Football: McManaman wins the old left vote

Tim Collings says Liverpool's flyer can plug an awkward hole
CALL IT what you will, outside-left, left-wing or left midfield, filling the port flank of the England team has been a recurrent problem for a series of England managers. Down three decades and more since Sir Alf Ramsey dispensed with old-fashioned raiders in his "wingless wonders" of 1966, we have seen a series of square, rectangular, triangular and various other-shaped pegs forced into the round hole ideally reserved for a genuine high-class No 11.

At various times, these have included Stan Bowles, Tony Currie and Trevor Brooking being asked to "provide the width on the left" while a stream of more natural left-flankers came and went without truly stamping their authority on the position. Alan Devonshire, Graham Rix, Steve Hodge, Mark Walters, John Salako, Andy Sinton, Tony Daley, Lee Sharpe and Chris Waddle are just some of those, like Alan Hinton and Bobby Tambling in earlier times, who found the job such an elusive one to fill at international level. Not since John Barnes was a regular at the peak of his powers (Waddle, for some reason, was always more effective on the right) have England had the conundrum solved.

Even Bobby Charlton was asked to do the job in his early career. That he did his left-wing duties with great effect was a compliment to both his talent and his application, as well as an example of what such focused determination can achieve, if applied in the same vein, for others, like Steve McManaman.

Overlooked by Gerard Houllier but recalled by Kevin Keegan for the England squad to meet Poland next Saturday, the 27-year-old Liverpool forward has abundant dribbling skills, an eye for goal, no lack of versatility, and, at his best, the panache to lift spectators from their seats; but, essentially, he is a right-footed player. For Keegan, who believes wing- play and natural width on both flanks are essential services for the success of his centre-forward and captain Alan Shearer, this detail is one that McManaman's all-round game can overcome - as he demonstrated under Terry Venables at Euro 96 - if he, in turn, receives the ball early and in good positions. His selection, however, does confirm the dearth of naturally left-sided English forwards.

An impending transfer to Real Madrid is also an incentive to McManaman to sparkle and add substantially to the 22 caps he has gained so far in an injury-hit career which has promised far more than it has realised. The Spanish club, knocked out of the European Champions' League in Kiev on Wednesday, need a boost as much as England do, and it may prove to be more than ironic that it is Keegan's old strike partner John Toshack who now rules at the Bernabeu. For both, it may be providential if Macca rides again.

Given McManaman's inclination to cut in and carry the ball on his right foot, however, it is interesting to note that Keegan has included two left-footed wing-backs in Graeme Le Saux and Andy Hinchcliffe (in a role that Roberto Carlos has enjoyed for Madrid).

Their selection suggests width will be an integral part of England's approach under Fulham's manager, just as it was at Newcastle where he brought in Keith Gillespie and David Ginola to supply Shearer's ammunition in a swashbuckling side. Like all genuine No 9s, Shearer has thrived on life at the far post and will hope to do so again with McManaman's assistance if the Liverpudlian is selected.

This week, while all eyes were on the San Siro and Oslo, McManaman was with Liverpool in France on a trip designed to repair mental and physical wounds for the final Premiership gallop. Having been involved in only two full matches in the last four months, he insists he is fresher than usual for the time of year. "I haven't the first idea if I will play," he said. "But I am more than ready, if the manager wants me." On the evidence available, that is a certainty. Nobody else in Keegan's 24-man squad can attack on the left with such comfort.

What irony, then, that the Premiership's finest sight this season is a natural two-footed, old-fashioned left-winger with a penchant for crossing on the run and driving in long-range shots. David Ginola will be in action for Tottenham against Leicester this afternoon at Wembley where Steve Guppy, one of the young pretenders for the left flank, will have a chance to show that Keegan was wrong to release him at Newcastle. The truth, however, is that it is quality of a higher vein that is required - Ryan Giggs at Manchester United or Marc Overmars at Arsenal, who are big reasons for their clubs respective positions in the Premiership.

Until Guppy, or someone else, can stand alongside them, and Ginola, Keegan is right to go left with McManaman.

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