When Jermain Defoe made his England debut as a substitute in 2004, he couldn’t have expected great service from his left. Alan Thompson, who looked exactly how you’d expect someone called Alan Thompson to look, was being given his chance on the wing by Sven-Goran Eriksson after Henrik Larsson had been making him and every other one of his teammates look good at Celtic.

It was to be Thompson’s only cap for England, but his homeland was in the midst of a left-wing crisis.

As the Three Lions’ first foreign coach, there was a hope that Eriksson would bring technical ability to a country that had relied on nous and big men up front since before inflated pig bladders made way for branded leather spheroids. Unfortunately, it didn’t really pan out that way. The Swede was somewhat English in his practices due to shadowing Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and Ipswich Town’s Bobby Robson during his coaching education, and the influence of his former KB Karlskoga coach and long-term Anglophile mentor Tord Grip, so, like many before and after him, was enslaved to a 4-4-2.

There was a flirtation with a midfield diamond – one ruinously anchored by someone like Phil Neville or Nicky Butt – but wingers supplying crosses to strikers continued to be the national team’s hallmark.

And even with one of the most successful England managers in Eriksson, it regularly made for underwhelming football as a stream of forgettable flank wanderers and out-of-position stars where shooed out of sight to the no-man’s land of the left.

The worst of the unbalanced noughties:

Player Year Natural position Caps
Jason Wilcox 2000 LW 3
Dennis Wise 2000 DM 21
Nick Barmby 2000 LW 23
Paul Scholes 2000 CM 66
Gareth Barry 2000 DM 53
Emile Heskey 2001 FW 62
Owen Hargreaves 2001 DM 42
Wayne Bridge 2002 LB 36
Nicky Butt 2003 CM 39
Frank Lampard 2003 CM 106
Steven Gerrard 2003 CM 114
Alan Thompson 2004 LW 1
Stewart Downing 2006 LW 35
Michael Carrick 2006 DM 34

Somewhat contradictory to popular opinion, the most continental approach to the left-wing conundrum was Emile Heskey, the striker-cum-lump who waddled around for Leicester City, Liverpool, Wigan Athletic, and others. He was last seen up front for Bolton Wanderers in 2016.

The unornamented measure of plonking a unit on the left was regrettably brought to prominence by Egil Olsen in the 1990s. Man mountain Jostein Flo habitually arrived at the back post for Norway in a 4-5-1 setup, and his service unsurprisingly came via aerial assaults.

It’s not the most exotic tactical philosophy, but it certainly trumps a nan’s-boiled-veg choice like defensive enforcer Dennis Wise. Or one that paved the way for the premature international retirement of Paul Scholes, who was regularly shifted aside following the emergence of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

At the time, newspaper column inches weren’t devoted to smart tactical solutions in how to address this shortcoming, but instead which subpar player could prove the best auxiliary answer.

“The admirable Danny Murphy is another contender for a makeshift posting, and Matt Jansen of Blackburn may also be pressed into service,” the Guardian’s Richard Williams wrote on the problem position in 2001. “But Eriksson would do better to heed Ron Atkinson’s promptings and bring the underappreciated Lee Hendrie back into the fold.”

The less said about that suggestion the better.

Although the table doesn’t detail those after 2006, the issue prevailed. Those called into action on that side weren’t necessarily bad – rather unheralded names like Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon – but ensured the rest of the 2000s, which saw Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello see out the decade, was played out with unnatural left wingers.

Club foot

It was also pandemic at club level. In a desperate scramble on the summer’s transfer deadline day in 2008, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez looked to £8-million Albert Riera to address his left-sided woes. The Balearic wideman had already shown what he was capable of in a loan spell with Manchester City over two years earlier; namely getting knocked off the ball with ease and being frightened of the less streamlined defenders of the 2005-06 season, like Nyron Nosworthy and Danny Gabbidon. He was an unequivocal flop on Merseyside.

There were other duds as clubs desperately scoured overseas markets to address issues on the left-hand side. Savio Nsereko was brought by West Ham United for an exorbitant £9 million in January 2009, despite having scored a mere three senior goals for Serie B club Brescia, in a failed attempt to replace Craig Bellamy. Recognised as a forward but most commonly deployed on the left wing, Savio proved adept at neither in one start and nine substitute appearances. In 2012, he was arrested in Thailand for faking his own kidnapping in a bid to procure ransom money from his own family, according to Tom Mason’s article for the Guardian, and was last heard of playing in Lithuania.

Then there’s the more sorrowful case of 2002 World Cup star Khalilou Fadiga. The Senegalese’s career at Inter Milan looked to be over after heart problems but, presumably rushing through the medical, Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers forced through a 2004 transfer regardless. Somewhat predictably, it didn’t work out well. The 29-year-old collapsed before a match and, after missing a significant portion of the season, managed to return to the fray for five matches with the help of a defibrillator. His promising career curtailed.

Now, seven years into a different decade and blessed with the plush facilities of St George’s Park (and the innovative coaching methods it’s supposed to miraculously charm from 3G pitches and a hydrotherapy suite), you’d hope that England has managed to develop somebody with a left foot who isn’t averse to dimming the paint with touchline darts.

The candidates for that side over the international break are Nathan Redmond, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, and Adam Lallana – none of whom can strike with their left with the sweetness that Alan Thompson could muster.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)

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