a tack on the ground, acrobatic, lethal in the air. But Edwards it is.

You could, I suppose, expect that Thierry Henry would be the Arsenal choice. Converted when he arrived from frustrating times at Juventus, from outside-right to centre-forward, he set a new aggregate goal scoring record, overtaking Ian Wright. But for so many years that record was held by Cliff Bastin, who had no tournaments such as the Football League Cup or European cups to score in; and unlike the other two, figured chiefly on the left-wing. And indeed it was purely from that position that in season 1931/2 he scored an astonishing 33 goals. I’ve an interest to declare here, in that I wrote my first book with Bastin, ‘Cliff Bastin Remembers’ when, like Cliff in his brilliant early Arsenal days, I was a teenager.

But if you want substantial support, note that Hugo Meisl, the godfather of the Austrian so-called Wunderteam, declared just before the 1934 World Cup in Italy, that if he could have just one player he’d win the trophy. That player? Bastin. Not to mention his Arsenal and England contemporary, that peerless left-back and England captain, Eddie Hapgood.

Chelsea’s pick is my good friend, Gianfranco Zola. The dazzling attacking midfielder, master of the swerving free-kick, plucked out of obscurity in his native Sardinia to shine with Napoli. Later adored by the fans at Stamford Bridge for his skills, his tricks, his pleasant and charming personality. But you might have thought the late Peter Osgood, after all a Chelsea development, tall, strong, highly-skilled, an outstanding centre-forward though seldom capped by England, favourite.

Jimmy Greaves made his name as a boy wonder opportunist with Chelsea, but it is for Tottenham Hotspur that he has been chosen, ahead of those contrastingly effective wing-halves, artistic Danny Blanchflower and the tough Scot Dave Mackay, essential when, in 1961, Spurs achieved the first League and Cup double of the 20th century.

But I can make no sense of the Wolves’ choice of that rugged centre-forward of the 1980s and 1990s Steve Bull, ahead of Billy Wright, 105 times capped by England, industrious wing-half, imposing centre-half for club and country. Sacrilege!