Many times, when it comes to footballing glory, it is always the striker and the top goal scorer that gets the glory. However, behind many teams’ successes, it’s often the defender that is holding the team up by its breaches. There’s no good a striker scoring 2-3 goals if the defense is letting in more. Too often we celebrate the strikers, but as Colin Hendry knows too well, a good team needs a good defense. Every team needs confidence in its back four. Here, Colin Hendry takes us through his list of the best English League defenders since the 1980s.
The Top Defenders
In the 1980s, there were some defenders that stood out more than others – more often than not they played for the best teams of that time. Therefore, Colin Hendry has pulled up the best defenders from this time – stalwarts of the iconic teams, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal… .
The first Hendry gives us is Paul McGrath. McGrath is an Irish player that played as a Central Defender and a Defensive Midfielder, who is considered by many – as well as Hendry – as one of the greatest Irish players of all time. He played at both Aston Villa and Man United – and it’s Man United where Hendry believes his ability really shone.
McGrath joined Man U in 1982, managed by Roy Atkinson. He was on the side lines for a while, but eventually took over from Gordon McQueen to partner Kevin Moran in central defense. It didn’t take much to make a name for himself, named man of the match with the in the FA Cup Final win against Everton in 1985. Hendry stated “At this time, Man U was pretty mediocre by their standards, but McGrath stood out.
Despite Man U having some great games, with the help of regular McGrath, they only managed 4th in the league in the 1985/86 season due to injury problems. Atkinson was sacked and Ferguson came in, but his place on the team wasn’t threatened. He finished his career with United in 1989 and moved to Villa, where he spent another 8 season, playing regularly in the first team. In total, he made 592 club appearances in his career, scored 30 goals and made his name as one of the greatest ever English League defenders.
In his career, he walked around with several accolades, including the FA Cup win with Man U, the League Cup twice with Aston Villa and individually he won several awards including PFAI Players’ Player of the Year; FAI Senior International Player of the Year; PFA Players’ Player of the Year; and Football League 100 Legends.
The next defender Hendry speaks of is Scottish International and Liverpool Central Defender, Alan Hansen. He started his career at Patrick Thistle; however, it was at the biggest club of the 198s that he made his mark. Hendry says “Hansen only ever got 26 caps for Scotland and that’s incredible for a player of his caliber. He really was a Rolls Royce of a defender. I can only assume it was because of the partnership of Miller and McLeish.”
Hansen was in the Liverpool team that won the 1978 European Cup Final and became a regular on the team in that year – where they finished as runners-up to Nottingham Forest.
The next season Hansen became a team regular and helped the team to another league title. Incredibly, this season with Hansen as defender, the club conceded just four goals at home. When club captain, Emelyn Hughes, left, Hansen was the first choice as replacement Central Defender. The club’s domination continued and they won the following League title as well. With Alan Hansen on the squad, Liverpool were the team to beat in that era. In 1984 the team beat Roma in the European cup final with an Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson defense.
All in all, with Liverpool, he won a number of titles, including the league title 8-times, the FA Cup twice, the League Cup 4-times, Super Cup once, FA Charity Shield 5-times and the European Cup 3-times. As an individual, he is in the English Hall of Fame, Scottish Hall of Fame and is in the Football League 100 legends.
Alongside Alan Hansen, another player Hendry mentions is Phil Neal who played with Hansen as a right back. The Liverpool player debuted for the club in 1974 and played for the Anfield club until 1985. As a Liverpool defender, he made 650 appearances for the club, scoring 59 goals.
Neal, as a part of the Liverpool club, he won many trophies, including the First Division title 8-times, League Cup 4-times, FA Charity Shield 5-times, European Cup 4-times, UEFA Cup once, and UEFA Super Cup once.
