Filed: Thursday, 11th October 2012
By: Rich Hobday
Except Venice, all the best things are built on solid foundations. Football teams are no different. From George Graham's league-winning Arsenal teams to Italy's World Cup winners – successful teams are based on clean sheets. Led by powerful commanding centre backs.
West Ham teams have not always been built on such foundations – often our crumbly and flaky back line is penetrated more easily than a want-to-be wag. Like Geordie lasses on an 18-30 holiday, all too often our shell-shocked defenders find themselves flat on their backs wondering what happened.
Over the years we have been known for a defence with less spine than Nick Clegg. West Ham are less likely to keep clean sheets than a student during fresher's week. We have been besieged by centre-backs at the end of their career, and those who should never have had a career.
There have been those who play in the same way that old people shag – slow and sloppy. Others have had a heavier first touch than a teenager at a school disco. For every committed Alvin Martin we have seen those more committed to their Aston Martins. For every towering Tony Gale, there’s a cowering Calamity Davenport. The list of comical centre backs is endless, with Gary Strodder, Gary Breen, Andy Melville, Hayden Foxe, Neil Ruddock and Simon Webster to name a few.
Great centre backs are harder to find than a virgin in Liverpool. But occasionally, we have some absolute gems. Moore than just hard-nosed, hard-tackling defenders, but quality footballers, at ease with the ball at their feet. Imposing and commanding, fearless yet frightening, we have some who would have graced some of the best teams in world football. Billy Bonds (see Fifty Shades of Grey) epitomised the qualities need for a centre back. His fight, heart and power were exceptional, although his favoured position was in midfield, he was a gallant defender.
There’s nothing better than a footballing centre half breaking up an attack and bringing the ball out from defence. Stylishly launching a counter-attack with the grace and balance of a ballet dancer. There has never been, nor will there ever be again, a more stylish footballer than the exemplary and peerless Bobby Moore. West Ham's Bobby Moore – the most important footballer England has ever seen. As stylish off the pitch as he was on it – he was one of a kind. The original golden boy of English football. His duals with Pele, one of the world’s greatest ever players, is a sporting epic. His timing, like his appearance was impeccable.
Not the tallest but the coolest. So much has been written about Bobby Moore, England’s only World Cup-winning captain. West Ham’s most successful captain with FA and European Cup glory. Our best ever player and leader of men.
Sir Bobby Charlton said that while "he could sense where trouble was coming from and nullify it immediately, the most important part of his game was his ability to inspire his team-mates and demoralise his opponents.” Moore has left a legacy and many happy memories. Thanks to Bobby we are Moore than just a football team. We will never forget such a great man.
The best thing about World Cups is the constant trickle of rumours and potential superstar signings. Naive dreams of Golden Boot strikers and World Cup winners, strolling across Upton Park, bringing a touch of magic and flair. After the 2002 World Cup we dreamt of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo or Canavarro, Nesta, Cafu or Hierro - great defenders gracing Upton Park. They’d look classy in claret and blue.
And then it was announced – we had signed a World Cup star. An internationally known and revered defender. One of the best. The press conference was set, the big announcement imminent – our pulses racing at the prospect of a world class superstar. A grinning Glenn Roeder, lined up alongside – Gary Breen! Surely we had been party to a Jeremy Beadle-style prank? An amusing joke? But no – out of all the 32 teams, the 704 players, we had seen something in Gary Breen which no-one else had.
For 14 games, including a 6-0 drubbing at Manchester United, we saw exactly why no-one else had signed him. Breeny formed a calamitous partnership with Christian Dailly, soon fell out with Glenn Roeder and left the club in 2003. It was later revealed he had agreed to join Inter Milan but failed a medical. He was also linked with Barcelona! Shame he passed the slightly easier West Ham medical, also passed by Kieran Dyer, and Freddie Ljungberg. You wonder if Oscar Pistorius had turned up for a medical whether our medical team would spot a problem with one of his legs.
