Football: Right back to where we started from: Where have all the full-backs gone? Joe Lovejoy ponders what has become a problem position, and assesses England's options

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'IF Lee Dixon plays for England, so can I' A little harsh, perhaps, but the increasingly popular punters' refrain, sung to the tune of 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain', is symptomatic of the decline in English full-back play.

Graham Taylor is spending the weekend applying the finishing touches to his latest World Cup squad, to be announced on Thursday. He is not about to admit it, but it is the right-back position which continues to give him greatest cause for concern, and another change is to be expected for Turkey's visit on 18 November. Paul Parker is coming back stronger than George Bush, poor Dixon more like the erratic Ross Perot.

Taylor is not alone in having to make do and mend. Leeds United's defence of their title, and pursuit of the European Cup, is being hampered by the lack of an orthodox right-back and, with Mel Sterland still unfit, they cannot afford to wait too much longer before buying a serviceable replacement.

Who should Howard Wilkinson go for? Who can Taylor turn to? Food for thought for Jimmy Armfield, who captained England in the No 2 shirt for the best part of three seasons, and won 43 caps between 1959 and 1966 - this in the days before they were tossed around like confetti on summer jaunts to New Zealand and Malaysia.

As manager, Armfield took Leeds to the European Cup final in 1975. Now, as a journalist and radio broadcaster, he sees more games than ever, and confesses his bemusement at the dearth of talent in his old position.

Not since Phil Neal won the last of his 50 caps, nine years ago, have England had an automatic selection at right-back. Viv Anderson came close to it, Gary Stevens had a long run, but over the last 18 months we have had Uncle Tom Cobley and his tribe - Stevens, Dixon, Parker, Gary Charles, Rob Jones, David Rocastle, Keith Curle, David Batty and back, reluctantly, to Dixon.

'I don't really know why it has come about,' Armfield said, 'but England have got a problem, haven't they? They are not sure who to play. They've got Parker fit again - they've missed him - and young Jones. They are the two who come to mind.'

No Stevens and no Dixon. They spring to mind in another context. 'There are one or two,' Armfield added, 'who are good going forward, but when it comes to the basics of the job, at the back, they can't do it.

'Their greatest problem comes not when the ball is on their flank, but when it is on the other side of the field. Their positional play is poor, and they get caught in no man's land too often. When the ball is on the opposite flank, a full- back has got to do two things. First, he's got to shuffle across to cover behind his central defenders, while at the same time taking care not to play the opposition onside.

'There's a fine balance to achieve there. The grey matter has got to be reacting all the time. Second, he has got to be prepared, if the ball is knocked long, to go and fight for a header. Too many of the full-backs you see today don't seem to appreciate the full extent of their responsibilities, and I wonder, given the modern trend of playing with a flat line of four or five at the back, whether they get to learn the basics.

'The hardest thing to get used to about playing full-back is that you do so much more running without touching the ball. It is definitely a job that requires good positional sense. You've got to be aware of everything that is happening, all the time, if you're not to be caught out of position.

'The other thing which is vitally important is to learn to play up against the touchline. I can think of a good few players who were playing in central defence or central midfield who couldn't cope when they were moved to full-back.

'They couldn't cope because as soon as they got some white on their boots they felt lost - trapped by the line. Players used to having space to play in are ill at ease in a confined area. It takes time to learn how to play next to the touchline.'

Curle was out of his depth at the European Championship, and another obvious example is Jon Newsome, also a centre-half, who was tried by Leeds at right-back, with unhappy results. Chris Fairclough has been making a better fist of it, without ever looking comfortable. 'There are many more,' Armfield said. 'Central defenders often get moved to full- back and do a job, of sorts, but it is never the answer. The specialist is going out of football, it is the era of the all-rounder, but full-back, because of the touchline, is a specialised position, and the higher the level you play at, the more specialised you have to be.'

Jack-of-all-trades or Continental wing-backs, whose primary function is to attack, should be out if, as it seems, England are to play the way they know best, with a traditional back four, marking on zonal lines. Neither full-back was convincing in the 1-1 draw with Norway two weeks ago, but Armfield has no qualms about Stuart Pearce - either as left- back or as captain. Dixon, though, is another kettle of flaws.

'Finding a right-back is one of Graham Taylor's problems,' said the man who played there 669 times for Blackpool, in the days when they were runners-up in the League and winning the famous 'Matthews Final' in the FA Cup.

'As I see it, Jones and Parker are the likely two. Parker is the better defender, but Jones has got greater potential because of his age. He hasn't done it yet, though. We can't say, just because he came in and played one match well, that he's the answer. He's still got it all to do.'

Pearce, on the other hand, had nothing to prove. 'He has got a lot going for him. He's a very forceful character, which is a good thing. It is very good for a full-back to be able to impose himself on attackers, as Pearce does. You've got to be able to tackle, and he certainly can tackle.

'I like his attitude to the game. I don't know whether he can smile, but I wouldn't want to play against him. He may have had a bit of a dip lately, but we all did. Best and Matthews didn't play well every week, whatever some may say now. Pearce has done all right. He has been very consistent.'

The man himself is not so sure. England's captain admits: 'It has been fair criticism for people to say I have been below par. I haven't been playing as well as I know I can. I can't put my finger on the reason. I'm certainly trying as hard as ever, but (Nottingham) Forest haven't been playing well as a team, and that hasn't helped.'

Fortunately for Pearce, Taylor is of the same mind as Armfield when it comes to weighing the captain's combative qualities and defensive responsibility against Tony Dorigo's pacy enterprise and superior distribution.

The manager stonewalls staunchly in the face of mounting criticism of his full-backs. Was their form not causing him some disquiet? Bailey or Boycott would have been proud of the straight bat.

'I know what you mean, but I don't think either of them has been as bad as all that. I prefer to leave it to people such as yourself to nit- pick. We would like to see a bit more movement and a bit more cover from the full-backs, but we will just have to work on them a bit more to get it. I would like to think that the quality of our crossing will improve, but it's not just the full- backs who are responsible.'

Taylor, who watched Turkey beat San Marino 4-1 on Wednesday, will welcome back Parker with open arms - 'He hasn't played for England for more than a year, and we've missed him' - and is also expected to find a place for another mended casualty, David Hirst. Changes, though, will be kept to a minimum.

'We have put a new team together for Norway, they played with passion, and I'm quite happy to support them as a group. For Turkey, we need exactly the same approach.' And a slightly different result, presumably.

(Photograph omitted)

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