No.11: Top 4 Left Midfielders … Ever.

When I was growing up my favourite player was Peter Barnes. He was one of those mercurial left wingers who were either world beaters or complete and utter shite, depending on … well, what exactly ?
What makes a player amazing one week and yet unable to complete a ten yard pass the next ?
On a good day, maybe he won a bet at the bookies, or bought himself a nice pair of bell-bottom slacks the day before ?
On a bad day, perhaps he’d had an argument with the wife, or more likely he just didn’t fancy it after being raked down the shins by the opposition’s right back in the first minute of the game ?

Who knows what goes through the mind of the average footballer, let alone a genius savant like Barnes ?

As a key part of that glorious WBA side managed by Ron Atkinson, Barnes was cherry-picked by big spenders Manchester City, while team-mates Bryan Robson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis also earned lucrative moves away as the side broke up fairly quickly after finishing third in the league in 1979.
I remember him in blistering form for England against Wales in the Home Internationals one year – I think the final score was 4-1 and he either scored or had a hand in all four goals. To my delight, he ended up playing for Leeds … to my dismay, every single day he was there he must have stubbed a toe getting out of bed because I can’t recall him ever having a good game for us. After that, his career fizzled out …
But at least it shone in the first place.

So many wingers seem to hardly even get going before being shown the door and as I write this, one of the latest, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, has pitched up in the last chance saloon that is Ashton Gate (with apologies to any Robins out there). Two years before signing for League 1 Bristol City, “Jet” – as he’s affectionately known – was described by Arsene Wenger as “banging on my door with both hands” such was his talent. Last season, Theo Walcott went on record in stating that he expected the boy wonder to follow him into the first team at The Emirates. Now he’ll be facing the likes of Stevenage and Shrewsbury …

Consistency is key and wingers rarely have it, that’s what makes the following four players so remarkable. World class and able to win matches and seemingly even trophies on their own, this is the elite of the elite, and don’t forget they’ve all got a left foot that’s more than just for standing on …

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My Top 4 Left midfielders … Ever.

#4
Eddie Gray

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Biased ? Moi ?
Of course I am. Just like every other fan on the planet …
With more tricks than Paul Daniels and more flicks than Phil Oakey, Eddie Gray was easily the most entertaining member of the great Revie Leeds team. Like George Best on the other flank of this greatest ever team, his work-rate was phenomenal, but he also did his fair share of defending and tracking back.
Usually a target for the opposition’s hard man, Gray was generally afforded a touch more freedom than most mainly due to the presence of Charlton, Hunter, Bremner and Giles in the Leeds’ ranks, but even so he suffered a fair few injuries down the years, including one from Ron “Chopper” Harris in the 1970 FA Cup Final that ruled him out for most of the following season. Upon taking over the club in 1974, among various scathing comments Brian Clough aimed at his new charges one particularly acidic barb was that had Gray “ .. been a horse, he would’ve been shot long ago”.
In the interests of balance, I’d like to add another quote about the player, this time from his great mentor, Don Revie: “When he plays on snow, he doesn’t leave any footprints”. In the interests of self-indulgence, here’s his famous “drag back goal” against Burnley … a strike that most Leeds fans rank as the best goal ever.
It’s a fairly safe bet that Leeds would have won more silverware had he always been available, yet even given his fitness problems he still stayed on longer at the club than any other member of the great side of the late 60’s, following a successful conversion to left back under former team-mate Allan Clarke.
Criminally under-used by Scotland (he earned a paltry 12 caps) he eventually played about 500 first class matches, yet like the Leeds team itself, the image of Gray is, sadly, as a perennial runner-up. Both he and they were always there or thereabouts, but there remains the nagging doubt that in another age he would’ve been a much more valued and effective player. Given the changes in the laws of the game regarding tackling in the last twenty years, what price Eddie Gray now if Gareth Bale is worth £100m ?

 

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#3
Rivelino

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Very few players go down in history for a trademark trick or move in football, but there are two on this shortlist and Rivelino is the first with his “Flip Flap”, most recently imitated by Cristiano Ronaldo who has a lot to thank the Brazilian for, given he’s based most of his career around it.
One of the most creative players in the all-conquering 1970 Brazil side, Rivelino made the left flank his own, but that was just the starting point. Impossible to pin down, like most of his team-mates, he would pop up all over the place, often switching with Jairzinho on the right flank decades before the current vogue of wingers cutting in to shoot with their stronger foot began. Equally adept through the middle, his elegant dribbling, mesmerising close control and the sheer range of his passing made him one of the key weapons in the Brazilian team’s armoury … and that’s not to mention his legendary dead ball skills. Whenever I think of a curling free kick dipping into the back of the net, it’s not Roberto Carlos that springs to mind, but Roberto Rivelino. Normally, he’s running wildly towards the crowd before the goal’s even been registered, with that trademark moustache and a massive grin on his face.
Unfortunately for him, Brazil were on the decline as he was reaching his personal peak as a player, yet he still enjoyed a stellar career despite the relative flops of the 1974 and ’78 World Cup campaigns. Had he still been available in ’82, maybe the so-called “Best team never to win” the trophy would never have earned that name ? You can but dream … and Rivelino is the kind of player that makes you want to do just that.

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#2
Ryan Giggs

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The most decorated player in English football history.
The record appearance maker for Manchester United.
13 League titles.
4 FA Cups.
3 League Cups.
2 Champions League titles.
The only player to have scored in every season of the Premier League.
The record assist maker in the Premier League (271).
In 1991, at the time of his first cap, he was the youngest player to play for Wales.
21 years later, he was named captain of the Great Britain Olympic team.

