Gareth Southgate has a lot to answer for. In 1996 he was heralded as representative of a new wave of centre back. No more Tony Adams or Terry Butcher with their noses splattered all over their faces. Southgate was the new intelligent ball-playing centre back who spoke nicely and slowly; he couldn’t be anything but a thinker.
But, I’m a traditionalist. I like my centre backs big, ugly and prepared to put their faces in other people’s boots. Mark Wright’s first move when he arrived at the Kassam was to replace a couple of lightweight Gareth Southgates: Jon Richardson and Darren Patterson with a couple of trusted war horses from his successful spell with Chester. Scott Guyett and Phil Bolland offered a proven combination that he could trust.
But Ian Atkins needed more, and I don’t just mean a third centre back. He brought in a genuine leader in Andy Crosby. In an ever-volatile situation at the Kassam, Crosby kept the players focussed on winning games. He was such a pro, he knew exactly when to step away from the madness and took up residence at Scunthorpe where he did a Ricketts and won a couple of promotions.
Crosby was accompanied by similarly gnarly old pros; Matt Bound and latterly Paul McCarthy. It wasn’t the most handsome of back lines, but it was effective. Jon Ashton was drafted in, offering a Phil Gilchrist to Crosby’s Matt Elliot. While Crosby was the epitome of consistency, Ashton’s form bobbed around in the sea of failure that was the Kassam.
Leo Roget was brought in by Graham Rix to play the Crosby role and nurture the back line. Roget was a notable victim of the ‘Kassam Spiral’ whereby his first season he looked awful, the second, when the rest of the team had descended below his limited abilities, he started to look like a pivotal figure.
In the desperate search for a stabilising influence Brian Talbot brought in Chris Willmott. Willmott was, for a period at least, a reassuring big chunk of British centre-back. The Willmott/Ashton/Roget combination – Talbot chose two from those three almost at random – looked like it should be good enough. But the season quickly turned from disappointment to alarm to crisis to disaster and we were relegated.
Standing around in midfield thinking ‘I could do better than that’ was Barry Quinn. It wasn’t until we reached the Conference that he drifted back into a back-five. At first he covered Willmott who was a long-term injury victim, but eventually the role became permanent. I maintain to this day that he was never a defender despite being a regular fixture until 2008.
Alongside Quinn was a true defender, Phil Gilchrist. Gilchrist was one of the best centre-backs the club has ever had, but by 2006 he was a bag of bones and muscle held together with sellotape. At the start of the season his experience carried him through, eventually, like so many other members of the squad, he was in bits. With Gilchrist and Quinn was Matt Day – perhaps the stupidest footballer in the history of the game. He had a kick like a mule and regularly blasted them in from 25 yards. For a period, we could forgive him. His ability to return for pre-season 4 stone overweight counted against him somewhat.
With one defender falling apart, another having no brain of any note and a third who wasn’t a defender at all (alongside Willmott who was in the treatment room) something had to be done. Luke Foster arrived, apparently, via a letter from his dad. Foster was quick, strong and reliable, but, if rumour is to be believed, his extra-curricular activities were getting the better of him and to the dismay of many, he was shipped out by Chris Wilder.
By that point, Foster’s partner in the back four was Mark Creighton. Before kick off he’d be seen bouncing 5-10 yards outside his own box seething in preparation for the battle ahead. Creighton was significant because he was the first signing of a bewildering close season in 2009. It was an aggressive move (Creighton was captain at Kidderminster) and a signal of intent from Chris Wilder. The momentum Creighton’s signing offered propelled the team to the top of the Conference and eventually back to the league.
Following Foster’s controversial departure, when the team were top with the best defensive record in the division, Jake Wright arrived. Wright’s performances, which improved from a very shaky debut, probably didn’t outstrip Foster’s, but he was a less disruptive influence off the field. Certainly, Wright’s leadership skills were evident when the pressure was on.
Once we returned to the League, a smarter more streetwise style was needed. Creighton’s brief, but significant, stay was over once Harry Worley came in to partner Wright. The partnership, though far from perfect, was more finessed than what had been in the Conference.
For the Kassam All-Star XI, I want two dependable obelisks in the middle. So, therefore, we have two icons of the back line. Andy Crosby and Mark Creighton. Just don’t ever expect them to catch Yemi Odubade in a foot race.