For England, wingers live, playmakers vanish. With of course the shining, precocious exception of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. Out, alas, until November; a shocking blow to his club and huge setback for England.
Blessed are the playmakers, you might say, for they will make goals, but Wilshere apart the sad and shameful fact is that England haven’t got any. It seems inconceivable for a country which, not so long ago, possessed the supreme constructive talents of Paul Gascoigne with his magnificent right foot and his ability almost to “photograph the play” before the ball came to him. Before that there was another Spurs “general” in the immaculate Glenn Hoddle, whose inspired long right-footed passes could split any defence.
And what, in earlier years, of the dominant, and dominating Johnny Haynes, whose left foot, sped the ball through the middle, out to the right wing from his inside left position, or inside the full back to launch his left winger. True he had disappointing World Cup finals both in Sweden in 1958 and in Chile in 1962 but overall he was an outstanding schemer, as such players once were known.
Against such opposition as Bulgaria, beaten with such ease in Sofia, and Wales, who once had in Ivor Allchurch one of the kings of inside forwards, it might not be of supreme importance to have a playmaker. But later on, in the European competition, and in the World Cup games that are to come, it will surely be essential to have a midfielder capable, in the old Italian expression, of “inventing the play.”
Arsenal have, until it came to the managerial years of George Graham been the pioneers of such players, though two of the finest of them, Alex James before the war with his glorious repertoire of strongly hit passes and Jimmy Logie, for years after it, were Scots.
Later there would be the elegant blond George Eastham, himself the son of a Bolton and England inside forward, even if George junior was unlucky enough never to get off the bench during England’s not always smooth Wembley progression to the 1966 World Cup.
Today, Spain have inside forward talent if one may call it that in abundance, Xavi and Iniesta being able to unlock any defence. As for Germany, they have in the remarkable young Ozil, of Turkish origin, a playmaker who can also as he has just shown with his European hat trick against Austria, score goals.
One of the most encouraging features of the current England selection, however, is that they and Fabio Capello have emphatically shown that wingers live. And please don’t call flank players midfielders. Theo Walcott and Downing showed in Sofia how dangerously effective wingers can always be.
Walcott has been too often, in my view, criticised in the past for not having a football brain, whatever that might be. It didn’t stop him scoring those three decisive goals against Croatia in Zagreb, even if, tactically, he may have recently dismayed Capello by remarking that he wasn’t sure what he had to do when Capello was plainly advising him to stay wide on the wing.
Both he and Downing can switch wings at will, Downing at last having come fully into international form, after a somewhat uneasy England beginning. And knocking on the door is Manchester City’s excellent, elusive Alan Johnson, while James Milner, somewhat surprisingly aligned in Sofia in central midfield is, when in form – which he wasn’t late last season against Switzerland – a winger of value.
Wales, of course, have that glorious raider, left footed Gareth Bale, who, in Cardiff against Montenegro, so surprisingly beaten, in fact operated on the right to allow that splendid veteran, Craig Bellamy, to play on the left; though he is just as quick, incisive and effective on the right himself.
How sad and frustrating that a minor offence had him yellow carded against Montenegro and thus ruled out of the England game at Wembley. And this, just after his long, excluded period at Manchester City where Robert Mancini so significantly failed to make proper use of him, had ended with his returning to Liverpool. The club which, against all logic, had kept him on the bench throughout its second European Cup Final lost, that time, to Milan, whose elderly defence would have found it hard to contain him.
Bellamy may always have been something of a stormy petrel, but he surely remains one of the best attackers in Britain. So much so that I remember Wales flying him into Finland at the last moment, so that he could play, and play effervescently, after Newcastle’s then manager Bobby Robson had tried in vain to stop him going.
Heartening news that Karl Heinz Rummenigge, once a German star, now the chairman of the European Club Association, has deplored the corruption in FIFA and demanded “transparency.” If only Beckenbauer and Platini would back him!