In many ways, Giggs is the belated, eventual successor to George Best. Yet, at the same time he couldn’t be any more different than the Irishman when you look at those statistics. If ever any single player from that famous Manchester United youth team fulfilled his potential, that player is Ryan Giggs. While Beckham “made it” off the field, the only other player to have come close on it is Paul Scholes, yet there’s always the feeling he should have done more at international level. As harsh as that may be given that Scholes was often marginalised by a succession of national team managers, Giggs would have been sensational for England and would have slotted into the side perfectly to solve the perennial “left side problem”. However, despite many claims to the contrary, Giggs could never have played for England: he represented the schoolboy side because he went to school in the country. That’s it. Irrelevant. The boy is Welsh.

It’s a shame he never got to play on the international stage … or is it, given the prominence the Champions League now has in world football ? For at least the last twenty years, the European Championship has been a higher standard of football than the World Cup, diluted and bloated by nations from the emerging confederations. During the last decade, the Champions League has evolved into the platform for the game’s elite players, and to such an extent that calls for a pan-European super league have finally died down … it’s already here. Giggs has lit up that stage and proved his worth with the best in the world, just as he has done domestically for over 20 years now. Perhaps his most famous moment, at least in England, was his once-in-a-lifetime match-winning goal against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final. I’ll say that again: 1999. That’s 14 years ago and he’d already been playing for eight years at that point …
One of the few players to achieve admiration, respect and even adoration from fans of all clubs, his reputation has built year on year, tournament by tournament, until he now stands in the pantheon of the greats. The only difference is: he’s still playing. And at the top level.
Like a modern day Stanley Matthews, he’s still one of the fittest players in the league, faster than most as he touches 40, and now about to embark on another chapter of his incredible career with the dual role of player-coach at United under new manager, David Moyes. Who would bet against him to take over when the Scot leaves the club ?

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#1
Johan Cruyff

UntitledFor such a small nation, Netherlands really have no right to be as good at football as they have been over the years.

With a strong domestic league, a culture of playing the game the right way and a proven source of talent through links with its former colonies, the lowlanders have consistently punched above their weight for decades at both club and international level. PSV, Feyenoord and Ajax all have excellent European pedigrees, while the national side’s performance in the big tournaments is more than creditable given the size of their population, with one European Championship win and three World Cup runners-up medals to their name. To put that demographic in context, the nation is on a par with Guatemala, Burkina Faso and Romania, but half the size of Poland, Morocco and Canada.

But boy, can they produce a player. Off the top of my head, how does this team sound?
Van Der Sar; De Boer, Stam, Koeman, Krol; Neeskens, Rijkaard; Gullit, Cruyff, Rensenbrink; Van Basten.

Think about it for a moment. I’ve left out Bergkamp, Sneijder, the Van Der Kerkhof brothers, the other De Boer, Kluivert, Davids, Cocu, Van Persie, Van Nistelrooy and triple Champions League winner, Clarence Seedorf.
But we could talk about Dutch football all day … or rather, we could argue about it all night – they like to party and they’re not averse to having a few cross words with each other, either. In fact, most insiders argue they’ve actually under-achieved as a nation given the talent available to them and it’s only the splits in the camp down the years that have stopped them winning more silverware.

Having said all that, just one man stands alone when it comes to Dutch football and that man is Johan Cruyff. And I mean that in more ways than one, given he is not just the personification of their perfection on the pitch, but also their divisiveness off it. As adored as he is reviled, he’s very much a Marmite man: you either love him or loathe him. Think Roy Keane but with bells on and you’re still nowhere near it …

Johan Cruyff was a one-off.
Three times European Player of the Year, he embodied Rinus Michels’ totaalvoetbal philosophy both for Ajax and – briefly – for the Dutch national side.
Playing nominally as a centre forward, he would drop deep to receive the ball, playing effectively as a “False Nine” thirty years before both the term and the role were widely recognised (yet twenty years after the Hungarians first tried it), confusing opposition defences with his runs. Supremely athletic, incredibly quick, great technically, with superb dribbling skills, the ability to shoot and cross with either foot and the passing ability of a world class playmaker, Cruyff’s most potent weapon was actually his vision, which was only ever limited by the players lining up alongside him. Fortunately for him, the game and the world, he played in three excellent teams: Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch national side. For a while he was the best player in the world and even today he stands shoulder to shoulder with the ultimate greats of the game: Pele and Maradona, Beckenbauer and Zidane.

He invented the Cruyff turn.
He smoked like a chimney.
He scored 33 times for his national side in just 48 appearances.
He refused to wear the three stripes of adidas because he’d signed a personal deal with Puma.
8 Dutch league titles, 5 Dutch Cups, 3 European Cups, 2 UEFA Cups (Ajax)
1 Spanish title, 1 Spanish Cup (Barcelona)
1 Dutch league title, 1 Dutch Cup (Feyenoord)
That’s just as a player.
As a manager, he also won 2 Dutch Cups and the UEFA Cup with Ajax followed by 4 Spanish league titles, 1 Spanish Cup, the UEFA Cup again and the European Cup, all with Barcelona. His legacy at both Ajax and the Catalan club is legendary, inspiring an entire generation of players, both Spanish and Dutch, and he can rightly be considered the founding father of the current success of both Barcelona as a club and Spain as a nation. To measure just how influential he has been on Dutch and Spanish football, I would estimate his standing to be about equal with Franz Beckenbauer in Germany. As players and managers they were great rivals, enemies even … yet as men they were very similar: both visionary, both driven and both supremely talented.

Like Best, Maradona and Zidane, he remains a moody, temperamental genius. But forget about that and remember the football …

Johan Cruyff, you grumpy sod, I salute you.

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Honourable mentions: Tom Finney, John Barnes, Chris Waddle, Robbie Rensenbrink, Francisco Gento, Arjen Robben … and Peter Barnes.

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