Praying For A Wing

21/02/2014 09:52

Praying For A Wing

Manchester United have always had a simple playing policy, which is to find the best wingers, like legendary manager, with 13 league titles, Alex Ferguson, found David Beckham (1993-2003) and Ryan Giggs (1990-), to make the forwards responsible for scoring goals, because of a plentiful supply of excellent opportunities, which worked with players like the beligerent and occasionally miraculous Mark Hughes (1980-86, 1988-95) who, never known for bagging hatfuls of goals, got his highest total of 17 in 1985-86 when Danish left winger, Jesper Olsen (1984-88), was the provider.

 Welshman Hughes` strike rate didn`t improve, but he was Mr Reliable. Hughes always got into double figures, mainly because of the speed and energy of United`s resourceful Ukrainian winger, Andrei Kanchelskis (1990-95). In Mark`s second spell at the club, after Ron Atkinson made the mistake that cost him the manager`s job and sold Hughes to Barcelona, Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe (1988-96) provided support along the right and left flanks, while later Ferguson additions, England`s Andy Cole (1994-2002), Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (1996-2007), and Trinidadian Dwight Yorke (1998-2002) were more natural goalscorers and found it less arduous to find the net.

 Gary Birtles (1980-82) was a great performer for Nottingham Forest with Brian Clough as manager when Forest won the European Cup twice in succession (1979, 80), but Birtles was heavily criticized at Old Trafford for putting the ball in the net only once in 25 appearances after United manager, Dave Sexton, had Gary transferred to Manchester for 1.25 million GBP at the beginning of the 1980-1 campaign. Sexton was ultimately sacked because he preferred to bring left midfielder, Mickey Thomas (1978-81), from Wrexham for 300, 000 GBP, although United already had an excellent wing pairing of Steve Coppell (1975-83) and Gordon Hill (1975-78).  But Sexton sold United`s top goalscorer, Hill, for the seasons 1976-77 (15) and 1977-78 (17), before commencement of the 1978-79 season, and although Gary Birtles had joined from Nottingham Forest as a proven forward who`d won everything in the English game and European honours too, Mickey Thomas` industry on the left of midfield wasn`t enough to assist the new striker, who`d been used to a skilful provider in  wingman, Trevor Francis, and a Forest side brimful with enthusiasm and expectation of success based on a series of triumphs and displays of goalscoring prowess from the forwards.

 Dave Sexton had begun the 1977-78 campaign as manager after replacing Tommy Docherty, who`d installed Steve Coppell to replace ageing right wing and Scotland captain, Willie Morgan (1968-75), who`d been signed by United`s other legendary manager, Matt Busby, after the club`s first European Cup win of 1968 at Wembley against Portuguese champions from Lisbon, Benfica, 4-1. Busby wanted to move Irish winger, George Best (1963-74), from the wing into a more central forward role so Best`s goalscoring flair could be fully utilized in front of goal. Ironically, George`s goals tally increased but the team lost impetus after his move from out wide and won nothing until Willie captained the side out of the Second Division in 1974-75 as champions. After replacing Morgan with Coppell, Tommy Docherty seemed to have made a mistake similar to Busby`s with Best`s wide talent when switching the wing effectiveness of Irishman Gerry Daly (1973-77) into midfield from the left and replacing him with Gordon Hill, but for a while it seemed to have worked. Stuart Pearson (1974-79) appeared as England`s centre forward between Hill and Coppell for an England U-23 European Championship Quarter Final against Hungary at Old Trafford in March, 1976, which England won, 3-1. Hill scored in the 74th minute, but Hungary had won 0-3 in Budapest. The Hungarians went on to lose to Russia in the Final, but the new England trio of Pearson, Coppell and Hill had almost got the team through. United prayers seemed to have been answered by wings.

