Formations in modern-day football, improved playing surfaces and the evolution of tactics have completely changed the role of the winger. Now it is more accurate to describe an attacking player who plays on one of the wings as a forward, because the modern-day “winger” rarely hogs the touchline and often plays inside-out. Players such as Johan Cruyff, Luis Figo, George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo all excelled as wingers but their talent was such that their positions evolved to the extent that they are rightly remembered as supreme all-round footballers, not just gifted wide men. Those celebrated in this list get to the essence of what a winger used to be, delighting in trickery, seeing their job as that of an entertainer/provider and never more at home than when within a few feet of a white touchline.
1) Stanley Matthews
“The Wizard of Dribble” set the benchmark for wide players when he emerged at Stoke in 1932. Wingers were mostly reactionary at the time, waiting to be rushed by defenders before knocking the ball past them to make good their escape. But in a reserve game against Manchester City Matthews revolutionised the role, racing at a rival before dropping his shoulder and veering away towards the byline without breaking stride. The modern attacking winger was born. Matthews was obsessed with honing his skills. He practised dribbling round chairs at home as a child. By his late teens he was making baffled defenders look like them. He added a second touch to his deceptive feint which is still taught by coaches today as the “Matthews Move”, a body swerve that does the same job as a step-over but requires only half the ego (not that Matthews didn’t have one – his prima-donna behaviour over a signing-on fee in 1937 eventually led to him leaving for Blackpool). His signature move helped him create countless crossing opportunities as he fed Stoke’s leading goalscorer, Joe Mawson, in the promotion season of 1932-33.
But it was more than 20 years later when Matthews had his finest moment on a football pitch. As a 38-year-old he left 100,000 fans at Wembley agog after a masterclass in wing play, in which he made countless Bolton players swing and miss as he merrily skipped past them time and again on the right. Stan Mortensen scored a hat-trick for Blackpool in the 4-3 win yet the match is remembered as the “Matthews final”. His individual brilliance was extraordinary for the time, with only Tom Finney coming close to matching his wing play in the 1940s and 50s. Matthews was a revolutionary in other ways too. He cut red meat from his diet to help prolong his career. It worked. He won the inaugural Ballon d’Or at 41, became the oldest ever England international at 42, won the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award for guiding Stoke back into the First Division at 48 and played in the top flight until he was 50.
2) Jimmy Johnstone
Scotland has a history of producing artful wingers almost as rich as its whiskies. Alan Morton, one of Scotland’s Wembley Wizards, was a tiny touchline-hugging wonder whose dazzling displays for Rangers at outside-left helped the club win eight league titles in the 1920s, while Willie Waddell was a more dashing, direct wide man who dominated the right flank at Ibrox in the 1940s and 50s. But no discussion about wing wizardry would be complete without a tip of the hat to “Jinky” Jimmy Johnstone, who won nine league titles and Celtic’s only European Cup between 1962 and 1975.
His height of only 5ft 4in could have been a huge disadvantage on the pock-marked battlefields of Scottish football six decades ago but it was perhaps his greatest weapon. His low centre of gravity meant he could throw an overgrown centre-back off his scent with just a wiggle of his hips, while his feather-toed touch and acceleration were frightening for the time. In British football in the 60s only George Best had the balance and poise of Johnstone while dribbling. And while Best was more of a visionary playmaker who could shift positions, Johnstone delighted in teasing defenders as he skipped up the right touchline, hurdling and – yes – jinking, his way past them. “You’ve got to entertain and to do that you’ve got to practise at it,” said Johnstone after his retirement. That dedication to ball control helped make him a Lisbon Lion in 1967, a year when he was also voted the third best player in the world.
3) John Robertson
John Robertson was a very unattractive young man. If one day, I felt a bit off colour, I would sit next to him. I was bloody Errol Flynn in comparison. But give him a ball and a yard of grass, and he was an artist, the Picasso of our game.