Away from Liverpool, another player of that era that Hendry mentions is Scottish defender Kenny Burns. The peak of his career, and where he won most accolades, was when he was a player for Notts Forest between 1977 and 1981. As a Notts player, he was the FWA Footballer of the Year and Forest’s Player of the Year in 1977. The very successful first season at the club saw Notts Forest with the season’s Football League Cup with a 1-0 win over Liverpool.
Burns was one of the major influencers in the club’s European Cup campaigns over the following three seasons. It was his partnership with Larry Lloyd that was instrumental to Nottingham Forest’s back to back wins in 1979 – 1980. Furthermore, he scored in the second leg of the 1979 UEFA Super Cup win over Barcelona. This was a player known for his wild image and aggressive style of play. However, he has an immense football brain and could score as well as defend.
Burns played 137 times for Nottingham Forest, scoring 13 goals. In that time, he won First Division, League Cup twice, FA Charity Shield, European Cup twice and the European Super Cup with his club. Furthermore, he won the club’s Player of the Year twice and the FWA Footballer of the Year.
Another Manchester United player mentioned by Hendry was Steve Bruce, a Centre Back that played for the club between 1987 and 1996. It was after Bruce joined Man U that the club managed a top 2 finish in the First Division for the first time since 1980. However, it was Bruce’s partnership with Gary Pallister that really made an impact – described by Hendry as “one of the best in the club’s history. This was the start of Manchester United making its way back as a footballing super power.” The duo was a vital part of the team that won the 199 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace. He was described as having an ‘over-enthusiastic’ style of play, which he called ‘rampaging’. Bruce was also noted for his impressive scoring stats for a defensive player.
After the Heysel disaster, Man U became England’s first participant in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, where they made it to the final against Barcelona. They ended up winning 2-1. This was a high scoring season for Bruce who ended up netting 13 goals.
As a Manchester United player, he won the Premier League 3-times, the FA Cup 3-times, Football League Cup once, FA Charity Shield 3-times, European Cup Winner’s Cup once and European Super Cup with the squad.
Hand in hand with Steve Bruce, goes the obvious inclusion of Gary Pallister. It was his dominant partnership with Steve Bruce that made Man U such a formidable team of the time. Pallister played for the club between 1989 and 1998. His transfer fee broke the record paid for a defender, but he proved his worth.
Pallister had the rare achievement of playing for the English national team before ever appearing in top flight football, which was a sign of his career to come. He too as well as Bruce was capable of scoring great goals – and scored a memorable goal in the final home game of the 1992-93 season against Blackburn. Pallister partnered Bruce in virtually every game played until Bruce left the club in 1995.
Over all, for Manchester United, he played a total of 317 games, scoring 12 goals. In that time, with the club, he won the Premier League 4-times, the FA Cup 3-times, Football League Cup once, FA Charity Shield 5-times, European Cup Winners’ Cup once and European Super Cup once. As an individual he won the Sit Matt Busby Player of the Year and PFA Player’s Player of the Year.
This is a defender that has gone down in history as being a ‘psycho’ of a player. He played as a defender for top clubs, including Nottingham Forest. Hendry says “along with Julian Dicks, he was a psycho type player rather. While he was a Nottingham Forest he could be described as the best full back of his generation”.
Pearce joined Nottingham Forest in 1985 and eventually spent 12 years there. Like many of the best defenders, he was club captain. Whilst at the club, he won two League Cups and the Full Members Cup and scored from a free-kick in the 1991 FA Cup final. Although the club was relegated in 1993, Pearce stayed on to help them to a promotion the following year. They then finished third in the Premier League the following season and reached the UEFA Cup Final.
He was also well-known for his role in the England national team, where he earned 78 caps, scoring 5 times. The defender has a hard man image on and off the pitch and intimidated his opponents with his aggressive style of play.
With Nottingham Forest, he won the Football League Cup twice and the Full Members’ Cup twice, and as an individual he won the Nottingham Forest Player of the Season 3-times and the Premier League player of the month.
