Defenders. Remember them?
As in, ‘defender’, noun. Plural noun, ‘defenders’. (In sport) a player whose task it is to protect their own sides’ goal.
If you cast you mind back far enough, you may recall when that is exactly what they did. They were the original proponents of doing exactly what was written on the tin, or, in their case, the number on the back of their shirts.
Admittedly, these were simpler times. The players lined up in shirts numbered from 1 to 11 and you knew who a player was by the number rather than his name. You also knew the position he played on the pitch from that number.
Take shirt numbers 2 and 3 for example. Simple. They’re the full backs. Number 2 plays on the wide right of defence whilst number 3 plays on the wide left. That part of the pitch was their territory, their manor, one which they guarded as fiercely as a red-necked hillbilly with a several pigs and a grudge protected his smallholding.
Their brief was simple, the manager’s pre-match team talk to them short and to the point. Stop the opposing wingers. That’s all he said, all he ever needed to say. He didn’t need to of course. They knew. And they carried out their mission objectives to the letter. Or, rather, by the numbers. In this case, 7 or 11.
It’s no wonder Celtic’s Jimmy Johnston was such a good player, one of the best exponents of wing-play the game has ever seen, according to some. But he had to be, he had to beat his man. It was either that or running the risk of having one, or even both of your legs broken into two, three, even four or more places. What better incentive was there for him, for any hugger of the white line, to beat his man other than knowing that, if you didn’t, you would probably end up in hospital.
Old Etonian Lord Kinnaird was a prototype of the old fashioned defender we all know and love so well; a direct ancestor of the latter day hard men of the game. His objective in life and football was simple. He just wanted to win and wasn’t particularly bothered how either he or his team went about doing so. Indeed, such was reputation for ferocity within the game that his wife was once alleged to have commented that she feared he would “…come home one day with a broken leg”, only for a family friend to reassure her by saying that, “You must not worry. If he does, it will not be his own.”
A man’s man as they say.
So there is motivation. And there’s running at a six foot four inches and sixteen stone of raging fury whose mission objective in life is to maim you. Although Kinnaird would at least send you flowers in hospital, what with his being a gentleman and all.
Numbers 5 and 6, the twin centre-halves had the same brief, albeit with reference to opposing centre forwards rather than the likes of Johnston and his jinky peers. For them, a player with the number 9 on the back of his shirt may as well have been wearing a roundel. Yet their lives were not quite so straightforward as those led by their defensive colleagues.
This was because the old-fashioned centre-forward often tended to be a bit of a hard bastard himself. Think John Fashanu, Peter Withe and Duncan Ferguson.
And, in our very own John Polston’s case, the one and only Mick Harford.
John told me about his encounter with Mick in a game he played in for Norwich against Chelsea back in 1992 as part of an interview I did with him for my book Fantasy Football.
“I broke my nose in that game. I was on the halfway line, standing alongside Mick Harford. The ball came in and I just tried to nick in front of him and head it away, but, as it bounces up, he’s tried to pivot round and get his boot on it – but I still got there first, so he absolutely smashes me with his right foot! I was out cold. Stretchered off and out of it, I remember waking up at half time in the dressing room; a few of the lads were looking across at me, I think Colin Woodthorpe was one? Anyway, the looks on all their faces when they saw me, it was like, ‘ooooh, look at his face!’ I’d bust my nose, my teeth, I was in a right old state – when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t open my eyes, they were just two slits. My mum came up for that game…
“…I had trouble with my teeth for a while afterwards, but I soon got back playing again, in fact, my first game was the return fixture at Chelsea, they had Flecky and Mick up front. Anyway, I’m stood on the halfway line again, first goal kick of the game, Mick just looks across at me and goes, ‘You alright then?’. So I said, ‘Oh yeah, cheers Mick, thanks very much.’ He then says, ‘how’ve you been?’ I said ‘alright’…and that was it, we got on with the game. Bit of a weird situation, but Mick, he was as good as gold.”
Mick Harford. A footballing hardman. But, it seems, he did at least try to be a gentleman with it, something which may not have been quite the case with some of the more, shall we say, ‘traditional’ centre backs who plied their physical trade in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Gentile’s favoured position in the Italian side was described as terzino destro. Right back. But in truth, he was just an all-round defender, someone who rode shotgun in and around his own penalty area. He made 71 appearances for the Italian national side, winning the World Cup with them in 1982, a tournament during which, after he had come up against (and severely damaged in the process) Diego Maradona, he made the unforgettable quote that, “football is not for ballerinas”.
Neither, it would seem, as far as he was concerned, was it for footballers either.
The Italian national side’s reputation for, ahem, ‘defensive’ play gained its origins following their quite literal clash with Chile during the 1962 World Cup. If you haven’t seen the BBC highlights of the game which David Coleman christened the ‘Battle of Santiago’ then you really should.
That game is, of course, an extreme example of the darker side of defensive play. Yet it typifies, albeit in a rather more rambunctious manner than might have been considered reasonable, what the game was all about at the time and how much more simple it was.
