8 Defenders Skillful Enough to Be Midfielders
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Last week, Wolves fans paid tribute to Frank Munro, their former Scottish international defender of the 1970s.
Munro was a centre-half of rare skill.
Words like uncompromising, fierce and tough tackling described the thick set giants of the back four in those days. Hammer Horror tackles from Chopper Harris, Ian Ure, Norman Hunter and Mickey Droy filled the grounds with shrieks in that decade.
But Munro was classy and stylish. He had confidence in his own skill and delighted fans with tricks that would make an inside forward drool.
In tribute to Frank Munro, here are a few more centre-backs with skill enough to win the tackle and then play a bit of football too.
Billy Wright, immortalised at Molineux
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Billy Wright was skillful enough to play at centre-back, in midfield or wing half, as it was known in the black and white days.
One of the smallest ever England centre-backs and yet he won 105 caps for his country—when an England cap really meant something, before substitutes and the Sven Goran Eriksson free handouts.
He had springs in his heels according to lanky opponents who kept losing out to Billy in aerial encounters.
And he played as he lived, with style, class and honesty. He played almost 650 professional games, including internationals and never once got himself into the referee’s book.
Billy married a good looking lass from a girl band, Joy Beverley, in an era before WAGs, designer bags and Twitter.
He captained Wolverhampton Wanderers to three league titles and an FA Cup success in the 1950s. Never such glory since for the Wolves.
Way beyond retirement, Wright remained a favourite at Molineux where his bronze statue greets visitors.
Aston Villa deity, Paul McGrath
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Alcohol dominated McGrath’s later career. He often played drunk and trained rarely. Injury and hangovers made sure of that.
But on the field, he was majestic.
A tough upbringing in Irish orphanages gave him a steely resolve to take him through many a pain barrier.
Brilliant in the tackle, McGrath inspired his teammates, at Premier League and international level. His World Cup performances in two campaigns during the 1990s for the Republic of Ireland are the stuff of legend.
The expression on his face may have been a permanent wince, but it looked convincingly like a sardonic smile.
And boy, could he play. Sheer quality.
He read the game and tackled like Bobby Moore. He moved upfield like Franz Beckenbauer.
Wolves and Spurs players pay tribute to the memory of Dean Richards
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Football has tragedies. Dean Richards was one of them.
Strong, fearless, precociously talented, comfortable with the ball at his feet, Richards looked an England certainty.
But he was never capped. An £8 million transfer to Tottenham looked like the start of the big time for Deano. Fate had other plans.
Injury blighted his way. The injuries turned to dizziness and then to illness.
Once the doctors had told him that his career was over, he turned to coaching, trying to put something back into the game with the Bradford youth team, where he had started.
He died earlier this year, aged 36, leaving a wife and two young children.
It lasted three minutes and would have gone on for longer had the referee allowed it.
Richards was built like a truck but played like a Harley Davidson.
Brede Hangeland, head and shoulders above......
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An unfashionable player in an unfashionable club. Hangeland has won 70 caps for Norway and is one of the reasons Fulham have established themselves as a Premier League club.
Gangly and awkward to look at, Hangeland wins battles effortlessly in the air and on the deck. But he’s something more than a reliable defender.
He gets into this list because he can play with the ball at his feet.
Watch him coming forward. No panicky thumping clearance from him. A search for a teammate, a neat, crisp pass, job done.
Big Brede is a threat from set pieces, too. But when he scores, he doesn’t slip into an egocentric rehearsed goal celebration.
He just trots back beyond the half way line, modest, shoulders hunched, trying to avoid being noticed.
At over 6'4", that’s an art in itself.
Ivan Campo, mopping up at the back
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Some say defender, some say defensive midfielder. El Pelo (The Hair) was a star for Real Madrid, until his tendency to believe too much in his own ability caused his downfall.
Like many defenders who can play a bit, Ivan liked to move forward, ball at feet, dribbling through the midfield.
But a couple of blunders for Real Madrid can cost a reputation.
And so it came to pass.
Two high profile Spanish League gaffes cost Campo his place and turned him toward the exit door.
He arrived on loan and cast off in the blustery north west of England.
After one season at the Reebok Stadium, he elected to stay, preferring Bolton to Madrid. The only man ever to have made that choice.
For three more seasons, his retro rock star looks and slightly chubby frame gave Bolton fans hopes of a long stay in the Premier League.
He’s gone, but Bolton are still camped in the top flight.
Rio Ferdinand: a flawed past, a flawless passer
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Rio has punctuated his trophy laden career with controversy.
The infamous missed drug test, the tawdry battle with John Terry for the England captaincy and the inevitable tabloid spats have been the splash headlines of his life.
The many Manchester United haters are quick to undermine Rio’s claims to quality.
Lately, injury has given his critics a helping hand.
But Rio is from a family with footballing pedigree, and he is the most talented of his kin.
Tall, strong and uncompromising he most certainly is. Ready to back up teammates in a brawl too, as many television replays will show.
But he also has a cool head when the ball is in play, and the skill to keep possession until it’s time to let go and not before.
Rio’s confidence has blossomed in his later years, just as the injuries have started to get the better of him.
Alan Hansen: way above par in the swinging seventies
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The gruff, hypercritical television pundit that is Alan Hansen is quick to lambast shabby defensive play.
He sets high standards for others, as he did for himself in the '70s and '80s.
When Liverpool were the best team in England, Hansen was the best defender by far.
He had it all.
Tackling and heading come as standard for a centre-back, but Hansen purred across the halfway line like a Rolls Royce. Even in the days when mud sodden playing surfaces were more likely to give you trench foot than grass burns.
Hansen’s long stride, elegant physique, well balanced, controlled style and intelligent, incisive passing ability were a joy to watch.
He was handsome, in a Gregory Peck kind of way. And dashing, in an Errol Flynn kind of way.
And if you got past him, you came up against his teammate, now co-pundit Mark Lawrenson.
Less skillful, more brutal. If Hansen hadn’t whipped the ball from your feet, Lawrenson was likely to take you off at the knees.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling: perfect partners?
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Is it too early to include this young man?
Blackburn fans knew well before the rest of us that Phil Jones would be a star.
He has the defensive abilities to play at the centre of the back four. He has the versatility to slot into midfield. Jones is a manager’s dream player.
His £16 million summer move to Manchester United is a tragedy for the Rovers but could be a great move for this sturdy teenager who has the power and skill to recall for the few remaining witnesses of the Busby Babes the name of Duncan Edwards.
Too soon, perhaps, to make such claims? Too heavy a burden even for his wide shoulders?
But keep an eye on the England Under-21 captain. His start to the new Premier season bodes well. Sir Alex Ferguson has Jones pencilled in to succeed Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford.
Jones and Chris Smalling could be the new Steve Bruce and Garry Pallister.
Or better perhaps.