The left-winger was Brian Clough’s favourite footballer but he barely looked like one until Ol’ Big Head turned up at Nottingham Forest in 1975. He was in and out of the team in his early years at the City Ground until Clough encouraged him to stay wide and get forward more. “Robbo, come and stand by me,” Clough would instruct him from the sidelines. Out wide he could use tight space like no one else. He was a master of the waiting game, teasing defenders by appearing to be gassed before dangling the carrot, waiting for the bite and racing away with pace that defied his dishevelled appearance. Perhaps his greatest strength was the fact that full-backs could not show Robertson on to his weak foot, because he didn’t have one. He was as effective at coming inside his marker as he was at going outside. He twisted defenders’ blood long before Fergie gave a name to such attacking torment and his crossing was sublime – no better than when he beat two Malmö defenders with a soft-shoed shuffle up the line before curling an inswinging gift on to the head of Trevor Francis for the winner in the 1979 European Cup final. Scoring in the 1980 final was not a bad feat, either.
Great midfielders need to be able to see the bigger picture, how a move might develop, where space might open up or when the pace of the game might need to shift. For the great wingers of the past, none of this was true. Garrincha was pure spontaneity, playing like an angry wasp who would sting a defender once, then come back to do it again before buzzing away with the ball to hurt his next victim. He was the greatest dribbler of his generation, which is not bad for a kid born with a crooked spine and bent legs who many thought would never be able to play professional football. When Garrincha and Pelé played together, Brazil never lost. He was inspirational in both Brazil’s 1958 and 1962 World Cup victories. One of his nicknames was the People’s Joy. Little wonder. Brazilians will tell you that the first olés heard at a football ground came as Garrincha played the matador to the angry bulls he left snorting behind him as he went on his stop-start dribbles up the touchline. He was pure jazz and would be uncoachable today. Pelé may be Brazil’s greatest player but Garrincha’s sparkling wing play gave the world joga bonito.
5) John Barnes
British football in the early 1980s was not the easiest place for a winger to thrive. The long-ball game was the preferred route to goal for many teams and skilful, expressive players were finding it hard to make an impact. So when John Barnes burst on to the scene on the left wing at Watford he was a breath of fresh air. The slight, tricksy wingers of the 1970s were dying out with powerful speed merchants replacing them. Barnes possessed the ability to be both of these things at once. He was as adept at beating a man with a delicious bit of skill or a pirouette as he was at bursting to the line and delivering a perfect cross into the box. His dribbling high-water mark came in an England shirt in 1984 when he beat Brazil at their own game at the Maracanã.
Peter Shilton might not still be talking about the Hand of God had Barnes started the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, either. In just 16 minutes he almost turned the game, creating a goal for Gary Lineker and causing turmoil in Argentina’s defence with his graceful runs up the left wing. He could have been devastating over 90 minutes. His deliveries were always carefully thought out, too. He never saw his job as being just that of swinging the ball into the box – he knew it had to find a teammate and it usually did – to devastating effect. When Liverpool peaked in 1987-88 Barnes was majestic, gliding past baffled defenders as though he had arrived from the future. And that gets to the essence of Barnes. Even 30 years later, he could still grace the left wing of any team.
6) Ryan Giggs
Manchester United’s history is studded with outstanding wingers: Billy Meredith, Steve Coppell, Jesper Olsen, Willie Morgan and Andrei Kanchelskis – not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and George Best, who became more than just wide players as their careers progressed. The same could be said of Ryan Giggs. He often played centrally in his latter years but how do you remember him? Of course, it is of that electrifying early-career Giggs haring up the left wing “like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind”, as Alex Ferguson so brilliantly described him.
He was never the most graceful dribbler but so what? He was devastating. His control while running at searing pace was sensational. When he was in full flow his slender frame meant he often looked like he was being blown off course, though a couple of rapid changes of direction would make it clear he was fully in control. He left countless full-backs feeling nauseous as he twisted them into knots – and his inswinging crosses to almost a quarter of a century of Manchester United strikers created countless goals. When pundits talk of “Manchester United DNA” a counterattacking Giggs run and cross to create a goal is probably a pretty accurate image of it. He’s English football’s most decorated player, too. Quite right. His blistering wing play helped set the template for so much of Ferguson-era United’s extraordinary success.