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