Not so long ago, they were in danger of becoming an endangered species, writes James Shield.
But, Jamal Campbell-Ryce argues, if wingers are good enough for Jose Mourinho then they are good enough for League One too.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be dying breed to be honest. Look at Chelsea, they’ve just bought one of the best there is in Pedro and there’s already people like Eden Hazard and Willian there. If Jose thinks its the way to go then who are the rest of us to argue?”
Campbell-Ryce’s argument is unlikely to fall on deaf ears at Bramall Lane where, at times, Sheffield United have seemingly been on a one club mission to ensure wingers remain at the forefront of the English game.
Che Adams, Matt Done, Martyn Woolford and Ryan Flynn are among the exponents of this often underrated art also on the books of a club where Jamie Murphy, who joined Brighton and Hove Albion 14 days ago, transformed himself into a £1.7m player. Campbell-Ryce, a former Jamaica international, is expected to claim one of the two attacking midfield berths in Nigel Adkins’ starting eleven when United resume their League One campaign at Swindon Town tomorrow. The match, the first meeting between these two sides since last season’s play-off semi-finals, represents another opportunity for the visitors to fine-tune the tactical blueprint which, after winning three of their opening four games, has seen them installed as title favourites this term.
“With wide players, we can stretch the game,” Campbell-Ryce, speaking at the Redtooth Academy earlier this month, said. “Push the opposition back. We drive at players and that’s how we make space for ourselves and others. Ask any defender, nobody wants a runner against them.”
Although every winger in United’s squad barring Woolford was signed by Nigel Clough, Campbell-Ryce believes the 50-year-old’s emphasis on creative football will suit them better than his predecessor’s more pragmatic approach.
“If you look at last season, we played in a 4-3-3 with one striker up through the middle. That’s difficult because, from our perspective, you are having to run here, there and everywhere while it’s also difficult for whoever’s up top because they have to run all day and hold up the ball.
“Now, with two centre-forwards in the team, it’s a dream to know that we don’t have to pick it up so deep and then travel 40 or 50 yards with the ball. We can do the things we were brought here to do in the first place, use our energy where we are meant to be expending it rather than in the first or the middle third of the pitch.”
Few positions, with the possible exception of goalkeeper, are as mentally demanding as the one Campbell-Ryce fills. Few wingers are physically imposing. But mentally, as Campbell-Ryce demonstrated earlier this year, they are as tough as old boots.
“You’ve got to be psychologically strong,” he said. “Because, to be effective, we’ve got to keep on going at our marker even if they’ve stopped us 10 times before. You’ve got to ignore the moans when something doesn’t come off and just keep being persistent. Because, that moment when it does, can end up being the moment that turns a game.”
The appointment of Adkins, who replaced Clough at the helm in June, has reinvigorated Campbell-Ryce’s United career. Aged 32, he appeared to be destined for the exit door when he was loaned, supposedly without explanation, back to Notts County towards the end of last season only nine months after leaving Meadow Lane. Campbell-Ryce, who progressed through the ranks at Charlton Athletic before representing the likes of Rotherham, Barnsley and Southend, was recalled shortly before that 7-6 defeat aggregate defeat by Mark Cooper’s side ended United’s promotion hopes for another 12 months at least. But the arrival of Adkins, who has guided both Scunthorpe and Southampton out of the third tier, has presented Campbell-Ryce, now recovered from a hamstring complaint, with fresh possibilities.
“The manager always tells us we are like self-made businessmen,” he said. “It’s up to us to show him that we’re fit enough and strong enough to be one of his selections. It’s a team, game but you’ve got to do it for yourself because that helps your teams mates.”
Campbell-Ryce is dutifully aware of his obligations to other members of Adkins’ squad.
“Helping out the young lads is something I love to do. When I was at Charlton, I was fortunate enough to have some great pro’s there who were brilliant with me and that memory has stuck.
“Everyone here wants to listen and learn but, when you’re young, you do have a tenancy to switch off. You can’t do that in this league so it’s up to us older ones to keep the lads coming through on track.”
“Listen,” Campbell-Ryce added. “If one of the young lads wants to tell me something then I’m happy to hear that. If they think I’ve not been doing something in a game then they should feel confident enough to say. It’s brilliant to get a helping hand from anyone.”
Not that Campbell-Ryce is ever short of advice.
“My mum has kept on top of me. She was really strict when I was growing up in London but she helped me get here today. She still gets at me now, I’m 32 and she still phones me to tell me this and that.”