Never mind Hernan Crespo and Luis Garcia; forget about Eidur Gudjohnsen and Ronaldinho. The biggest thrill of this week's Champions' League matches - at least from where I was sitting, in row A, seat one in my living room - was the full-back play. Has any football tournament ever been graced, within the space of 24 hours, by a classier bunch of full-backs than Paolo Maldini, Cafu, Bixente Lizarazu, Roberto Carlos and Ashley Cole? I very much doubt it. Not since the heyday of Terry Darracott, anyway.
Moreover, why were Manchester United knocked out by Milan? Partly because Mikaël Silvestre had a cauchemar at left-back, and partly because Gary Neville was missing on the right. Everyone bangs on about Roy Keane being talismanic for United, but Neville is no less significant. He is excellent defensively, reads the game superbly, and gives width to the attack. He could smile a bit more, but you can't have everything.
For my money, full-backs are football's unsung heroes. You hear about the "great" Tommy Lawton and the "great" John Charles, but rarely of the "great" Johnny Carey, or the "great" Ray Wilson, even though they did their jobs just as brilliantly. Nor is it just goal-scorers who eclipse full-backs in the adjective department. Wingers, midfield players, central defenders and goalkeepers all get more attention.
Bobby Moore joked in his autobiography that George Cohen used to hit more photographers than Frank Sinatra, so wild were his clearances. Yet Cohen won a World Cup. I'd better come clean here. I'm championing the full-back partly - all right, largely - because I was one myself. It is true that the Dunvegan Dribblers, the Sunday League team whose right flank I stampeded along in the early 1980s, were not Bayern Munich. But it doesn't matter what level you play at; once you've done a spot of overlapping, and defended a corner while leaning against the near post trying to get your breath back, and been nutmegged by a tricky little sod of a winger, you're a member of the brotherhood of full-backs.
Besides, I am firmly convinced that it is from the flank of a defence, not the middle, that a game is best read. You can see more of the pitch from there, and you have the perfect perspective on your own defensive line. It is surely no accident that Sir Alf Ramsey, the only man ever to mastermind an English victory in the World Cup, had been an international right-back. Or that Don Howe, one of the most accomplished of coaches, was in the brotherhood. It is also significant that the finest practitioner of full-back play in the world today is probably the 34-year-old Cafu. No other outfield player has the same longevity as the full-back. Think Stuart Pearce, think Denis Irwin, think Maldini, for heaven's sake, who was delighting the Milanese before Wayne Rooney was so much as a twitch in his father's fist. And the reason for that longevity is that no other outfield player relies so much on his football brain, the one part of a footballer that gets stronger while the other bits get weaker.
Not, of course, that there is much evidence of Cafu's legs weakening. His energy at the San Siro on Tuesday was literally breathtaking, and it seemed inevitable that he would be the one who made the killer goal. But is he the greatest full-back ever? Was it Carlos Alberto? Or maybe Terry Cooper? We've heard plenty of argument about whether Pele was better than Maradona, or Puskas, or Cruyff, or Best; we've listened ad nauseam to those who reckon Bobby Moore superior to Franz Beckenbauer, and to those who favour Lev Yashin over Gordon Banks. It's time to lionise the full-backs.
Yesterday I spoke to Bob McNab, Arsenal's left-back in the 1970-71 Double-winning team. He made the valid point that you can't compare eras.
"The role has changed dramatically," he said. "We were supposed to defend in my day. Ashley Cole is terrific going forward, but he's poor at covering and heading. But all you can be is the best in your era." Which still begs the question: which was the best era, and who was the best full-back in it? Send me your suggestions.Reuse content