Defenders defended. And attackers attacked. With midfielders, neither one nor the other cast into the purgatory inbetween them.
Football’s lines weren’t so much defined as hewn into granite, forged in an unearthly fire for all to see. I’ll say it again: defenders were there to defend and attackers were there to attack.
It was a simple game. And that was one of the core reasons why.
Defenders are expected to support the attack, to overlap their midfield counterparts if necessary in order to make inroads into opposition territory and get their crosses in. Much like a winger.
We’ve seen it at Norwich when Russell Martin bombs forward leaving whoever is operating on the right side of midfield to drop deep in order to offer defensive options and cover. Ditto with Martin Olsson or, more recently, the excellent Robbie Brady.
Except that Brady is more offensively inclined wide midfielder cum winger who has been asked to drop further back in order to be an even more offensively inclined left-back. Whilst, on the opposite side of the pitch, we’ve seen conventional right-backs, in form of the aforementioned Martin and Stephen Whittaker, getting forward whilst a player with the pace and attacking instinct of Nathan Redmond is sometimes expected to drop back to offer offensive cover.
I’m glad Gareth Bale has long since left Tottenham, the thought of watching him running at Nathan Redmond as Spurs counterattack at pace whilst Whitts manfully runs back up the pitch from somewhere near the now attacking teams goal-line is a worrying one.
To make matters more complicated of course, Russ – a right-back by trade – is now operating as a central defender, albeit one with a similar licence to roam forward whilst his defensive partner, Seb Bassong, is rather keen himself on imperiously striding forward out of defence, ball at his feet – like a latter day Franco Baresi. Except, with the greatest of respect to Seb, Baresi he ain’t.
So whenever he turns from number five into wannabee playmaker I get a little bit worried. In fact, the levels of consternation in the River End have been known to increase so much whenever Seb sets off on one of his expeditions upfield, you can hear the Werthers Originals that were placed in everyone’s mouths at exactly 3pm all being crunched in harmonious concern.
Where have all the defenders gone?
But that’s not all. Because as defenders become attackers, so too, do attackers become defenders.
Take Elliott Bennett.
We bought him from Brighton in order to provide width, pace and crosses from the right hand side. A proper ‘old school’ winger.
Except he’s now being championed as a possible right-back of the future, a Russell Martin in waiting. He’s even playing in that position at Bristol City, signed by the Robins as defensive cover following Ryan Frederick’s move to Fulham.
Attacking players moving into defensive roles, defenders moving into attacking ones. The modern game is a fluid one and no mistake.
Mind you, defensive players with a penchant for attacking is hardly a new phenomena.
Back in 1976, aware of the need to add some defensive options to a team that had conceded 58 goals during the previous campaign, John Bond signed right back John Ryan from Luton Town. Ryan duly made his Norwich debut on the opening day of the 1976/77 season at Liverpool, wearing the number two shirt in a Norwich back four that included David Jones, Dave Stringer and Duncan Forbes.
All of whom were unequivocally defenders.
You didn’t, for example, see big Duncan, ball at feet, making an imperious 40 yard run into the opposition’s half whilst Ted MacDougall or Phil Boyer dropped back to provide defensive cover. Ted couldn’t have done anyway; he didn’t even know there were two halves of the pitch. He just saw an opposing penalty area.
Ryan, however, was a decent player. More than that, he was quality. He had pace, could place a pass and had a decent shot. Bond soon decided that he wasn’t going to utilise Ryan in a defensive role when he had more to his game than that. So he pushed him, much in the same way that Tottenham did to Bale, further up the pitch and starting line-up, drafting in his son, Kevin into the defence in his place. And Ryan prospered, ending the 1977/78 season as the clubs top scorer with 16 goals as well as winning the Player of the Season award.
In sharp contradiction to that, the Norwich squad that season included six players who occupied defensive positions in the starting line up throughout the campaign, one that was a conventional 4-4-2. They were Kevin Bond, Greg Downs, Duncan Forbes, David Jones, Tony Powell and Colin Sullivan. Perm any four from those six.
They played 152 league games between them, contributing just four goals.
Russell Martin is just one behind that total for this season alone after just eleven games. It took Colin Sullivan five years and 182 games to score that many goals for the club whilst Ian Culverhouse, one of, if not, the best right-back that has ever played for Norwich, made 369 appearances for us scoring just two goals in that time.
Defending from the front has become attacking from the back. And let’s face it, it adds to the entertainment value of the game. And that’s no bad thing.
The bollocking a 1970s Russ would have got from Big Dunc every time he went near the halfway line would have been entertaining as well. Not that Duncan wasn’t averse to going forward himself at set pieces. He would and he was a menace whenever he did. But it was the exception rather than the norm.
Who, I wonder, would have adapted, would have been able to change their game the most effectively should they had played in a Norwich team from another era?
Russ lining up alongside Duncan in a 1970s Canary line up under Ron Saunders?
Or Duncan taking his place next to Russ in the Norwich team for our game against Swansea on Saturday?
Different eras, different priorities, a different game. Especially for defenders.
Who’d have adapted the best?