With right backs, it’s better the Neville you know

If I come back next time as a journalist, as opposed to a brain surgeon, I wonder what area should I go into? Writing about football? Far too crowded, they are all so clever and talented, such as Simon Barnes of the Times, he's so literary; Richard Williams of the Guardian, very wise; Jim White of the Telegraph, always amusing; Barney Ronay, also of the Guardian, always original.

Politics? Even more crowded. Those sketch-writers are so smart, like Simon Carr of the Indy, or Simon Hoggart of the Guardian. Nah, I think the areas to concentrate on would be travel writing and personal finance. Lots of space but wit-free, apart from one exception.

Should I return as a footballer, it is totally obvious what anyone should do if they want to succeed - become a right back.

It's one of the strange things about football, always has been, here and abroad, that when we think of our boyhood heroes, our club icons, our present day gods - there's never a right back among them.

Strikers, obviously, are glamorous, including the bullet-headed and wizards of dribble on the wing. Even goalies, normally looked upon as dumb
in the dressing room and on the pitch the best we ever want them to be is safe, have thrown up cult figures. Frank Swift, he was one of my childhood heroes, along with Bert Trautman. Then came Gordon Banks, Shilts, Pat Jennings, oh loads of them. And what about that Russian, what was he called? Went on for years - Yashin, adored by all.

The 1966 World Cup winners, all-time greats - of course I know every name - have I not worshipped each of them? But the right back for the moment eludes me. Oh yeah - George Cohen. Not bad, I suppose, but not exactly memorable. Cafu - yeah he was a pretty good right back for Brazil, and he seemed to go on for years, but it was Roberto Carlos at left back who thrilled us.

We are at present witnessing the last season of England's greatest modern-day right back and I can't believe the name I am now being forced to write, oh please, let me think of another, anyone, even Lee Dixon . . . OK then, it's the one and only, oh God spare us, Gary Neville.

For years I used to hide my eyes when he scurried back, too late to cut out an attack and gave away a stupid free kick, then join in the chorus of "If Neville Plays for England, So Can I".

Gary bloke

Now that he has been at it so long - 20 years for Man United, six Premiership titles, three FA Cups, one Euro Cup and a record-breaking number of England caps as right back (85) - we are all suddenly genuflecting, saying what a good servant, we won't see his like again, arise Sir Gary. But come on, he is a journeyman, unexciting, clumsy, slow. It's just that over the years he learned not to get caught out as much and foul more subtly. Before him, Liverpool's Phil Neal was a lump who also went on for years, winning endless pots and records but equally failing to excite and ignite.

Meanwhile, in the left back slot, Ashley Cole is belatedly being recognised as one of our very few genuine world-class players. And who cannot be uplifted by Gareth Bale of Spurs and Leighton Baines of Everton when they start surging forwards?

So what is it about right backs? Are they boring players - or is it the position that makes them boring? In most teams, you tend not to have two overlapping full backs; someone has to stay behind and mind the shop. Traditionally it's the left back who is allowed to be creative. Perhaps because, handed down through the generations, left-footed players are assumed to be cleverer, more talented. They are said to have an "educated left foot", whereas a right back never has an educated right foot.

In theory, as most people are right-footed, our right backs should be better, as we have a bigger pool to pick from, but left-footers seem to do better, out of proportion to their numbers.

I think it might go back to childhood, back through all our childhoods. Growing up, no one wants to be a number two, for a number two reminds us of going on the potty to do a poo. Hence right backs, let's face it, are shit . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle