Wingers again!

Published : Feb 14, 2009 00:00 IST

The immensely talented Jermaine Pennant has found it hard to achieve a regular place, even a place at all, in the Liverpool team which is why he has recently gone on loan to Pompey.

They keep coming back like a song. Wingers, I mean. Time and again over the last 20 years, the so-called experts, committed managers and coaches, have told us no such players exist; everybody is a midfielder, now. And indeed one of the more maddening facets of current football is the tendency even among newspapers which should know much better to classify wingers as mere midfielders when they are plainly nothing of the sort.

The one cloud on the horizon is the strange fact that Brazil, which gave us at least three of the greatest right-wingers the game has ever known, now simply doesn’t use them, relying instead on overlapping full-backs. They have indeed produced plenty of those, such as Roberto Carlos and Cafu, but even these exponents of the overlap cannot quite do what the true winger does; which is to say, beat his man on the outside, get to the goal-line and pull back into the goalmouth the most dangerous pass in the game.

Years ago Brazil produced Julinho, an outside-right with tremendous pace, fine control and a searing right-footed shot, with which he scored a fulminating goal from long range against Hungary in the 1954 World Cup in the so-called Battle of Berne. Several of the Brazilians lost their heads but he was not among them. That Brazil lost 4-2 to a famous Hungarian team was not his fault. Later he would join Fiorentina and materially help them win the Italian scudetto for the first time. He returned to Brazil in 1959 just in time to be recalled to the team which met England in Rio. Up against Jimmy Armfield, making his England debut at left-back and thus on his wrong foot, Julinho ran him ragged. Brazil won 2-0.

Later, of course, there was the astonishing Garrincha, that child of nature, one leg distorted from a childhood illness, yet capable of the most astonishing exploits on the right-wing, with a bewildering swerve and explosive acceleration. He it was, after Sweden went ahead early in the 1958 World Cup final, who twice streaked past their defence to make two goals for Vava and set Brazil en route to victory, 5-2.

Four years later in Chile, when Pele dropped out after the second game, he was the inspiration of the team, even, despite his mere 5 foot 7 height, heading a goal against England from a corner, and even moving into the middle against Chile, to score with his supposedly weaker left-foot. His swerving free-kicks were a diabolic puzzle to opposing ’keepers.

Then came Jairzinho, all power and pace, who would play such a large part in Brazil lifting the 1970 World Cup, when he was one of their four scorers against Italy in the Mexico City final. But where are they now, their Brazilian successors?

On a recent Saturday, I was at Fulham where Portsmouth were the visitors and each side featured an exceptional outside-right. Of the two, Fulham’s Davies, 29, a Welsh international, had the better of it, fast and effective throughout, setting up scoring chances with his cleverly angled through balls, chief architect of Fulham’s 3-1 win.

But on the Portsmouth side was a right-winger who may well go down in football history as one of the great lost talents: Jermaine Pennant. Just 26 years old, 5 foot 6 in height, one saw as early as the second minute, when he outwitted the powerful Fulham left-back Paul Konchesky, with an exquisite piece of trickery, and made Nwankwo Kanu a chance which he alas clumsily missed, what Jermaine had in his repertoire. But what a star crossed, stormy career he has had.

Right from the very beginning when as a mere 15-year-old in Nottingham from what might politely be termed a problem family, Arsenal were prepared to pay millions for him. But to whom? His father claimed to be his agent; a professional agent disputed it. Eventually go Pennant did, to Highbury, but he never attained a regular place. This, though I remember seeing him tear the Southampton defence to pieces at Highbury and score three of the Gunners’ six goals. Later when he was on loan to then second division Watford, I was there to see him toy with the burly Neil Clement at left-back and enable Watford to topple West Bromwich Albion, then a top division team, out of the FA Cup.

But off the field his life was a somewhat tumultuous one and Arsenal who had loaned him to Watford didn’t want him back. A crisis came when he was gaoled for drink driving, but Steve Bruce the former Manchester United centre-half, then managing Birmingham City, took him under his wing, rehabilitated him and relaunched him.

Yet again, I saw him play a devastatingly effective game, at St. Andrews, when he mesmerised the opposing defence. Afterwards, Steve Bruce opined that, in such a vein, Pennant was simply unplayable and it was true.

Liverpool signed him, and one doesn’t forget the splendid display he gave in their second, losing European Cup final against Milan. It was a largely ineffectual performance by Liverpool, but not by Pennant who, time and again, went past his opponents to set up what should have been goals. Liverpool lost but it was no fault of Pennant. But since then, he has found it hard to achieve a regular place, even a place at all, in the Liverpool team which is why he has recently gone on loan to Pompey. Had they only given him the ball more often at Fulham, he might well have saved them from defeat.

Cristiano Ronaldo, so abundantly gifted and spectacular, was very rightly voted the World’s Best Player and the European Footballer of the Year of 2008. What gifts does he not possess? Great speed, supreme ball control, a powerful right-footed shot, insidiously menacing free-kicks. He can play anywhere across the attack, but the right-wing is surely where he is at his most dangerous.

Arsenal have Theo Walcott, so expensively signed from Southampton as a 19 year old, inexplicably taken to the last World Cup by Sven Goran Eriksson with England, where he never got a game. But, since then, flowering as a winger of superb speed and elusiveness; witness, last season, his 80-yard run and a goal against Liverpool at Anfield. Injured, sadly, this season. But he and wingers live.

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