by Richard Brook
Former England winger, Chris Waddle has courted controversy be greeting news of David Beckham’s retirement from the game by claiming that Beckham was probably not amongst the top 1000 all-time Premier League stars. Waddle, whose playing career included Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Marseille and Sheffield Wednesday, has never been one to be afraid to voice his opinion. Indeed he effectively ended his own international career when he stated that then England boss Graham Taylor had set England’s development back by five years. Beckham’s place in the hearts of English football fans is plainly very different to the one occupied by Graham Taylor, but Waddle’s propensity to wear his heart on his sleeve has always been a feature of his personality.
In fairness to Waddle it is true to say that Beckham was never as technically gifted as some of the trickiest players to grace the global football stage, or even the Premier League. That said as Beckham himself pointed out, speaking of his impending retirement as it was announced yesterday, Beckham was twice runner up for World Player Of The Year. His talents should not be so readily dismissed as a mere “good player”. Beckham played for Manchester United, Real Madrid, Milan and Paris Saint Germain. These four clubs are hardly noted for a questionable transfer policy, or signing ordinary players. It is hard to imagine that all four will be regretting their decision to sign him.
He may not have had the locker full of tricks that some of the current generation of the world games leading lights, or even that of some of those of Premier League history, but Beckham has always been an effective player for whomever he has played. It is easy to make the point that never has a winger, or wide midfielder, so rarely taken on a full back never mind beaten one. That only serves to highlight one of Beckham’s best attributes – he did not need to.
Regardless of how often Beckham did or did not get to the byline Beckham’s career building triumph was his passing and particularly his crossing. His ability to whip in dangerous and effective balls into the box, from deep positions, was amongst the best there has ever been. His crosses were targeted too. In the glorious sport that is association football, no matches are won and lost by beating a man, no matter how exciting it is for those of us watching. Games are decided by goals and Beckham had unerring accuracy when it came to landing his crosses on the head, or at the feet of some of the best finishers in the world. To put it bluntly, Beckham did not take on a full back because it simply was not necessary for him to do so.
With all of that noted, I still feel compelled to defend Chris Waddle, not so much for what he has said, but for some of the reactions I have seen to what he has said. For example there have been comments as to what unfavourable number Waddle might come in on such a list. While I understand Manchester United and England fans, and general fans of Beckham himself will be hurt by his remarks, Waddle in his prime, as a player should not be underestimated.
Waddle was not a completely different type of winger to Beckham as they both possessed the ability to pull off sublime passes, over varying distances that other players firstly would not have seen, and secondly would not have been able to execute if they had. The vision and creativity that each of the players possessed was nothing short of exquisite. Both players crossed productively and you would back them to be outliers had they been included in the recent study by Jan Vecer from Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. The study, based on the English Premier League, concluded that only around in one in 5 crosses is accurate, and approximately one in 91, at the exclusion of set pieces, results in a goal.
On the subject of set pieces, a further similarity between the two players is that they were both capable of taking a mean free-kick. The efforts that really stand out to me are Waddle’s strike 30 seconds into the 1993 FA Cup semi final between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United, and Beckham’s last kick rescue mission, securing England’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup, against Greece. Neither player was outstanding in their defensive duties but they played in front of some fantastic fullbacks such as Gary Neville and Roland Nilsson. The attribute that Waddle did have over Beckham was the ability to go past the defender with ease. Waddle was not blisteringly quick, although he was faster than his loping running style made him look, but he controlled the ball masterfully and had an armoury of step-overs and turns that made a fool of many a good defender.
Waddle was viewed as a ‘luxury player’ at the time he left Tottenham to play for Marseille, in 1989, a £4.5 million move that at the time made him the third most expensive player in the world. Waddle himself disagrees with the luxury tag stating that he was never expected to defend at Marseille, his role being to lay on the chances for Jean Pierre Papin to convert. It was a role to which Waddle was well suited and in 1991 French journalists expected Waddle to be crowned European Footballer of the Year should Marseille win the European Cup. As it was they lost the final, and the award went instead to Waddle’s team mate Papin. In 1992 Waddle returned to England to join Sheffield Wednesday, managed at the time by Trevor Francis. Waddle was an instant hit at Hillsborough and was 1993 Football Writer’s Player of the Year, as Wednesday reached both domestic cup finals. Despite all this success Waddle was capped only once by Graham Taylor, winning 61 caps prior to Taylor’s calamitous reign.
One cannot help wondering that if Waddle had not missed that penalty at Italia 90, quite how differently he might be remembered in the history of the England football team. The reputation that accompanies that moment sometimes seems to have eclipsed all other memories of this fantastic footballer in the minds of those old enough to have seen him play. It also seems to have skewed the judgement, and interest in researching his abilities, of those too young to have seen him grace a football stadium.
When I think of players that I associate with excellent performances in the Premier League, I cannot agree with Chris Waddle, that a thousand names would come to mind before David Beckham’s. However just as I cannot entertain that suggestion, the idea being perpetuated that Chris Waddle does not belong on that list himself is equally ridiculous. Whether an individual agrees with Waddle’s view on Beckham or not, Waddle’s own footballing pedigree speaks for itself. These two footballers are amongst the most effective and thrilling players that England have ever produced. The memories of these men will live long amongst many who have seen them play, and neither should be disrespected. England fans can only wish there were a Beckham and a Waddle amongst the current England set up, that truly would be a team worth watching.