The duel between winger and full-back is one of the game’s enduring battles and attractions. It spans generations in its various evolving formats. The ball in from the far regions remains the devil to defend. Let’s try it another way though. If I wrote up on the board – ‘Classic Left Wingers’ what decade would you be thinking of? I do accept many wags will instantly start shouting “Arthur Scargill, Red Robbo, Derek Hatton“(though the latter was more an 80s’ man and his biggest challenge was probably his beloved Evertonian Kevin Sheedy when it came to classic lefties). Political satire aside, you get my drift. There was no way Daniel Day-Lewis was ever going to appear in ‘My Right Foot’. The left foot then as now remains a prized possession.
I embark on this series having grown up in a decade almost stereotyped by this species. I hope to review ten of them that were prominent for me and I hope others. That suggests they were plentiful but they were more marked for me by their absolute individuality. Yes, there were right-wingers, and who knows, I may even as a sort of 70s’ footballing VAT add a few onto this set of articles by including some. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of right-wingers who added as much to a team out on the starboard and some of the players we will feature in this series spent as much time on the right.
But they lacked a certain magic, a certain footballing ‘Che Guevara’ if you like that left wings possessed. As ever in life, those who master the more difficult form create a certain mystique over that craft. Test yourself within and beyond football on that thought and see what you find. ‘Sinistra’ – Latin for left but we can’t deny the stem of the word and its murky overtones. There was just that certain something about the left winger and it could not be nailed down. Sinister and suspicious – one feeds off the other!
Of course, the decade was shortly after the Ramsay ‘wingless wonders’ of 1966 which influenced thinking but perhaps not fact. Terry Paine, John Connelly and Ian Callaghan were part of that squad, but due to the inspired performances of Alan Ball and Martin Peters did not get the look in they might have.
A year later, influential coach Malcolm Allison in a coaching book highlighted a dichotomy.
“Wingers in the old-fashioned style are luxuries in anything but an overwhelmingly strong side or with anyone but an overwhelmingly good player.”
I would argue that had as overwhelming an influence on wingers as anything Alf Ramsay did. In the poor pitches and open season tackling of the times, this sentiment could hold plenty of water. Unless he was fully involved teams, could not afford to be carrying such a player. This is before anything is said about their work ethic.
So, a question I’ll throw at you now for consideration at the end of this series. What is the difference between a wide midfield man prevalent to-day and a left-winger? It wasn’t just a then and now thing either. Ray Kennedy, for example, played wide-left for Liverpool during their glory years over 40 years ago but not by any stretch of the imagination was he a winger. Not in the least. But he provided the width, class and punch that Liverpool needed to rule domestically and continentally; that I should add says a huge amount about him and the manager who changed him from the forward that he was to the midfielder that excelled, Bob Paisley.
In the same vein, Liam Brady. As classic a left wide-man as you’ll get but not a winger. Too much a part of the midfield specific and greater team body. That fine line is huge. Essentially, those left-wingers of the 70s had the same sort of relationship to football that let’s say Lou Reed had with the music industry in his time. That would be… individuals to their core. Not central to the big story but the big picture has no frame if they aren’t included. But boy, did they add colour.
But looking at present-day wide men probably opens the window and lets the light in a bit more. The game is much more flexible today. The winger of the 70s in British football was very much designed to send the ball in from touchline orbit onto the head of your off-the-peg British lumbering brontosaurus centre-forward. Your immediate thought is the denigration of the donor and recipient, but that would be wrong. There was no year in the decade that a British football team did not appear in some form of a European final. It should also be said that European football, by and large, did not employ the same sort of tactics either. British football’s characteristics were simply more pronounced but the gap was starting to narrow. Of course, should you need reminding British football teams were the British Isles to their core at the time? Glasgow Celtic’s (and District) 1967 team yes were an extreme, but it helps the point as to a general barometer of the times.
But taking it back to the series in question I hope to study the highest purveyors of left-wing artistry of that decade. Not in some kind of factual account of their career or life within or without football, but simply as I saw them then and as I do now; hindsight, you will be required too. These are the ones that marked their teams and also that period to the extent that they were that decade. Some perhaps should be there and you may argue some shouldn’t. Dennis Tueart, for example, is not here but for me, he was as much a general forward as much as a left winger. If we are in a debate, well then it is worthy of the quill.
There is an argument for letting these ‘individuals within the team’ appear by introduction each week ‘stage left’ so to speak. But I feel as, in the recent BBC series ‘Icons’, one should know what lies ahead. Those that will appear over the next few weeks in glorious and genuine homage to the decade they graced, will be Eddie Gray, Steve Heighway, Leighton James, Willie Johnston, Gordon Hill, Clive Woods, Dave Thomas, John Robertson, Peter Taylor and Laurie Cunningham. We’ll see how things stand at the end of this before we consider adding the likes of Charlie Cooke and Steve Coppell to ….try and provide a little equilibrium.
We’ll start with Eddie Gray next week.