 Ultimately it was the removal of Gordon Hill from Manchester United that was manager Dave Sexton`s downfall, because he preferred industry to flair. Although Manchester United won the FA Cup with Hill`s style and panache, tenacious Irish midfield destroyer, David McCreery (1974-79), had displaced the England winger after being brought on as substitute for Gordon in successive FA Cup Finals (1976, 77) when Tommy Docherty had feared his team might concede a goal rather than score another. United`s tremulousness with regard to out and out wing play after Morgan`s arrival and Best`s move inside brought only three further domestic trophies, the FA Cup (1977, 1983 and 1985), after the league title of 1966-67, before Alex Ferguson`s reign as United`s most successful manager of all time began in 1986. Among Ferguson`s signings was Southampton`s winger, Danny Wallace (1989-93), but it was the 1988 signing of 17 year old Lee Sharpe from Torquay as a dazzlingly brilliant left wing at speed that would satisfy Alex`s future ambitions.

 Many had thought that Gordon Strachan, who`d been brought from Ferguson`s previous Scottish champions and European Cup Winners` Cup winners (1983), Aberdeen, by manager Ron Atkinson, who`d replaced Sexton, would renew the successful partnership the pair had in Scotland, but Strachan was a right sided midfielder rather than a winger and was transferred to Leeds. Despite finishing second in the table to Liverpool in 1987-88, a nine point gap didn`t inspire confidence, so Ferguson replaced Strachan with out and out wide man Wallace. Manchester United were to return to the traditional style of serving the forwards with the best opportunities from wingers who could get penetration and the emergence of young striker, Mark Hughes, from within the youth team ranks at Old Trafford set the stage for a feast of excitement as wingers dribbled speedily, swerving around opposition defenders to serve up the ball on a plate for forwards to feed their opponent`s always expectant goalmouth.

 Tommy Docherty was dismissed by the club for a lack of adventure, especially in the transfer market, when players like Celtic and Scottish captain, Kenny Dalglish, were available. Dalglish replaced forward, Kevin Keegan, who left Liverpool for Germany`s Hamburg S.V., after he`d helped win the 1977 European Cup for the Anfield outfit in a 3-1 victory over Germany`s Borussia Monchengladbach. Although Sexton agreed terms to bring Gerry Francis, the dynamically visionary tenacious England captain and midfield general, from previous club Queens Park Rangers (Q.P.R), the deal fell through. Dave`s subsequent policy in the aftermath of failure in the transfer market was to promote industry, rather than buy skill. Prolific Nottingham Forest striker, Gary Birtles, had been used to playing alongside genius, like Trevor Francis, the former Birmingham City star winger, who Clough made England`s first 1m GBP player, but an industrious Manchester United bereft of skill left Gary too much to do alone.

 If wingers don`t play the ball in to target men, like Stuart Pearson, who was transferred by Manchester United`s Tommy Docherty from Second Division Hull City to score the goals that brought promotion after United themselves were relegated to the Second Division in the 1973-74 season, goals can only materialize from midfield and the efforts of forwards unsupplied by the wings. As wings and a prayer, Coppell, Hill and Pearson carried the team on for the goals that beat Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final win, 2-1. United`s wings had carried the side forward the previous season only to lose to unfancied Second Division, Southampton, 0-1, but goals from striker Jimmy Greenhoff`s chest (1976-80), deflecting diminutive midfield dynamo Lou Macari`s (1973-84) strike past Liverpool `keeper Ray Clemence from the right of the area, had won the game. 

 Manchester United`s experienced Irish midfielder, Sammy McIlroy (1971-82), had headed the ball forward for Greenhoff, who had headed on further to Pearson, whose powerful low shot went between and beneath Clemence`s legs to open the scoring in the 51st minute. Jimmy Case had equalized for Liverpool with a typical turn and strong right foot shot from just inside and centrally placed within the Manchester United area. Trapping a long through ball from the right boot of Liverpool full back, Joey Jones, wide on the left, Case had turned to blast the ball into the top right corner, past the despairing grasp of United `keeper Alex Stepney (1967-78) in the 53rd minute, who doubtless feared successive FA Cup Final defeats would be unbearable, but Macari and Greenhoff worked some alchemical magic in the 55th minute to eventually carry the day for the reds.

