The left back
The left back is where it is at, Daddy-o. It’s a position providing countless real men. Men you’d try to booze with even though you know they’d hold you in open contempt. Patrice Evra for exampe. Plainly there are players of each position throughout football’s history with their swing jazz side, but the left back is anomalous, and the only one we’re wiling to consider. It’s the only position where the colleagues on the other side, the right backs, seem to be such boring bastards. The left back has to make up for the static antics of Tony Hibbert, for God’s sake. Forget the fact that football is a dying spectacle, and kick against the pricks with the left backs. There are a remarkable number of these flawed, majestic bastards who have an intangible but persistent link with an era, a team or a wider phenomenon.
Think of Sinisja Mihajlovic, a player who bore witness to three remarkable periods in football. He was part of the European Cup winning Red Star Belgrade side, at the inception of the Balkan troubles, and that of the old European Cup format. That’s a time in history that has yet to resolve itself, but that’s not all. He was a vital player at Lazio for the Sven Goran Eriksson period, where the title was bought, with a huge financial hangover waiting. This was at a time when Serie A was the strongest in the world, viewed in Britain as tantalisingly exotic post-Church razzle. This was when, for Channel Four viewers, the continental European leagues started to seem altogether less foreign. Furthermore, he was a title winner in the era of Calciopoli that rewrote history, guiding Inter towards Italian domination until Rafa Benitez got up to his usual tricks. He has his dark side - which is no doubt a term that would get on his tits. His racist gobbing and abuse are inexcusable, and exemplify the problems of Italian football culture and its wider society.
Consider Bixente Lizarazu. Not exactly the most discriminated against ethnic minority – he is Basque – but still a notable player in the team of all colours for the French triumph of 1998. He and his teammates did this against the backdrop of a France united for the campaign, but at other times a fractious society arguing amongst itself and fighting to define its identity far less successfully than other countries. A couple of years later, Le Pen would make it to the last round for president. More – or less? – impressively, he’s found time to become a jujitsu champion.
Andreas Brehme was one of the last genuinely two footed players, a dying breed, but of course more importantly he scored the winning goal for a reunited Germany in the 1990 World Cup. This was the last World Cup before Sky and outright globalisation, the last proper World Cup, the last one anyone has fondness for. It sounds impossibly wanky, but a player who does equally well with his left and his right for a German side, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that’s too perfect.
Stuart Pearce was around to see the fall of two eras. He is one of the last English internationals to have held down a part-time job during some of his career. When he moved to Forest, he advertised his services in the Nottingham Forest program. He was there to see the inaugural Premiership and Brian Clough’s last game in charge in the same season. He was there when football went officially middle class, during Euro 96.
There are left backs lower down the league, heroes to the smaller clubs, but Wikipedia stubs. They’re just as crucial to making football worth following. Rotherham’s Paul Hurst is a one club man, playing 450 games for them until his retirement in 2008. Born in Sheffield, he’s about as local as you will find in football these days.
And there are left backs that never really made it. George Switzer, the left back left-back. He was part of the FA Youth Cup winners with Gary Neville and David Beckham – both pious right siders – and yet he failed to make a senior appearance for the club. As much as success is noteworthy, there’s something far more poignant about the ones that don’t make it. The reasons are rarely as obvious as pure talent, the ones who simply fade from view often end up regretting the other mistakes they made.
The right back, like Danny Mills or Cafu? In their own ways, pompous tedious arseholes. I’d like to watch Cafu talk about football as much as I’d like to hear his thoughts on his beloved Jesus. The only thing I enjoyed about Danny Mills was watching him get sent off against Hull as his career disintegrated. Lillian Thuram – bah humbug. More self-righteous than Malcolm X. No, the left back is the cool kid, in the thick of it or on the sideline, even if he’s a prick at the same time.
So, new to the Interminables section, My Favourite Left Back. If you have a left back you think is up to it, email Neil Isaacs, email@example.com