Kassam All Star XI – Centre backs

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.

Yellows 1 Woking 0

I think we’re all agreed that it’s good to get back to winning ways after the Tamworth shock so let’s instead talk about Fozziegate.

For all Chris Wilder’s ‘ecky thump northern dourness he likes to create a drama like a drag queen with a broken heal. On the face of it, there was absolutely no reason to disrupt the best defensive unit in the league. We have been the best team by a country mile, and the defence has been the best of that team.

On the other hand, Wilder isn’t the first to take a dislike to Foster; both Jim Smith and Darren Patterson dropped him during their reign. What’s more, when there were rumours of Coventry being interested in him a few years ago, nothing came forth. In fact, as good as Foster has been, he’s consistently failed to generate any league club interest at all. Something’s not right there.

When Smith and Patterson got the hump with him, it was early in the season and it seemed that his fortnight in Magaluf had taken an extended toll. Eventually he got in his groove and proved to be one of the best and most consistent players at the club.

And it’s not as if Foster’s performances this season haven’t been first class. But, when push comes to shove, he was ultimately responsible for us drawing and eventually being knocked out by Barrow. And was one of those at fault for the equaliser against Salisbury.

In addition, one of the big problems with the 2006 collapse was the lack of a Plan B. Perhaps Wilder saw that Foster and Creighton were vulnerable when put under pressure. If that got out, the second half of the season could prove very uncomfortable. Perhaps the reconstruction of the back-four is just about changing the dynamic of the team.

What’s more, the squad does have to keep evolving, and for the first time in several years, the squad has reached a point where even the best players must be scrutinised. The likes of Rhodes and Kelly have gone; but there isn’t a name in the first team squad that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if they were let go. It’s still a big call though.

Few can deny that Mr Wilder deserves our trust. He’s paid to make decisions, and it’s his job that’s on the line if he gets them wrong. Let’s face it; if it were down to our collective wisdom, then we’d be Ebbsfleet, and that’s a fate worse than death.

Yellows 0-1 Weymouth, 6-3 Eastbourne, 0-2 Wrexham

In isolation, the defeat to Wrexham was predictable and shouldn’t, in itself, be a cause for worry. There is likely to be a renewed vigour surrounding them at the start of the season – that curious phenomenon of any relegated team – and, well, we’ve never really excelled at the Racecourse Ground.

What was less predictable is that we would fail to pick up points against Weymouth or Barrow. This has left us in an odd position. Statistically, we should be worrying – this is relegation form and we’ve been playing relative lightweights. More considered analysis would suggest that this can’t last.

Having not seen a single kick of this season, I’m probably not in a position of great authority to judge, but objectively it would appear that there is a serious problem in defence. Especially given that the only points we’ve got have come from the 6-3 bizzare-athon against Eastbourne.

The bellowing form of Billy Turley, who I still suspect is not that far from tipping over the metaphorical hill, is perhaps more influential in marshalling the defence than it would sometimes appear. He always seems to me to be an irritant – but that’s probably because I would want to punch someone at work who yelled at me constantly for 90 minutes.

Patterson’s observation about Luke Foster appears well made too. Jim Smith was hardly backwards in his criticism of Foster this time last year. He appears to summer badly and perhaps it’s his attitude rather than ability, that needs keeping in check.

Fear not, I join the relegation battle on Monday against Woking which is surely set to be a humdinger, if past encounters are to be considered.