Hamish McDougall exposes the myth that England lack decent southpaws, arguing that Kevin Keegan ignores the available options – to dire consequences
The word “quality” is an optional extra in this Myth’s wording, as some commentators have suggested that a whole generation of footballers use their left foot merely to stand on. The Times suggested just such a thing recently when championing the 3-5-2 system, insisting that playing wing-backs “negates the necessity to find two left-sided players”.
Last season England were incredibly unlucky with injuries to cack-footers – Keegan’s choices Graeme le Saux, Jason Wilcox, Stuart Pearce and Steve Froggatt were all out. The last player to score a left-footed goal for England, Jamie Redknapp, was another crock. Therefore at Euro 2000 two right-footed players were thrown on to the left flank. Dennis Wise was so anonymous he could have safely carried his son Henry around during the match. No goals were generated down the left side. Then, of course, came the coup de grâce with Phil Neville’s clumsy, ill-timed and symbolic tackle with his wrong foot.
It’s not as though this was the first major tournament in which England have lacked wide players on the left. They got to the semi-finals of Euro 96 with only Pearce as a card-carrying southpaw, and even then he played as part of a back three with Anderton and McManaman sharing left wing-back duty. Keegan had the players to play the same system. But didn’t.
In any case, there is a litany of lefties who were overlooked by Keegan. If he was looking for experience he could have tried Nigel Winterburn (left-back in the Rothmans 1999 team of the year, two caps). If he had been looking for youth he might have tried Jamie Clapham, Alan Rogers, Ashley Cole or Jon Harley. Of course, none of them has vast experience at the highest level and the latter two are not even first choice left-backs for their clubs. A bit like Phil Neville. Or Keegan could have gone for good quality Premiership journeymen like Scott Minto or Alan Wright to patrol the left. Journeymen. Like the Nevilles. And Jason Wilcox. And Steve Froggatt.
What of the solid cadre of sinistral players who have been in the England squad in the past couple of years? Take Darren Eadie, drafted in by Glenn Hoddle while still a foetus, and capable of playing anywhere on the left, or centre forward for that matter. Dominic Matteo, Italo-Scot and England B international, may have been convinced to forget Dumfries and become a Sassenach if his sound displays at left-back for Liverpool had been rewarded with more visits to Bisham Abbey. Keegan stated that Ben Thatcher, but for some disciplinary lapses, would have been in the squad for February’s friendly against Argentina. Which makes Wise’s presence in the same squad even odder.
Lee Hendrie’s ten minutes in an England shirt were as exciting as any debut in recent times, and he possesses a left foot that is not at all Astle-esque. Keegan is yet to cap him and his summer activities suggest the truth of the “idle feet” proverb. Steve Guppy, never a whippet but a good crosser who possesses a bona fide, British Standard Approved left foot, was given one cap, then not called again. He could have been just the ticket.
On the opening day of this season, Michael Gray sent a 40-yard ball for Niall Quinn to nod in at the back post past David Seaman, to remind everyone of his left foot. Yes, he was injured for much of last season but was back playing for Sunderland for the last few games and was no more of a physical liability than Robbie Fowler or Tony Adams. All of those players kicking at the left side of England’s dressing room door. None of them is Christian Ziege or Marc Overmars, but then again England didn’t have a Toldo or even a Desailly either and no one is talking about the dearth of centre halves.
But what’s worse is that the solution was probably a lot closer to Wor Kev. Nicky Barmby is one of the few players in the Premiership who can call themselves ambipedic without guilt. Keegan underemployed both of his feet. And next to Barmby on the team list was Gareth Barry – left-footed, talented, young and developing a callous on the bench at Charleroi. In ten minutes against Ukraine Barry played more quality balls from the left flank than Phil Neville managed in the whole of England’s Euro blandness.
To quote the most talented of the Neville brothers (Aaron) “Tell it like it is”. It’s about choices. There were lots of left-sided players around. Kev just didn’t pick ’em.
From WSC 165 November 2000. What was happening this month