Wingers, alive and kicking

Even in today’s football world, wingers emphatically live and thrive. The tiresome, long-standing habit of calling them mere midfield players has gradually been eroded, the fashion often being to rely on overlapping full backs to do the attacking from the flanks. By Brian Glanville.

If there were ever any doubts about the survival of the winger, so often in past years a matter of debate and controversy, surely it was laid to rest by 22-year-old Callum McManaman in the FA Cup Final at Wembley for Wigan, astonishing and worthy victors, against Manchester City. Previously excoriated for an appalling foul on Newcastle United’s Massadio Haidara, for which he escaped proper punishment, he humiliated City’s experienced international left back Gael Clichy with a dazzling display of pace, initiative and ball control. He was beyond doubt the outstanding player on a field which, in City’s ranks, included a host of famous internationals. A performance which must have given fresh hope to Roy Hodgson whose mediocre England team risk elimination from the World Cup eliminators.

At a moment when Everton’s David Moyes was announced with a fanfare of trumpets and the lavish endorsement of the sainted Alex Ferguson as the newly appointed manager of Manchester United, it was somewhat ironic to reflect that Moyes had let the Liverpudlian McManaman leave Everton as a teenager.

Just a fortnight after the Cup Final, the still more important and significant European Cup Final was due; Bayern Munich with two superb wingers confronting fellow Germans Borussia Dortmund. Both those wingers can play on either flank, though somewhat paradoxically the left-footed Arjen Robben, as Barcelona in the semi-finals discovered all too well, prefers to play on the right, often cutting in to lethal purpose while French international Franck Ribery is deployed on the left, though his right foot is the stronger, and indeed he made his international name for France in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

He has electric pace, tight ball control and is an expert at beating his back and going to the goal-line to pull back the most dangerous pass in the game. Dutch international Robben seems time and again to move in from the right flank to do damage with his left even though opponents must surely be well aware of what he intends to do.

So wingers emphatically live and thrive. The tiresome long-standing habit of calling them mere midfield players has gradually been eroded, the fashion often being to rely on overlapping full backs to do the attacking from the flanks. The problem with that being that unlike true wingers they find it largely beyond them to perform the classical winger’s move of beating the back on the outside, getting to the line and pulling that crucial pass back.

There is no sign that either Ribery — admittedly a divisive figure in the doomed French World Cup campaign in South Africa — or Robben has any ambition to move off the flank and into the middle; though such has frequently been the desire of gifted wingers over the years. At the moment Wales and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, who recently won no fewer than three major English awards, including Player of the Year, has stated publicly that he is now enjoying the licence to operate right across the face of the attack; which indeed he is doing to tremendous purpose. Once a left back, successfully converted to the left wing role, he has dynamic pace, splendid technique, a ferociously menacing left foot and a right foot on which he does a great deal more than simply stand.

Some of the goals he has scored for Spurs this season, cutting through central defences which tried in vain to stop and sometimes to trip him, have been spectacular. Still more spectacular than the many he scored cutting in from the left wing.

He is by no means the only gifted winger who had preferred to play a more central, less dependent, role. The feeling among such players evidently being that when they are out on the flanks, they become too dependent on other people. This was certainly true of George Best, widely seen as the most talented British player of his time, a glittering star for Manchester United from his teen-aged years and for a Northern Ireland team which, also never reached the World Cup finals in his era.

Best stood only five foot eight but there was virtually nothing, as an attacker, that he could not do, including winning the ball in the air and heading notable goals. Total versatility.

Then there was Garrincha. Doomed alas to die young in poverty, but a refulgent hero of the Brazil team which won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962. In the 1958 Final against Sweden in Stockholm his two irresistible swerves and pulled-back passes gave Brazil the lead against the Swedes. But in Chile in 1962 when the incomparable Pele dropped out injured it was Garrincha who pulled the strings, Garrincha who could score left-footed from outside the box, Garrincha, barely 5 foot 8 inches, who could jump the towering Maurice Norman to head a goal against England in the Vina del Mar quarter-final, from a corner.

Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney were two of the greatest wingers to play for England. When both were first deployed, Matthews right, Tom Finney left, against Portugal in Lisbon in May 1947, England won 10-0. A year later, in Turin, Finney from the left scored twice against Italy. Yet he would end his career memorably as a deep-lying centre forward for Preston, his only club. While Matthews could move influentially inside for England, as in the 1954 World Cup versus Belgium.