Wince at Ince? Balk at Blissett? Who's your duffer?

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The Independent Football

Football is a game that excites passion. But for the average spectator, I don't believe anything matches the intensity of emotion aroused by witnessing the player they love to hate.

Clearly there is always one man available to absorb any transient feelings of hatred and contempt experienced by football supporters. He wears black or, if he is in a Premiership match, green.

But the traditional satisfaction of telling a referee that his parents weren't married pales when set alongside the dark catharsis of victimising a member of your own team.

Watching a match at White Hart Lane on a non-professional basis recently, my experience was dominated by a man behind me who took every opportunity to execrate the performance of Tottenham's central defender Chris Perry. Now Perry did not have an outstanding game that night, giving the ball away too often for comfort. But I simply couldn't fathom how he was supposed to be so much worse than the other white-shirted fellows around him.

And when, a week or so later, this same player ensured a win for Spurs at Sunderland with a last-gasp clearance off the line, I wondered if my voluble friend would have been present. More to the point, I wondered what he could have said.

Bad tennis players, rubbish athletes, errant racing car drivers – they're all easy to spot. When it comes to football, identifying the duffer is not that simple. One man's exasperation is another man's inspiration. What can be said for sure, however, is that every team has its weakest link, even if opinion differs on where it is.

Name virtually any side, and you will be able to call to mind someone in it who is, for whatever reason, irksome. Tottenham supporters, for instance, previously invested thousands of man hours demoralising another defender in the towering form of Ramon Vega, a whole-hearted but error-prone operative whose fortunes were never helped by his propensity for emoting on the pitch.

On a personal note, although my comments never passed beyond the next row of the press benches, I found watching Dean Austin a taxing experience at Spurs. His tackling was fine, but it was the bit when he advanced upfield with the ball and a rising sense of panic that always got to me.

During his time as manager of West Ham, Harry Redknapp employed a cunning tactic to safeguard the morale of his team members by spending large sums of money on foreign players clearly chosen to draw the wrath of the Upton Park crowd. The policy foundered, however, when the new players either decided they were injured or failed to turn up for games because they had changed their minds.

When it comes to national teams, the weakest link debate reaches a new intensity, uniting a country in condemnation. Sometimes the choice of who to blame is easy; sometimes there are too many choices.

This week a poll has been taking place on the official 2002 World Cup website on the subject of England's worst ever player. Loser in the clubhouse was Geoff Thomas, the former Crystal Palace midfielder, whose ninth and final international cap was earned against France in 1992, when he memorably accepted Gary Lineker's through ball and attempted a chip over the keeper which only narrowly failed to hit the corner flag. Close alongside Thomas, however, is another midfielder, Steve McManaman, whose efforts as substitute in last month's crucial World Cup qualifier against Albania brought to mind the technique of that great Albanian idol Norman Wisdom.

Thomas was never much more than a capable and unflagging link man; McManaman, as we know, can play at a rarefied level, having won a European Cup winner's medal with Real Madrid. But that only serves to make his England performances all the more infuriating.

I can't help thinking that these two have been unfairly singled out, however. Where, for instance, is Carlton Palmer, the midfield enforcer so beloved of Graham Taylor, whose international career was a perfect balance between not quite winning the ball and not quite keeping it? Why is there no mention of Jeff Blockley, or Luther Blissett? Isn't there a case for Peter Bonetti's inclusion, or perhaps even a keeper of more recent times, Ian Walker?

I would make out a strong case for a mention of Nicky Butt's name in the frame. Was it just me, or did he keep on giving the ball and free-kicks away in crucial areas? Come to think of it, I could never see why everyone was so convinced that Paul Ince was a magisterial influence in the England team. With one or two exceptions, notably the 0-0 draw in Italy which earned qualification for the 1998 World Cup, I saw more posturing in his game than performance.

But then I'm just a one-eyed fan like everyone else.