Where have all the centre backs gone? England at the 2014 World Cup

There has been a lot of talk of British values recently, and the wide-ranging debate shows that it is largely a matter of opinion what is a British value and what is not.
That said, there is one British value which is beyond question: that of big centre-halves heading footballs and generally acting with a courage which happily boils over into full-blown craziness. When faced with someone smaller and more skillful, the English way is to use our brains not to out-think our opponent, but as an all-purpose blocking device.

We have always been knee-deep in this kind of unsubtle, fairly terrifying type of footballer: in my memory, this long line of lunatics begins with Terry Butcher and carries on through Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bruce, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and John Terry, with the addition of two centre halves who could also, astonishingly, play football – Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King.

Lunatic: Terry Butcher displaying British values
Lunatic: Terry Butcher displaying British values

It’s worth noting that Steve Bruce, despite being a mainstay of Manchester United’s defence when they first started winning everything, never played for England. We simply had too many big, thuggish lads to get their heads on things, and so he was not required. Similarly, Jamie Carragher, who played 500+ times for Liverpool and won the Champions League, retired from the international game because he couldn’t get in the team.

Centre halves have always been the foundation of English football. In 1990, when we got to the semi-finals, Bobby Robson, in his wisdom, picked three centre-backs – Des Walker, Terry Butcher and Mark Wright – and another centre-back, Paul Parker, at right-back.

Let’s remember that at the group stage, England conceded one goal in three games, with clean sheets against the Dutch and Egypt. In total, we conceded four goals in six games – the same number of goals conceded in two matches at the 2014 World Cup.

Getting in the way - Sol Campbell
Getting in the way – Sol Campbell

In 2002 and 2006, Sol Campbell was named in the World XI at the end of the tournament, the only Englishman to gain that honour. What did he do to gain the world’s admiration? What England have always been better than anyone: getting in the way of shots, heading away crosses and, occasionally heading goals from set-pieces.

Which is why it is so sad to see Rio Ferdinand – one of the greatest English footballers – sitting in the BBC studio last night having to explain where it went wrong against Uruguay.

His analysis, to paraphrase, was this: Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill and Baines were not good enough. For the first goal, someone should have blocked the cross, and if it got into the box, someone should have headed it away. For the second goal, a defender should have headed the ball away, and if not, been in a position to block the shot.

That’s what Englishmen have been doing for decades. That’s what Jack Charlton did in ’66, what Butcher did in ’90, and what Adams did in ’96 (three goals conceded in five matches). The fact that our only properly good defender, John Terry, is currently heading beach balls rather than playing for England is perhaps the main reason for our utter defensive ineptitude at this World Cup.

While it is all very well wanting our national team to play more expansively the focus must be having a squad packed with robust centre-halves who will do anything to block shots and crosses.

Those are the values we must remember, before we try to do anything so frivolous as trying to score goals. So, if Mr Gove wants to become a populist figure, perhaps he should, after children have had double-Dickens in the morning, insist they have heading practice in the afternoon, so we can ensure that no England team will be so sadly weak at the back again.

The last of a noble lineage: John Terry heading a football
The last of a noble lineage: John Terry heading a football
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2 thoughts on “Where have all the centre backs gone? England at the 2014 World Cup

  1. Treating football with the same mentality of the battle of the Somme is the ultimate British value: they shall not pass: we will run through brick walls.

  2. In the popular BBC series ‘Life on Mars’ the chief protagonist DCI Sam Tyler was transported back to 1973. Although no mention was made of it in the series, this was the year in which the England football team failed to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in its history. For a nation that had won the World Cup only seven years previously it was seen as nothing short of a national disaster. The poor results cost England manager Alf Ramsey his job and the principal reasons for failure were put down to too much football being played by top players, lack of preparation time for the international team, poor facilities and coaching at grass roots level – recurrent themes which have an all too familiar ring.

    At club level, Ramsey’s successor, Don Revie had built his success at Leeds United with a style of play built upon defensive solidarity. Early in his managerial career he had exhorted centre-half Jack Charlton to do things his way or leave the club. Charlton’s task was straightforward – to win the ball and make the simplest available pass. Charlton paid heed to the advice and eventually went on to become a World Cup winner.

    One of Revie’s first acts as England manager was to invite 85 of England’s finest footballers to a Manchester hotel and inform them that they could all be in contention for a place in the national team. Of that 85, eleven could be classed as central defenders. For those old enough to remember they were Roy McFarland, Colin Todd, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Brian Greenhoff, Norman Hunter, Paul Madeley, Dave Watson, Tommy Taylor, Kevin Lock and Willie Maddren. Of the eleven, eight were from defensive pairings based at the same club (Derby County, Liverpool, Leeds Utd & West Ham).

    Fast forward to 2014. The English public has endured the worst performance by the national team at a World Cup since 1958. The squad of 1958 could, at least, plead mitigating circumstances having suffered the loss of key players in the Munich air disaster.

    The ability to defend rather than attack has been the chief cause for concern. Current England manager Roy Hodgson must look back at his predecessor with a certain amount of envy. He simply does not have the luxury of choice and must work with what the Premiership makes available. On the basis that England qualify next time round then the current number one pairing, Cahill and Jagielka will be unlikely to both represent England in 2018. Cahill will be approaching 33 whilst Jagielka at almost 36 must surely be to old. The Manchester Utd pairing of Jones and Smalling are potentially of the right age but there can be no guarantee that they will continue to serve their club as a central defensive pairing for the next four years. Beyond them the pickings are fairly slim. Youngster central defenders may emerge but will surely lack the experience to cope with the world’s best strikers.

    Until such time as England possess a truly world class finisher then in order to achieve results the team will have to address their defensive shortcomings and develop a style of play built upon defensive solidarity. Mediocre teams can and have achieved results by being well organised and hard to break down. Should they fail to do so the outlook could be fairly bleak.The Spirit of ’73 may return and cast its long shadow over the national game – 12 years without World Cup football.

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