  At Manchester United it`s important they have the best wingers to carry the team forward and make the strikers score. If the goal machines don`t work with the best wings, the manager is justified in dispensing with forwards who can`t function.  Stuart Pearson scored goals off his elbows, knees, thighs, and the back of his head, when he wasn`t paying enough attention to the crosses from the heroes on the flanks who made him function in his position. Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill hit Pearson with the ball often, and as well as they could, but Pearson lived up to expectations by putting the ball in the net as much as he was able. Steve Coppell was the only winger to play along the flank at United for a while after Ron Atkinson took over the manager`s role, but the 4-3-3 system of two forwards and one winger took the club through to the FA Cup Final of 1983 where the team drew with Brighton, 2-2, before winning a replay at Wembley`s national stadium, London, 4-0.

 An injury to Steve Coppell ended his career just before the Final and his place was taken by Welsh right wing, Alan Davies (1982-85). The next season Davies scored United`s only goal as a substitute against Juventus in the home leg of the European Cup Winners` Cup Semi Final before the side lost in Turin, Italy, 2-1. `Big Ron` Atkinson had brought ageing left winger, Arthur Graham (1983-85), from Leeds and it almost brought victory against Juvé. Young Irish centre forward, Norman Whiteside (1982-89), had equalized after winger Graham had taken a pass from his full back, Arthur Albiston (1974-88), wide on the left. Arthur`s cross  found Irish utility player, Paul McGrath (1982-89), in the Juventus area and the defender, playing a midfield role, backheeled the ball for substitute Norman to crash a left foot shot high into the Italians` net.

 Norman Whiteside was the second youngest man ever to play in the first team against Brighton and Hove Albion away on April 24, 1982, aged 16. The next season he made 39 league appearances before contributing to Manchester United`s 1983 FA Cup Final success, which gave the club entry to the European Cup Winners` Cup of 1983-84. `Big Ron` had brought centre forward, Frank Stapleton (1981-87), who partnered Whiteside, from Arsenal for 900, 000 GBP as his first big transfer signing in 1981. Stapleton and cultured England central midfielder, Ray Wilkins (1979-84), brought from Chelsea by former manager, Dave Sexton, had scored the goals against Brighton in the drawn FA Cup Final of 1983, but United won the replay easily after Norman Whiteside got United`s third in the 30th minute with a header from a right wing cross by injured Steve Coppell`s replacement, Alan Davies. `Big Ron` had brought ageing left winger, Arthur Graham, from Leeds and it almost brought victory against Juvé in the European Cup Winners` Cup Semi Final. Seeing success came with wings, Atkinson brought the younger, Jesper Olsen, from Ajax Amsterdam to be newly emergent marksman Hughes` goal provider from the left wing in what were to be Mark`s most successful scoring seasons of 1984-85 (16) and 1985-86 (17), before the FA Cup Final triumph of 1985 in which Hughes` strike partner Norman Whiteside`s low curved shot from the right of the penalty area bent around `keeper Southall and snuck inside the far left post to beat Everton, 1-0, after United`s centre back Kevin Moran had been sent off and the team became ruggedly determined not to lose.

 If United are unsuccessful the onus is on the manager to improve the supply from the wings so that he can see if the forwards are up to the task, and if they`re not then he must get better players. Gary Birtles` goal dearth was due to Welshman Mickey Thomas` withdrawn midfield role, whereas Birtles` strike rate could only have been improved by the presence of prolific topscoring, Gordon Hill, jinking his way along the left touchline. Cutting inside to have a go solo, or putting over a cross onto the heads of the forwards, or a ball into their feet in front of the goal, Gordon Hill`s service would have brought thrill and spills and Gary Birtles would have scored a few he didn`t even consciously aim to bag in the midst of the storm.

