Football is a romanticized sport, but certain positions are more romanticized than others. The big stylish striker is always considered the centerpiece of things, his ruthlessness in-front of goal driven by the vision and dexterity of the creative midfielder.
Everybody who grew up playing football and idolizing other players usually had those two positions in mind. If you were big and strong but did not have skills on the ball then you could be drafted to central defense which masked your deficiencies and eventually took on a reflected kind of glamour.
Alternatively if you were quick and tricky then you could be the speedy winger bombing down the flanks.
The one position which I think had the least glamour was the fullback. Sure when we were growing up, there were one or two fullbacks who made the position look exciting, none more so than Brazil’s Roberto Carlos whose joyful abandon in attack and galloping runs up field made the position look almost Maradonaesque.
On the whole however, it was not a position that generally appealed to kids. Even now watching games on TV, it is striking to note that the fullback is often not given his due.
A fan arriving after the game has started will often inquire about which players are on the pitch, and he will usually ask about the fullback last. He is seen almost as a luxury- not quite a defender, not quite an attacker.
I was to give considerable thought to the status of a fullback one hot day in Manchester in July 2009. I had ill-advisedly accepted an offer from my friends to play in a one-day soccer tournament. This was a bad idea because not only was I out of shape, I was also woefully lacking in talent.
My friends told me not to worry, because the tournament was ‘Just a bit of fun.’ This too was a lie. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a friendly game of soccer- certainly no such thing as a ‘friendly tournament.’
Once it was out turn to play, I found myself on the pitch in the right back position. In the fog of war, I remember thinking with naiveté that this position would limit my exposure to the action, and therefore not make me look too stupid.
This was yet another in a long line of mistakes I was to make that sweltering afternoon. As soon as the whistle blew, I was in the thick of the action and not in a good way.
Our opponents were uncomfortably fond of the wings so I found myself facing wave after wave of muscular wingers bombing down the wing at full speed towards me.
I think my life even flashed before my eyes on a few occasions, and it did not make for gripping viewing. Needless to say I was no match for our opponents, mainly because they actually knew how to play football and took this very seriously indeed.
Time after time I was swept aside like a bothersome fly and time after time we found our goal under siege. Every time I got the ball, I nearly called out for my mum.
It was a panic that was reflected in the rest of the team- most of us didn’t have the foggiest notion of what was happening. It was like the charge of the light brigade except that we didn’t even have the guts to do any charging.
Over the course of the next few games- in which the grand total of my contribution was to give the ball away within seconds of receiving it and make feeble tackles into thin air- I developed a new and permanent respect for fullbacks.
The skill and stamina to bomb forward to create chances and then to track back and defend cannot be underestimated.
It is a lonely place to be- standing on the wing facing a galloping adversary and having mere seconds to make a decision. I looked into the deep blackness of that place and I came out alive.