Moving forward, Hendry takes us over to Arsenal – and another top defender and captain – Tony Adams. Adams spent his entire 22-year club career as a defender in Arsenal and has become part of the club’s history.
Hendry describes how “the success of Arsenal was moulded through Tony Adams. He was an organizer and he led by example.” He joined his club as a schoolboy in 1980 but became a regular in the team in the 1986-87 season, winning his first trophy that year. Together, with Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, they formed the famous ‘back four’. Hendry says of this defense: “this back four could hold the back against 7-8 opposition for a decent amount of time, until reinforcement from the midfield came to help. In 19 cases out of 20 the four would be capable of stifling the opposition, even against 6-8 players. They were a dogged back four and it worked.”
The Arsenal team played against many top teams, including Man U. Hendry says “they played against young and enthusiastic Man U players such as Scholes, Butt, Beckham and the Nevilles. They might not have been exciting, but they were dogged.” In his 22 years at the club, he made 669 appearances and scored 48 goals. He was also part of the England national team, earning 66 caps and scoring 5 goals.
With Arsenal, Adams won the First Division twice, Premier League twice, FA Cup 3-times, Football League Cup twice, Football League Centenary Trophy once, European Cup Winners’ Cup once and FA Charity Shield twice. He also won several individual awards including PFA Young Player of the Year.
Vidic and Ferdinand
Moving on to the 2000s, Hendry says that we cannot ignore the Vidic and Ferdinand Partnership at Man U. Vidic, the Serbian player, played for Manchester United between 2005 and 2014. On his own, he was a formidable player, yet it was his partnership with Ferdinand, who joined the club in 2002, in the central defense that became one of the most formidable duos in Europe.
The partnership between the two lasted all the way from 2005 – 2014 and during this time they were part of the indomitable Man U team that was almost unbeatable. In this period, they, with the club, won the Premier League 5-times, The Football League Cup 3-times, FA Community Shield 5-times, Champions League once and FIFA Club World Cup once.
John Terry and Ashley Cole
Hendry states that you really can’t ignore the Chelsea boys, John Terry and Ashley Cole. Hendry describes Cole as “the best left back in the last 30 years after Stuart Pearce.”
Terry joined Chelsea in 1998 and spent the most part of his career there – until 2017. He is arguably the club’s best defender and undoubtedly the club’s best and most successful captain. Terry was a strong and physical defender known for aggressive tackling, leadership and his ability to read the game. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest central defenders of his generation. Terry was named the UEFA Club Defender of the Year in 2005, 2008 and 2009. He made 717 club appearances and earned 78 England caps. With his club he won over 25 trophies and has won multiple individual awards
Ashley Cole joined Chelsea from Arsenal in 2006 and made a big impact in the eight years he was there. He is considered to be one of the best left backs in the world. Cole made 338 appearances for Chelsea, and in his time there won 9 trophies, including the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League. He earned 107 caps for his country and earned the accolade of England Player of the Year.
Other Defenders Worth a Mention:
Jaap Stam – former Manchester United Centre Back and Dutch International player.
Vincent Kompany – Belgian Centre Back currently playing for Man City “who will have a great career”.
Virgil Van Dijk – Dutch Centre back currently playing for Liverpool “who has the potential to be the best in the world”.
Colin’s Top Tips
Fulham V Man U – Man U to win -8/13 at Ladbrokes
Crystal Palace v West Ham – Draw – 12/5 at BetBright
Huddersfield v Arsenal – Arsenal to win – 8/13 at Bet365
Liverpool v Bournemouth – Liverpool to win – 3/14 at Unibet
Southampton v Cardiff – Southampton to win – ¾ at 888sport
Watford v Everton – Watford to win – 13/10 at Betfred
Brighton v Burnley – Draw – 9/4 at Bet365
Tottenham v Leicester – Tottenham to win – 4/6 at BetBright
Man City v Chelsea – Man City to win – ½ at Coral
Wolves v Newcastle – Draw – 13/5 at Unibet