IT is more than a year since he delivered it, but Jamie Carragher’s withering assessment of the full-back’s art still elicits a chuckle. “No one wants to be a full-back as a kid,” said the Liverpool defender, on Sky Sports. “No one grows up and wants to be a Gary Neville.”
Neville’s reaction alongside him was one of mock fury, but when the broadcasting duo were playing in the England team, Carragher probably had a point. When a full-back defended, they were there to help complement the centre-halves. On the rare occasions when they attacked, they were generally pushing forward in an attempt to make up the numbers.
Over time, however, the role has changed. Today’s full-backs are normally the most athletic players on the team, agile and committed in defence, while simultaneously quick and technically-proficient in attack. When asked to play as wing-backs, they are expected to be even more energetic, tearing up and down the touchline, shutting down opponents before springing to launch attacks.
England are blessed with some of the best full-backs in the world, so it probably should not have been a surprise when Gareth Southgate opted to select six in his initial squad. That number dropped to five when Trent Alexander-Arnold was forced to withdraw with an injury, but on the right of his defence alone, Southgate must choose between a Premier League title winner (Kyle Walker), a La Liga champion (Kieran Trippier) and a Champions League victor (Reece James). Most sides would be grateful to have one such player in their ranks; Southgate finds himself juggling with three.
“I think the position has definitely changed slightly,” said James, who was widely hailed as Chelsea’s stand-out performer in their Champions League final win over Manchester City. “Before, 15 or 20 years ago, you were probably more of a defender, but now, the position has adapted and you have the license to go forward as well.
“You can do both – attack and defend – and there are loads of great players in my position. Obviously, Trent pulled out, and there are so many others that didn’t get selected as well.”
Heading into the Euros, it feels as though James is third in the pecking order of right-backs, but that does not necessarily mean his involvement in the tournament will be limited.
Southgate has mixed between a back five and a flat back four throughout his reign as England boss, and if he opts to play with the former, James comes into contention as both a wing-back and a right-sided centre-half.
“I’ve been playing in a few different positions in training, and they’re probably the positions you could guess,” said James, whose younger sister, Lauren, plays for WSL side Manchester United. “Wing-back, centre-back and right-back – I’ve played all three so far. I don’t really know what’s going to happen, or what position I might feature in.”
Wherever he plays, James will be doing all he can to avoid a repeat of his international debut, when he was sent off after the final whistle of last October’s Nations League defeat to Denmark at Wembley for dissent.
“I learned a lot from that,” he said. “I learned European referees are a lot stricter. I felt it was very harsh to get sent off, but I learned my lesson and I know I can’t afford to do anything like that again in this tournament because it would be very costly.
“I was very upset at the time – it was my first start, and getting sent off is obviously not the best look. But maybe it was a good lesson to learn because, if I didn’t learn it then, maybe it could have happened at a major tournament like this.”