The Wide Boys
Scotlandhas had a prodigious history in producing a long line of wingers. Indeed our very own Hibernian gave to the world the man who was termed the ‘Prince of Wingers’ in the great Gordon Smith,seen him don the green and white jersey.
What is it about these men that sets them apart in temperament and style from players in other positions? It’s always been a source of curiosity to me. Some people talk about eccentric goalies, and in fairness there have been plenty of those between the sticks, a role perhaps akin to being the drummer in a band? I however am fascinated by these wizards of the dribble, these men who leave the field of play with a liberal amount of chalk dust on their boots after hugging the touchline all game. These wide boys.
Some time ago this subject became focused in my mind after having a conversation with a former colleague who had spent some time reporting for the Lincolnshire Echo newspaper. His assertion was of, ‘you know – he was one of those useless ******* wingers’, (he used reasonably earthy language) when referring to an erstwhile Scottish tanner ba’ player who had the misfortune to find his career washed up in the arid football atmosphere of the east of England cathedral city for many unfruitful seasons.
After dusting down my Celtic pride I realised his point. For every great winger there are a number of great pretenders and just general numpties. Flattering to deceive is the first skill that any decent outside right or left should learn rather than how to put a half-decent cross over.
The modern wing-back appears to have largely taken over the traditional winger’s role but these players are not the genuine article. For one thing they run back and help their team mates and no self-respecting winger would ever consider such recklessness. They are there to attack, that appears the simple logic behind the thinking of the wide man.
There are many types to the genre, the most instantly recognisable classifications being the ‘Wee Jinky’ type and the ‘Flyer’. Think Jimmy Johnstone for the former, (naturally) and Arthur Duncan for the latter for stereotypes of these performers.
Whilst wee Jimmy was arguably as good as it gets in this role as five foot nothing of pure trickery and bamboozlement, lesser imitations of the man are more easily swept under the carpet. Whilst Jimmy could easily beat four men on a mazy run, (watch out for that expression) lesser wingers must necessarily learn the skill of beating the same man four times. All well and good if he can finally be unloaded of the ball by the patient defender too after exhaustion sets in, (wingers only truly run about a bit when they have the ball). Whilst this is the most likely outcome for the Wee Jinky, there are usually other options open to the Flyer.
Those of us who can say we saw Ned Turnbull’s Tornadoes will always have a special place in our h***ts for Arthur Duncan. This paragon of the flying winger fraternity entertained us all for many winters with his dashing wing play (keep an eye on that term too). A great and loved, long servant to Hibernian, Arthur could on occasion frustrate even his most loyal fans. Who can forget that sprinter’s pace down the touchline, possibly only equalled by Erich Schaedler backing up behind him in the left back berth? It’s at this point that we need to think of outcomes again. Whilst the Jinky will often meekly surrender the ball to a bemused full back after drilling himself into the turf with just that one turn too many, the Flyer might more likely be seen running the ball straight over the by-line and into the crowd. If he knows his job properly he will also be seen following the ball into said crowd too at this point. It’s times like these that strong relationships are bonded between the Flyer and his long-suffering followers.
The second option open to this type of winger is a humdinger too. An experienced Flyer must understand the art of a decent anti-climax too. Picture the scene because we have all been there. The midfielder or full back releases the flying wingman from a deep position; the winger sets off like the proverbial bat out of hell down the line showing fine close control (i.e. not letting the ball run any more than twenty-five yards in front of him) and finally makes it to his spiritual home at the bye-line, ball intact. This is the point where matters from looking promising take on a new form as the trigger is drawn for that pinpoint cross into the middle. Over the ball goes…and pitches adjacent the opposite corner flag before bouncing haplessly out for a throw in on the opposite wing despite a despairing slide from the opposite wide man. Even worse than this is the cross that finds its way behind the net as angry-looking team mates glower over from the penalty area. The skilled Flyer will at this juncture use all his experience and glare disbelievingly at an imaginary divot at his feet before running back, shaking his head.
I could perhaps be accused of being a little facetious here but in truth I have always, like many others enjoyed watching wingers play. They bring expansiveness to the game that is sadly often lacking in modern football. Wherever there is a decent winger in some kind of goodish nick there is always bound to be entertainment to follow.