Still West Ham had moved on since 2002, and surely we would not be subjected to a similar betrayal. Never again would we scour the World Cup only to sign a one game-wonder centre back. In 2010 although England let us down again, we took comfort from the vast number of potential World cup superstars about to sign for West Ham. Recent world cup superstars like Tevez and Mascherano had graced Upton Park, and the likes of Kaka, were rumoured to be on their way to Upton Park.
And then came the news we had signed a young World Cup star. We had beaten many leading clubs in Europe to the signing of one of the best defenders – maybe Ramos, Puyol, Maicon or Lahn. Our amazing signing was revealed - Winston Reid! Not even a household name in his own house, let alone in New Zealand. No superstars from Barcelona, Real Madrid or Inter Milan, but we had signed the best player from Danish Superliga club FC Midtjylland. Even the names sounds like a small club.
Midtjylland play to average crowds of 8,900 - Reid should surely have joined QPR or Fulham so he would feel at home. Playing in front of 35,000 passionate Hammers, at the Academy of Football, would be too much of a step up. He had Danish citizenship and represented them at Under 21 level. Then suddenly with a World Cup qualification on the cards for New Zealand, he made himself available for his country of birth.
Without ever seeing the great Winston Reid play, New Zealand’s manager picked him for a couple of qualifiers and then the World Cup squad. Winston Reid had been transformed from Danish ditherer to World Cup superstar. Having scored one goal against Slovakia, he won New Zealand their first ever World Cup point and suddenly he was being hailed as the new Paolo Mandini. We would have been better off with Paolo Nutini; at least he could sing "Bubbles".
Winston picked up his first international red card against Paraguay for what was described as a "vicious studs-up tackle" – maybe he was worth having after all. Despite struggling in his first season and suffering relegation, a year in the Championship saw him find his level. Scoring the winning goal against Millwall in 2012, with a cracking volley cemented his place in West Ham history. He is now first on Big Sam’s team sheet at the back, keeping out James Tomkins.
Alongside the returning James Collins, he has had a good start to our season back in the Premier League. Maybe, with a few more games, Gary Breen would have been alright after all – then again...
Alvin Martin and Tony Gale were the backbone of West Ham's team in the late 1980s and 1990s. Alvin sprinkled stardust on those around him and made them play better. Gale and Martin rolled off the tongue like Morecambe and Wise, Starsky and Hutch, or Lennon and McCartney. In the 1986 season they partnered one another in 40 games (out of 42). Alvin played 586 games over 19 seasons, and won 17 England caps.
"You put your left leg in, your left leg out..."
'Stretch' was tough. Stretch was hard. But he was a footballing centre half. He could read the game and even in later years timed his tackles to perfection. He made the record book in 1986, as a scorer of a hat-trick against three different goalkeepers – in an 8-1 win against Newcastle. A win made sweeter by an own goal by Glenn Roeder. Alvin modestly described it as "the worst hat-trick of all time". Like all good Scousers, Alvin was great at picking the pockets of many strikers.
In 359 games for West Ham, Tony Gale made defending look a breeze. In the Boys of '86 season he played in every league game (along with ever-presents Mark Ward and Phil Parkes). Known as 'Reggie' after Reggie Kray, because of his wicked sense of humour, he always looked like he enjoyed playing. Style with a smile.
He wasn’t smiling though when Keith Hackett made one of worst decisions in FA Cup history, in the semi-final against Nottingham Forest. After a typically elegant tangle of limbs on the half way line, Gary Crosby went down quicker than Jimmy Savile's reputation. Hackett inexplicably reached for his card and Galey was gone. West Ham went on to lose 4-0. Hackett really couldn’t hack it at the top level. Galey went on to win a Premier League winners medal with Blackburn Rovers in 1995/96.
Steve Potts got panned by many for being limited but in nearly 500 games he proved that Potts had got the lot. Potts' Peter Pan-like ability to look young meant he played for years and years. He was at home at both centre back and right back, where his speed was his best asset. One of the most underrated defenders of his day, Steve was a stalwart for West Ham where he won the coveted Hammer of the Year award and filled all the defensive positions and some in midfield too. Maybe his son will play just as many games for West Ham, but I’m not so sure.
