Wingers in vogue again

Published : Apr 15, 2010 00:00 IST

Theo Walcott's pace down the wings may be the key to England's success this World Cup.-AP
Theo Walcott's pace down the wings may be the key to England's success this World Cup.-AP

Theo Walcott's pace down the wings may be the key to England's success this World Cup.-AP

It should be emphasised that the two arguably best players in the world, who have indeed won that very title in successive years, are both wingers; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, writes Brian Glanville.

In the words of an old ditty, “They keep coming back like a song.” By which I mean, wingers. Who not so many years ago, in English football, were widely considered to be an extinct breed. Watching Brazil play Ireland at the Arsenal Stadium recently, I noted, alas, that a country which once produced such marvellous outside-rights, World Cup heroes, as Julinho, Garrincha and Jairzinho, still doesn't use them at all, even if Robinho is quite capable of moving out to the left flank when he chooses. But in England, the winger has made a triumphant and inspiring resurrection.

Recently, I was at Upton Park, East London, to see Bolton Wanderers, till Owen Coyle took them over in mid-season, a dour, long ball team, field two real wingers against West Ham; and win. The slight little South Korean Lee Chung Yong, operating on the right, though he can be just as clever and elusive on the left, played havoc with the West Ham defence, gliding clear to put across a centre which the formidable striker Kevin Davies headed in the net for the first of Bolton's two early goals.

When Lee arrived from Korea, he was plunged into a game when he had still to throw off his jetlag and, as he wryly admits, himself, actually fell asleep at one point on the substitutes' bench! There is nothing sleepy, however, about his subsequent performances, and with his virtuosity and courage, has transformed the Bolton attack. On the other flank we saw one of the most talented teenagers England has produced in the past few years: Jack Wilshere. When he went to Bolton on loan from Arsenal, I, a great admirer of his prowess, rather feared for his immediate future, though at least it enabled him to break free from the log jam of players at the Emirates: Bolton, however, seemed not only a somewhat dour team — till Coyle changed it — but also by comparison with London a somewhat dour provincial place. But things are working out well and though I've seen Wilshere play more ebullient games.

It should also be emphasised that the two arguably best players in the world, who have indeed won that very title in successive years, are both wingers; Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina, the current holder, and Cristiano Ronaldo now of Real Madrid and Portugal who can of course, though achieving fame as an outside right, can excel in any role across the attack. At United Ecuador's Antonio Valencia vigorously replaces him.

And now, in England, we have the controversial case of Theo Walcott. Chief witness for the prosecution, abetted by former Arsenal and England centre forward Ian Wright, is Chris Waddle. Who has even taken to giving exhaustive newspaper interviews on the subject of Walcott's supposed deficiencies. Many times capped in his day on the wing for England, playing for Newcastle United — a somewhat late comer — Waddle impugned Walcott, after an admittedly disappointing recent game for England at Wembley against Egypt, for not having “a football brain”. Not knowing what to do, where to go, how to use space. What he certainly couldn't deny was the 20-year-old Walcott's exceptional speed. Nor could he erase the young winger's outstanding achievement, the dazzling and devastating hat-trick he scored in Zagreb against Croatia in a World Cup eliminator. It is, however, true that after one early devastating run on the right, which so nearly brought a goal, Walcott faded out of the game at Wembley, to be replaced at half time by Shaun Wright-Phillips, who proceeded to score a well-struck goal.

Wright-Phillips is of course the step son of Ian Wright, who along with Waddle, criticises Walcott's display. Though you could hardly say he was a wholly objective witness. Three days later, however, at the Emirates Stadium, Walcott had an outstanding game on the right wing for Arsenal against Burnley, laying on to fine chances which were clumsily missed by the young Danish striker, Bendtner, and cutting in to score a fine, left-footed goal, himself. Walcott's manager, Arsene Wenger, came to his defence, expressing his confidence in the winger who, let it be remembered, last season at Anfield ran an amazing 80 yards to get Arsenal's goal against Liverpool.

Moreover, for those of us who remember, Waddle in his earlier years on the wing was hardly brain of Britain. He had the pace, he had what they call the feet, but it was some time before he matured into the effective winger he became; and the generally shrewd analyst — one has had interesting talks with him — he has shown himself to be since retirement. Though success at a managerial level has eluded him.

Walcott, as we know, has had a somewhat unusual career. Emerging with Southampton, he commanded a huge fee when Arsenal bought him in 2006; but he had never had a game for his first team — and just one appearance for England — when Sven-Goran Eriksson, then England's controversial manager, inexplicably picked him for the World Cup squad in Germany. Where he never gave him a game, not even as a substitute.

Now Walcott on his day can destroy defences. Can any case be made for picking the increasingly limited, waning David Beckham for South Africa and leaving the likes of Walcott behind? Fabio Capello had made absurdly frequent if brief use of Beckham in internationals, when he never beats a man and wouldn't anyway have the pace to leave him behind.

If he can only get fit again, surely Spurs' electric Aaron Lennon would be the first choice for outside right. Till he yet again dropped out, unfit, he had been enjoying a coruscating season. And he did well enough, surely, in the last World Cup when allowed to replace Beckham.

Then there is James Milner, now at Aston Villa, a young prodigy at Leeds, his local club now increasingly used by Villa with success in central midfield but a natural winger, he is hugely effective and mature on either flank. He was mysteriously held back against Egypt by Capello (still ludicrously using Steven Gerrard on the left flank, where he seldom stays) till well into the second half.

Yes, wingers indeed live again, after Alf Ramsey's so called Wingless Wonders won the 1966 World Cup and they became for far too long unfashionable. As for Walcott, I would certainly take him to South Africa. In all honesty, I can't recall Chris Waddle ever having, for England, the kind of game Walcott so triumphantly did in Zagreb.

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