 The first superstar Manchester United had was Welshman, Billy Meredith (1906-21), a winger, who helped the club to the FA Cup in 1909 and championships in 1907-08 and 1910-11. United`s next major trophy wasn`t until 1948 after WWI (1914-18) and WWII (1939-45) when Charlie Mitten (1946-50) and Jimmy Delaney (1946-50) were the wings. Matt Busby had seemingly turned to wide play in desperation but wingers were what soccer was about. Pulling opposition defenders around the pitch, clutching at shadows, so as to get their own players forward without being kicked, was the wingmen`s objective. Having shaken off their shadows, the wingers could play the ball into forwards who`d run upfield unhampered. The simple ploy had resulted in the more defensive playing system of a less creatively talented Leeds United team and their emulators. Under future England manager, Don Revie, Leeds took advantage of the single substitute ruling of 1965-66 to entrench the principle of stopping opponents from playing when you were ahead. In Italian soccer what was known as the catenaccio, that is, defend until certain opportunities for strikers arise, became endemic in the English game; to the extent that wingers disappeared and every schoolboy wanted to be a midfielder because the new substitute position was invariably filled by a utility player who primarily functioned as a stop gap central midfield jack of all trades and master of none who came onto the field to prevent play from developing against his team`s lead.

 The role of wingers had been to bedazzle and avoid being kicked because there weren`t substitutions before 1965-66. The belief that players were stronger then is a myth. The more central players gave the ball to the wingers who had to perform so that the other members of the team could run unimpeded and the onus was upon the wide player to make it easy for the forward to score or the manager would get a new winger. Soccer was changing after WWII because clubs had played with a single stopper centre half flanked by half backs. The modern era saw that wings were a consequence of fear and sides began to play with two mobile centre halves flanked by left and right full backs with a stronger, more creative midfield and a single winger. Players like George Best, who became forwards after a spell out wide, were expected to see that as a reward, whereas it was deleterious to the team to sacrifice a winger for goals that should be scored by forwards.

 Although George was very successful as a forward the club wasn`t. United had won the championship (1951-52, 1955-56 and 1956-57) but, although the wingers changed, that is, Johnny Berry (1951-58) and David Pegg (1952-58) for Delaney and Mitten, the centre back pairing still featured a stopper and a half back rather than two mobile centre halves, like `Dolly and Daisy`, the nickname given to Manchester United`s central defenders of the early Ferguson era, Steve Bruce (1987-96) and Gary Pallister (1989-96). Bill Foulkes (1951-70) and Nobby Stiles (1960-71) were the centre half and half back combination that won championships (1964-65 and 1966-67) with John Connelly (1964-66) and George Best on the right and left wings, before the introduction of two substitutes for tactical reasons in 1967-68 began to change the way in which defenders were selected.

 Tactical substitutions  homogenized the defence with the midfield through the preparation of utility players for the bench. All purpose defensive midfielders became indispensable and began to appear in all of the positions behind the forwards in front of the `keeper. John Aston (1965-72) was the man out wide on the left when United won the European Cup (1968), and when Busby brought Willie Morgan to the club from Burnley everything seemed set for further success but Matt retired and was replaced by coach Wilf McGuinness, who was so defensively minded that he refused to play prolific centre forward, `The King`, Denis Law (1962-73), in three attempts to beat Leeds United in the FA Cup Semi Final of 1970, which the team eventually lost to the only goal in a third replay.

 When Frank O` Farrell became manager after McGuinness` failure to change United to suit the modern era, he brought England left winger, Ian Storey-Moore (1972-74), from Nottingham Forest, but Ian didn`t survive the cloggers and was invalided out of the game of soccer. It was the period in which the tackle from behind was being outlawed so that strikers and creative players didn`t have fear of being chopped down by defenders they couldn`t see as they attempted to move forward. The outlawing of the tackle from behind made the game more skilful and exciting for fans who wanted to see the best from players.

 After being moved from the wing by United manager, Matt Busby, George Best had become an inside forward, but the gap out wide was too big for any one player to fill. The changing pattern of the modern game was confusing for United. With two substitutes permitted for tactical rather than injury reasons in 1967-68, attention focused on the centre back pairing and the desirability of playing with two wingers if a single sub would do for defensive cover. If centre halves were essentially full backs in different guise, either could be switched to the centre in the case of injury to a centrocampista, and vice versa, so a utility forward could be employed in the `sub` role, rather than another midfield half back. 

