Wingers in view

The England-Brazil game at Wembley made one think a great deal about wingers. About their presence and their absence. Before the match, it was their absence from the present England team that one of the finest wingers of all time, right or left, Sir Tom Finney, was complaining. He longed, he said, for the days when wingers went past their opposing full back, got to the goal-line and pulled the ball back.

True enough, there was no such real wingers playing that evening for either England or Brazil, who themselves over the past many years have wholly abandoned their once great tradition and succession of right wingers in particular. Julinho, Garrincha, Jairzinho. Indeed when Jairzinho long since in retirement, a major star and goal scorer of Brazil's super 1970 World Cup winning team, heard that David Beckham had been recalled to the England right wing, he called it crazy. You can still see his point, even if England's solitary goal which so nearly won them the match was made by one of Beckham's perfectly calibrated long range free kicks, from the right, expertly and resiliently headed in by the Chelsea centre back, John Terry. For Jairzinho and Beckham were or are two irreconcilably different types of outside right. Jairzinho was powerfully built, had searing pace and beat many with skill and speed. As indeed he memorably did when Brazil beat England 1-0 in a group match in Guadalajara in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Out on the right, Jairzinho simply swept past the challenge of the England left back Terry Cooper, and delivered an accurate cross, which the incomparable Pele headed down on the bounce. He was actually crying, "Goal!" when the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks brought off perhaps the most spectacular save ever seen in a World Cup, hurling himself across his goal to flail the ball one handed over the bar. "He got up like a salmon out of bright water," he poetically said to me of Pele, when we met later in the lift of the Hilton Hotel where England — and I myself — were staying. Eventually, Jairzinho in the second half, prompted by Pele, would score the only goal of the game. But Brazil, as noted, never work with wingers now. Not real ones. Against England, their flank players were two of arguably the best footballers in the world, Kaka and Ronaldinho. They did work the flanks intermittently but didn't stay there, their roles being far more fluid in a team which constantly interchanged. As for David Beckham, the England fans greeted him as if it were a kind of second coming. Gone, in the euphoric desire to see England rise from the ashes after their recent wretched displays that all was forgotten and forgiven, so far as the 2006 World Cup was concerned.

There, Beckham like England had floundered, and one thing had all too closely to do with the other. As a right winger, he showed all too clearly yet again that he was a highly limited one track pony, possessed of a superb right foot, ideal for free kicks and crosses. Yet, utterly without the pace and guile to go past his man and get to the line. Which meant that while his presence was a guarantee of the occasional goal, such as the one, from a deflected free kick, which narrowly beat Paraguay in the opening game and the fine free kick which gave England another shaky win over Ecuador later, Beckham's presence hobbled the free flow of the attack. Something which became all too bleakly obvious when Sven-Goran Eriksson occasionally conquered his severe case of Beckhamitis and put on a genuine right winger in the speedy, elusive young Aaron Lennon.

By coincidence, it was just at the time when Beckham made his return to the England team, recalled in desperation, that Jermaine Pennant made his claim for an England selection. He stated publicly that he wanted to get it and that he thought he could succeed. Not the acme of modesty perhaps, but I thoroughly agreed with him and had already regretted that he had not been called up by McClaren for the Brazilian game.

This because Pennant, however erratic a personality, however undisciplined off the field — it wasn't long ago that he was imprisoned for drink driving after a nocturnal car crash — is beyond doubt an exceptional talent.

His career in football has been tumultuous from an early age. To be exact, since as a 15-year-old on the roster of Notts County he was coveted by Arsenal, who found themselves involved in complex dealings both with his father and an agent, each of whom claimed to be acting for the boy. In the end the matter was resolved and Pennant went for a substantial fee to Highbury.

There his career never really took off though one remembers seeing him excel in a late season midweek evening game at Highbury against Southampton when he scored a hat-trick. One remembers too a dazzling display when he was on loan to Watford and in a Cup tie, at Vicarage Road, ran rings around an experienced full back in Clement. And again, seeing him subsequently at St. Andrews play with such devastating effect for Birmingham City that his manager and mentor Steve Bruce, who put him on his feet again after he emerged from prison, described him in such a vein as "unplayable".

When Liverpool lost in Athens to Milan in the final of the recent European Cup, Pennant was one of their few successes. He had no hesitation in running at, committing and indeed going by a left flank defence which, however experienced, struggled against him. With Lennon out injured, it would have been far bolder and brighter of McClaren to choose Pennant rather than Beckham whose virtues we know as exactly as his manifest shortcomings. Alternatively, McClaren could at least have brought off the bench, when Beckham was substituted to more tumultuous applause, another ex-Arsenal winger in David Bentley who had had such a good season with Blackburn Rovers.

Listening to the rapturous applause for Beckham as he departed, it was still hard to forget the time, at the Euro 2000 finals, two years after he had petulantly got himself sent off against Argentina in Saint Etienne, in the World Cup, that English hooligans viciously insulted him, his wife and son.