It’s true to say that many of the greatest exponents in this position have been Scottish and it’s on some of those characters I’ll concentrate here. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for Jimmy Johnstone, but there have been so many. In a similar vein Willie Henderson was charged with attempting to equal Jimmy’s exploits over the other side of Glasgow, a similar kind of player, Willie did that well enough to earn Scotland jerseys. His team-mate on the opposite wing Willie ‘Bud’ Johnstone actually combined the characteristics of both the Flyer and the Jinky. An interesting anecdote I heard about Bud was that during Rangers’ infamous training sessions running up and down the dreaded sand dunes of Gullane, Willie would actually perform these runs in pit boots. No wonder he was flying come Saturday afternoon…
Willie was one of the few people I have ever seen sit on the ball during a game – surely the ultimate embarrassment to the opposition? He was playing out of his skin for West Bromwich Albion by this time (and into selection ready for his most notorious hour in Argentina but that’s another story entirely.) Against the not-so-mighty Notts County this particular afternoon, Willie was having an absolute field day and looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself against the bothered and bewildered County defence. Finally he showed his mastery (and boredom) by perching his back side on the ball down by the left corner flag as the perspiring Notts rearguard looked at each other nervously to decide who would try to take the ball away from him. Some in the home crowd scalded Willie as you might imagine, not me, he was doing his job of entertaining the paying customers – and doing it sublimely.
Uddingston native, John Robertson (the Forest and Scotland player not the Newcastle reject) was another I never tired of watching. Robbo’s innate football ability only really saw light of day when Brian Clough moved him from midfield and barred him from the chippy. This coincided shortly afterwards with a rich vein of form for several seasons operating as a conventional outside left which took John to European silverware and Scotland caps. In a way there was no mystery about John’s wing play, whichever way the full back went he went the other, simple eh? Pin point crosses and in addition the most cool and deadly penalty taker in the business were other weapons in his armoury. Clough’s TV assertion referring to the Scotland party heading for Argentina ’78, that Robbo ‘has so much skill he should fly the plane’ sticks in the memory.
Former long time Leeds outside left Eddie Gray was another favourite. In a team full of hard men, (even the forwards) Gray stood out as one player who’s game was purely based on skill rather than cynicism. Gray was often unfairly compared to George Best over the Pennines which seemed a little unfair to me. He was the scorer of my favourite goal of all time (barring Hibs of course!) On that occasion Eddie seemed to beat practically the whole Burnley team in a solo effort of breathtaking artistry with the ball. Gray danced his way along the left touchline before working his way in towards the opposition net leaving defenders floundering this way and that in his trail before slotting home. A goal of absolutely staggering skill.
I could hardly end these words without mentioning some of our own Hibernian touchline favourites. My apologies if I’ve left yours out. Mickey Weir on his day could be almost unstoppable; also a great fan favourite to this day and an unforgettable sight in those new-style baggy shorts he was asked to wear alongside his team mates of the day. I very much liked the tandem of Kevin ‘Crunchie’ McAllister and Michael O’ Neill that Alex Miller introduced to Hibs. Hibs were a joy to watch at last with these two wingers operating in the same side. They were also a good foil for each other in style. McAllister earned his ‘Crunchie’ tag as a youngster playing in a team with another boy called ‘Crunch’, apparently, thus he became know as ‘Wee Crunchie’.
I’ll end on one of our greatest men, outside left of the inimitable and legendary Famous Five, Willie Ormond. Perhaps all of the Five were overshadowed at times by the glittering skills and matinee idol looks of Gordon Smith on the right-wing, but Musselburgh native, Willie should, like the others be remembered in his own right as a wonderful talent. Like the rest of the Five I only have others’ reminisces to form a judgement on, including those of my own family. One need only listen for a few moments to an appreciation of Willie by his two remaining line mates Lawrie Reilly and Eddie Turnbull to understand what a talent he was. Any man who could impart the classic quote, ‘if I’d had a right foot you’d have never heard of Pele’ had to cut a bit of a dash didn’t he?
Glossary of winger terms
Wee Jinky – Usually small and very manoeuvrable, the jinky will normally rely on trickery and ball play to outfox the opposition. Not averse to taking on the same defender several times the jinky is primarily an entertainer. There is often a problem with peripheral vision in these types – they don’t have any.
Flyer – the fabled ‘Flying winger’, an outside man of breathtaking pace but not necessarily any other talent whatsoever. Often tall with a raking stride. Most often seen running in straight line towards the corner flag with a posse of defenders giving chase.
Dasher – as in ‘he’s a bit of a dasher, (see ‘flyer’)
Mazy dribble – a long, weaving run that confuses winger and defender alike.
Nijinsky, et al – the names of famous race horses can often be used in the identifying of flyers. This is to be encouraged.
Dribbling – the prime weapon of the Jinky, often used as a precursor to falling over.
Buccaneer – this is usually applied to a player most usually considered to be too large and bulky to play the wide position. ‘The buccaneering winger’. Robust play is the key term here in the buccaneering winger who will burst forth at any opportunity, splaying great sheaths of defenders from his path with a large barrel chest.
Moving back – all good things come to an end. The last bastion of the winger just before the boots stay on the peg forever. Not always 100% successful as any good winger worth his salt will have spent the last fifteen years of his career without making a single worthwhile tackle.
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