England’s worries

Published : Apr 11, 2009 00:00 IST

Fabio Capello and England have to make do as best they can with centre-backs not really up to the task.

Ledley King was not, to the wrath of Fabio Capello, among those present at the recent friendly at Wembley, between England and Slovakia. Capello had called up the Spurs centre-half, unquestionably one of the few logical English candidates to the role, but his club manager, Harry Redknapp, refused to allow him to go. Pointing out that, for all his prowess, King these days is a fragile vessel thanks to a seemingly incurable knee injury which prevents him from training at all in the week and thus limits him to the somewhat sporadic Saturday game. Well, this would, in fact, have been a Saturday game, but Harry still did not want King to go. Understandably, perhaps, when you consider how important he is to the Spurs defence when he can play.

The outraged Capello drew an analogy with another Spurs player, long out with injury, the Scottish defender Hutton, whom Redknapp allowed to be called up by Scotland for that weekend, but, as Harry pointed out, the cases were not quite analogous, since Hutton appeared to be cured from a long term injury.

All this, however, simply emphasised England’s crisis of centre-backs. In an ideal World, John Terry of Chelsea would partner the resourceful and quick Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United. But Ferdinand dropped out yet again from the squad to face Slovakia, with a seemingly chronic injury, which had also caused him to miss the previous match, lost 2-0 in Seville. While Terry’s recurrent back trouble has undoubtedly reduced his mobility, though he elects to soldier on, regardless of pain and discomfort.

All this means that Capello and England have to make do as best they can with centre-backs not really up to the task. Such as Matthew Upson of West Ham, himself subject to frequent absence through injury, who showed, through his mistakes in both these England games, that he’s not a defender of truly international quality. Nor, though he plays well enough in club football, is Everton’s Jagielka, who gave away an expensive first goal to Spain, in Seville, on his debut.

All this, at a time when the revered Sir Tom Finney, one of the finest, two-footed, wingers ever to play for England, a model of modesty and consistency who, in his later playing years with Preston, modulated into a superb, deep lying, centre-forward, gave his best ever England team; and, to some surprise, picked, as his centre-half, Neil Franklin.

His only centre-half, please note, because, in Tom’s days, which stretched from 1946, when he returned from war service in the army in Italy, till his retirement, almost a couple of decades later, there was only one of them. Even when 4-2-4 was introduced by the Brazilians, at the 1958 World Cup finals, in Sweden, with two defenders, rather than one, in the centre, an actual, traditional centre-half in the shape of Bellini, was partnered by a defensive wing-half, in Orlando.

Four years later, Bobby Moore made his debut for England in Peru at the age of 21, winning the first of his 108 caps (supposedly now overtaken by David Beckham, thanks to the string of late, token appearances permitted him by an over indulgent Capello) as a defensive wing-half. He flourished in the subsequent World Cup finals in Chile, then settled down in the Orlando role, though never, but for a somewhat disastrous appearance at Wembley against West Germany in April, 1972, at centre-half itself. He was never a good enough header of the ball, nor was he ever fully at ease there, though he did join West Ham United as a teenaged centre-half, before his knowing manager, Ron Greenwood, decided he would profitably switch him.

But Neil Franklin? In the vernacular, indeed a blast from the past. As, indeed, was every member of the XI Finney chose. But then, even his grip on the past was somewhat doubtful when, a few years ago, he published a second autobiography. In which he bewilderingly failed to mention the match which stamped him as a future star. The final of the so-called Football League War Cup, replacing, for a couple of years, the suspended FA Cup, for Preston North End versus Arsenal, at Wembley.

Preston drew 1-1 against a powerful Arsenal team and the young Finney scintillated. But, unlike most British pro players, he didn’t become a services physical training instructor, kept at home, but was posted to fight in the Middle East, and didn’t play for England again till his return, in 1946. For a time, he kept even the illustrious Stanley Matthews out of the team, on the right-wing till, in Lisbon, in 1947, Matthews was picked on the right, Fenney on the left, and England won, 10-0.

But Neil Franklin? Developed by Matthews’ original and ultimate club, Stoke City, he was what they called a footballing centre-half meaning that like his mobile predecessor, Stan Collis of Wolves, whom Collis later managed, he could play his way coolly out of trouble. And coolly, even coldly, he defected from England’s World Cup team, before the 1950 finals in Brazil, lying, to say it was because his wife was expecting a baby. Instead, he flew to Colombia, then outside FIFA, briefly to make far more money. Only to return chastened, a few months later his career in ruins, suspended, then transferred to anonymity, with Hull.

Would he have flourished today? I believe he would, though all in all Ton Finney, who did play in that World Cup, when England sensationally lost to the humble USA, seems to have forgotten and forgiven. Meanwhile, I remember England’s Brian Labone lamenting that having two centre-backs diluted the authority of the single third-back; or stopper.

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