Where are the stoppers?

In actual fact England have two highly competent and capable centre backs in John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, neither of whom alas is prepared any longer to play for England. Both, now into their thirties, are major figures in their respective club sides, Terry for Chelsea and Ferdinand for Manchester United, writes Brian Glanville.

What an embarrassment for England and their centre back Gary Cahill when Kenny Miller scored Scotland’s second goal against them recently at Wembley. Receiving the ball with his back to goal, the Scottish striker spun round, comprehensively turning the hapless Cahill, and beat Joe Hart in the England goal — already guilty of a blunder which had given the Scots their first goal — to score. Was Cahill too distant from his man, as one ex-England centre half Martin Keown afterwards suggested? Had he been closer, would Miller have found it even easier to turn him? The fact remains that no international centre half — nor for that matter one playing for a decent club team — should ever allow himself to be exposed like that.

So what, you might legitimately ask, has happened to the long tradition of resilient England centre backs, or centre halves — as they long used to be called — before Brazil brought us the four in line defensive formation back at the World Cup of 1958, with two defenders in the middle?

In actual fact England have two highly competent and capable centre backs in John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, neither of whom alas is prepared any longer to play for England. Both, now into their thirties, are major figures in their respective club sides, Terry for Chelsea and Ferdinand for Manchester United.

Terry’s case has been somewhat the more controversial. As we know he was accused of racially abusing none other than Rio’s younger brother Anton Ferdinand during a match at Shepherds Bush between Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea. At Westminster Magistrates Court, Terry was acquitted somewhat unexpectedly on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient. But the Football Association, which had only recently rescinded their rule whereby any such court decision prohibited them from trying such a case themselves, found Terry guilty and both fined and suspended him. Previously before his case had even come to trial Terry had been deprived of the England captaincy by the FA top man, David Bernstein, before he had even come to trial in court. No real surprise perhaps that Terry should, after his FA punishment, have said that he no longer wanted to play for England.

As for Rio Ferdinand, after first saying he would no longer play for England, ostensibly because of problems with his fitness, then changing his mind, he abruptly changed tack once more and withdrew from international football on the eve of England’s departure for their difficult game in Brazil, though he promptly flew off to West Asia for a lucrative job as a commentator.

So, against Scotland, Roy Hodgson at centre back paired Cahill, who isn’t sure of a regular place with Chelsea, with Joleon Lescott of Manchester City, where injury to young Matija Nastasic of Serbia allowed him to regain his place. Manchester United have young contestants for the England roles, but here again neither the versatile Phil Jones nor the tall Chris Smalling is a first choice centre back for his club.

Look elsewhere, and what does one find? Brazil have an unquestionably gifted centre back in another Chelsea player David Luiz, but for all his pace, his skill on the ball, he can be a potential hazard to his own team; even if he is capable both of clearing what seemed a certain goal off the line, or in his permanent spirit of adventure, tearing far up field to initiate or join in an attack. Only to be stranded if the attack breaks down. Either exciting or expensive, you might say. But for all his natural talent, he can cost his team goals. Still, it is interesting to look back on a less adventurous predecessor in Lucio. Much admired not least by the ex-England manager Sweden’s Sven-Goran Eriksson, who the other day, was eulogising the goal Michael Owen scored — though ultimately in vain — to put England ahead against Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup; even going past Lucio. The fact was that Lucio culpably failed to hold the ball, enabling Owen to speed past him to score.

Even in England, promising centre backs do emerge. Apart from the Manchester United pair, and Jones can play in a variety of positions, there is the new Cardiff City centre half, Steven Caulker (formerly from Tottenham), eulogised for his displays generally by the Cardiff Manager, Malky MacKay, once a notable centre back himself. Caulker did well in the Great Britain team which exceeded expectations in the Olympic tournament of 2012. He has proclaimed his ambition to become a full England centre back and cost Cardiff a lot of money. Though one unconvinced sports columnist observed that if he was so good, why did Spurs let him go?

Certainly in his team’s conquest of Manchester City he looked far more of an England centre back than the hapless Lescott, even if he was not the man out jumped by Cardiff’s reignited striker, Frazier Campbell, when he was enabled to head his two goals. True, City do have a renowned centre back in Belgium’s Vincent Kompany, absent, injured at Cardiff.

But last season in the European Cup game in Madrid, Kompany ducked under a fierce left wing cross from Cristiano Ronaldo, confusing his goalkeeper Joe Hart and enabling Real to score.

Italy meanwhile, having deserted Catenaccio with its dour defence and essential sweeper, seem to be finding it easier than some to discover the right centre backs.

The national team, in fact, tends now to feature a three-man defence with Andrea Barzagli, a no frills defender and a forceful one, Leonardo Bonucci, a more elegant but equally effective performer, and Giorgio Chiellini, the experienced Italian international, arguably more at home in the middle than when he is drawn out to the left flank.

The defensive as opposed to wide ranging centre half — of which perhaps David Luiz may be seen as something of a throwback — gave way to the so called third back or stopper, when the offside law was changed in 1925, effectively ensuring that it now needed one rather than two defenders before the goalkeeper, to keep an attacker onside. So Arsenal, under manager Herbert Chapman deployed the stopper centre half. Though, Charlie Spencer, whom in later years, I came to know well, used to insist that he was the first stopper centre half when Newcastle United thrashed Arsenal 7-0 on Tyneside at the start of the 1925/6 season. Which drove Arsenal to “invent” the third back. Herbie Roberts became the best known one for them between the Wars, though his captain and left back, Eddie Hapgood, said he couldn’t kick the ball well. And his one game for England against Scotland was a disaster, the other defenders playing the old style.