Pottsy played alongside many central defensive partners in his 17 seasons at the club, and was joined in 1994 by Denmark's Mark Rieper. A tall, powerful player he was brought initially on loan from Brondby, then completed a £1 million transfer.
An international centre back, he represented Denmark in the 1996 European Championships. Marc Rieper was a solid defender and one of Harry Redknapp’s first forays into the foreign transfer market. He played 93 games for us, scoring five goals between 1994 and 1997, when he departed for Celtic. His partnership with Slaven Bilic was one of the best central-defensive partnerships in recent memory. I’m sure big Sam would love their no-nonsense style.
The 1990s was a good time for West Ham centre backs. We finally found the right blend of hard, tough defenders, particularly from the eastern Europe. In 1996 Slaven Bilic was bought by Harry Redknapp from the German side Karlsruher for £1.3million. He had been voted the best defender in the Bundelisga in 1994 and was highly rated. He played with passion and was a warrior.
He stayed loyal to West Ham in 1997, when he had already agreed to join Everton and helped ensure we didn’t get relegated. An act of loyalty, not often seen in modern football and one which for me ensures Bilic’s status as a top man. A status reinforced with his play acting in the 1998 World Cup semi final, which saw Lauren Blanc sent off for a push to the chest, which Bilic made look like assault.
Another Croatian, Igor Stimac joined West Ham in 1999 and provided more eastern European steel. West Ham finished in their second highest ever position in the 1998 season, with Redknapp leading us to fifth and a return to European football. Stimac joined in a season, to bolster a defence seeing the retirement of the frequently injured Richard Hall. He played in a squad with an abundance of centre backs with Ian Pearce, an ageing and ever expanding Neil Ruddock, Rio Ferdinand, Pottsy, and a red haired Javier Margas.
He was tough tackling, aggressive and robust. Never one to shirk a challenge, Stimac he got his fair share of yellow and red cards. As befitting an aggressive Croatian, with the anagram 'magic riot', he was involved in a 17-man brawl during Julian Dicks' testimonial against Athletico Bilbao in 2000. Aside from the brawl, Igor Stimac was cautioned for a crashing tackle from behind, and Hammers skipper Paolo Di Canio slapped Spanish players about the face. What else would you expect from a Julian Dicks testimonial?
In the same mould as Bilic and Stimac, one of the most-loved centre backs was Tomas Repka. Signed from Fiorentina for £5.5million, he played 188 times in claret and blue in over five years of highs and lows. He saw relegation and then promotion back to the Premier League, before leaving for Sparta Prague.
Tomas Repka showing his gentler side
Repka could kick the ball so hard and so high – it nearly reached the sky. In 2006, in a 2-1 win against Fulham, a tearful Repka went down the tunnel for the last time with the sound of 35,000 singing "super Tommy Repka" ringing in his ears. Tough tackling, hard as nails but the love of playing for West Ham reduced this giant to tears. He returned to the Czech Republic but will always be guaranteed a warm welcome at the Boleyn Ground.
The formula for a perfect centre back would be pace, vision, ease on the ball and well timed tackling. If Gary Breen was none of these, our home grown Rio Ferdinand was all of them. His middle name Gavin never suited him, but being at West Ham certainly did.
Rio was the most naturally-talented centre back. In over 150 games Rio always looked at ease. Elegant and stylish, he was brought up in the West Ham way. He won the Hammer of the Year award aged just 19. The Academy of Football witnessed the development of one of the world’s best centre backs, and a world record £18million move to Leeds followed.
It was off the pitch that Rio struggled, with a drink driving offence in 1997 delaying his England debut. In 2003 some absent-mindedness whilst at Man Utd saw Rio banned and an enforced absence of eight months from professional football.
Rio is a hammer at heart and often rumoured to be rejoining his childhood club. Maybe we will again see Rio in a claret and blue shirt, but he would be a different Rio to the youthful one we last saw in 2000. His injuries seem more problematic and his pace has gone, but his quality still remains. Whilst Rio proved to be a world class player, Anton never quite reached such heights. The Ferdinands can certainly play football. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t try to sign Franz Ferdinand next.
Defensive dazzlers, you shine like diamonds. You are solid; solid as a rock.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
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