 The need for more defensive flexibility had resulted in United`s midfield tiger, Brian Greenhoff (1970-79), becoming a prototypical centre back of the modern era with Tommy Docherty`s team. Defensive flexibility was illustrated in manager Dave Sexton`s decision to prefer defender, Jimmy Nicholl (1974-82), at right back, before the 1979 FA Cup Final against Arsenal. Manchester United lost, 2-3, and Brian had expected to play in the right full back berth, but Jimmy who himself was a regular centre back, was preferred. Both were centre backs and Greenhoff was a half back, rather than a right back, but Nicholl was a right back and a centre back. Jimmy was preferred although Brian had played much of the season at right full back.

 Although Manchester United lost to Arsenal, defensive flexibility was further illustrated in centre back Gordon McQueen`s (1978-85) mobility and agility for the reds` first goal at 0-2. A right footed cross from a free kick by Coppell over near the right touchline found centre forward, Joe Jordan (1978-81), on the left of the Arsenal area and he drove it into the penalty area where McQueen slotted it home in front of goal in the 86th minute, 1-2. Sammy McIlroy equalized after a left footed forward pass over the Arsenal defence from near the centre circle found the midfielder in the Arsenal area in the 88th miinute, 2-2. McIlroy scored with a solo run and dribble but striker, Alan Sunderland, headed the winner for Arsenal from left winger Graham RIx`s cross wide on the left wing near the corner flag in the 89th, although improved defensive mobility would be United`s successful new strategy in the future.

 When Tommy Docherty took over in 1972 he`d continued the policy of the big centre half, Jim Holton and the half back, Martin Buchan. O` Farrell had inherited Ian Ure (1969-71) as the stopper bought by McGuinness from Arsenal to partner the more mobile Martin Buchan (1972-83). Frank had transferred Buchan from Aberdeen, and Docherty found future Scotland stopper, Jim Holton (1972-76), at Shrewsbury Town. It wouldn`t be until Kevin Moran (1978-88) and Martin Buchan were paired by Ron Atkinson in preference to the big stopper centre half Dave Sexton had bought from Leeds, Gordon McQueen (1978-85), that the future of paired mobile centre halves could be perceived as United and that was because the number of substitutes available was increased from two to five for the beginning of the season 1995-96, and that would be increased to seven for 2008-09, which meant that defensive and midfield cover could be given by a single player, like the new breed of utility half-back, Phil Jones (2011-), while specialist forwards appearing from the bench was an optimal solution that had become real.

 Brian Greenhoff`s role in an effectively seminal role alongside Martin Buchan in the heart of Tommy Docherty`s United defence showed the emphasis in the modern game would be upon mobility at the back and versatility amongst the forwards, because getting ahead became more possible after being behind if there was a fresh wide player to gee-up the striker amongst the `subs` as well as an all purpose half back. Always concerned to adopt the simplest and most effective route to glory, Alex Ferguson`s Manchester United threw caution to the winds and spread their wings to fly in Europe and bring home two more European Cups (1999, 2008) before the manager`s retirement led to greater caution, or perhaps more expansion with new manager, David Moyes (2002-13), who`d kept Everton afloat for a dozen seasons or so without winning anything, which didn`t augur well for a club used to celebrating triumphs on the wings and the prayers of the faithful supporters at the North Stand`s Stretford End.

 Soccer theory at Manchester United has been that the team will go forward if the wings are strong enough and, although the nickname of the `red devils` suggests bedevilment, angels have wings. Managers that bedevil the development of the club are devils to the team while defenders like Nemanja Vidic (2006-14) and Rio Ferdinand (2002-), mobile centre halves of Ferguson`s modern era, `devil` the opposition and wingers, like Cristiano Ronaldo (2003-09), who arrived from Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon to provide the impetus on the right flank for the 2008 European Cup win, raise the team to dizzying heights. Angels have wings and Manchester United are hell to play against, or so the opposition`s legend has it, so devils are welcome at other clubs and the better players have to look to Old Trafford to get a game and spread their wings further. If you`re fooled by the `red devils` image, you won`t fly on the wings of God at the Theatre Of Dreams.