Brian Viner: In praise of unsung heroes who could hit more photographers than Frank Sinatra

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The Independent Football

There was a gratifyingly large response to my recent column about full-backs, which was inspired by the evergreen brilliance of Milan's Paolo Maldini and Cafu. I asserted that Nos 2 and 3, as full-backs used to be in distant, sepia-tinted times, have rarely claimed their share of public appreciation. And that the reason so many of them play into their mid-30s and beyond, is that they depend more than any other outfield player on the one bit of a footballer that gets stronger as he gets older: the brain.

There was a gratifyingly large response to my recent column about full-backs, which was inspired by the evergreen brilliance of Milan's Paolo Maldini and Cafu. I asserted that Nos 2 and 3, as full-backs used to be in distant, sepia-tinted times, have rarely claimed their share of public appreciation. And that the reason so many of them play into their mid-30s and beyond, is that they depend more than any other outfield player on the one bit of a footballer that gets stronger as he gets older: the brain.

I admitted to a vested interest in lionising full-backs because I was one myself, albeit less overlapping than over-eager and over-fed. But seriously, how many Footballers' Association players of the year have been full-backs? A miserably inadequate number, scant acknowledgment of what for my money is the hardest job on a football pitch.

Anyway, I asked for your "all-time greatest" selections, and my thanks to the hundreds who e-mailed, among them Rod Machin, for whom the ultimate in unsung full-backs was the "utterly unspectacular but highly effective" Tony Dunne of Manchester United and Republic of Ireland. Whereas Mike Keel reckoned Roberto Perfumo, who played for Argentina in the 1966 World Cup, the best he ever saw.

In my previous column I quoted Bobby Moore's affectionate but cheeky assessment of his fellow World Cup-winner George Cohen's ball-clearing tendencies - "he hit more photographers than Frank Sinatra" - as an example of how full-backs are routinely undervalued even by their team-mates. Yet for Fulham fan Mike Waring, Cohen's defensive qualities were all the better for being so unequivocal, and were matched on the other flank by "Jim Langley's love affair with the guttering on the roof of the Stevenage Road stand".

In the view of Dave Keeley, Arsenal are the club with the finest tradition of top-class full-back play. He cites Bob McNab, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, John Hollins, Kenny Sansom, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn to support his case, but omits Ashley Cole, who may turn out to be the best of the lot. Whether in a Gunners shirt is another matter.

Several Liverpool fans, aware that my allegiance is for Everton, were scathing but unsurprised that I left out Alec Lindsay and Chris Lawler. And who is the only Englishman to score the winning goal in two European Cup finals? It's Alan Kennedy, a left-back. The first black player to play for England? Viv Anderson, a right-back. Clearly, English football would be nowhere without full-backs.

Nor would Scottish football. Several readers proposed Celtic's Danny McGrain, although David Bichan diluted his encomium with a sick joke intended to remind us that the Scotsman had his limitations. "What did Danny McGrain and Princess Grace of Monaco have in common? Neither of them could take a corner." Boo!

Paradoxically, given the perennial under-appreciation of full-backs, they have often been crowd favourites. But this is as much to do with their personalities as their footballing abilities; rather like goalkeepers, they can be an endearingly quirky bunch. At around the same time Liverpool and Everton had fine examples of this breed in Joey Jones and John Bailey. Both teams had better players, but none more popular. Ditto Bradford's Cec Podd, still a legend at Valley Parade according to my old friend Robert Cockroft.

It was 80-year-old Fred Rees, though, whose submission was the most heartfelt. "He couldn't have been more than 5ft 6in, but was as hard as one of the pit props from the Aberdare colliery where he worked, and as sure-footed as one of the pit ponies. I first saw him doing the business for Cardiff City in the old Third Division (Western Region) at the close of World War Two, and I was mesmerised by his enthusiasm, his fitness and speed. He was as full of running after 90 minutes as at kick-off, but there was, unlike with some players, always a purpose to his running. And his recovery play was tremendous: should he slip, or be beaten by one of the clever wingers who played in those days, he was back on his feet and harrying the ball-carrier all the way.

"He was the king of the sliding tackle but was always scrupulously fair. Both Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews said he was the best full-back they ever played against. This was Alf Sherwood, who earned, in his entire lifetime, less than today's prima donnas get in one week!"

Cracking stuff, although the last word on the subject should go to Jimmy Armfield, generally acknowledged as the first overlapping full-back, and the author of a fine autobiography cutely entitled Right Back To The Beginning. When I phoned him to ask for his selection, he pointed out that people ill-advisedly look at the best teams to find the best players. "It's easy to say Carlos Alberto," he said. "And Maldini's as good as I've seen. Ray Wilson was a great player, too, and I like Gary Neville. But you shouldn't leave out a terrific player called Mick McNeill, who used to play for Middlesbrough in the 1960s." So I haven't.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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