World Cup: England’s soft centre may stunt progress

England centre back Terry Butcher put his body on the line for the Three Lions to reach the 1990 World Cup semi-finals. Picture: David Cannon. England centre back Terry Butcher put his body on the line for the Three Lions to reach the 1990 World Cup semi-finals. Picture: David Cannon.

Saturday, June 14, 2014
9:30 AM

Blood pouring from the wound, head swathed in band Terry Butcher’s total commitment to the England cause was one of the iconic images of the last 25 years watching the Three Lions. Butcher’s own personal safety was a secondary consideration to helping the late Sir Bobby Robson’s squad secure the point they needed in Sweden to qualify for Italia’90. Butcher would go on to play an integral role in a memorable run to the semi-finals which ended in a torrent of tears and penalty heartache.

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"The painful truth is the best defenders in the Premier League no longer hail from England and that stark fact could be to Roy Hodgson’s detriment over these coming weeks."

Paddy Davitt

Butcher was a lionheart but he was also a fine player for a country with a rich pedigree of producing redoubtable English centre halves spanning the ages from Billy Wright to Duncan Edwards and the great Bobby Moore himself. A relative dearth of international success since 1966 helps perpetuate the belief English football has been too insular, too obsessed by brawn rather than brain.

Evolution was and is vital to develop a generation of technically proficient players who can prevail on the biggest stage again, but its pursuit should not come at the expense of the admirable traits synonymous with the game on these shores.

England as a footballing nation may never have scaled the heights of Moore’s vintage since, but the industrious, tribal nature of our domestic product spawned many an excellent central defender during the intervening period.

Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, even the much-maligned John Terry who, whatever his perceived failings off the pitch, has been a major influence on it, were peerless at the highest level both at home and abroad. Terry’s club form warranted a place in Roy Hodgson’s latest World Cup squad but past misdemeanours rendered that an academic debate.

Yet it highlights the paucity of alternative options his Blues’ sidekick Gary Cahill and Everton’s Phil Jagielka look set to be Hodgson’s first choice central defensive pairing for the opening game this evening against Italy in Manaus. Both are solid, dependable Premier League performers but neither is in the same class as any of those predecessors.

England now exhibit vulnerability in an area that was once their greatest source of strength. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones arrived at Manchester United with big reputations, but neither inspire confidence as back-up options. The Old Trafford pair are bits and pieces players, valued at this moment in time for versatility as much as dominance in central defence.

Steven Caulker’s cause, just like that of Norwich City’s John Ruddy, was hardly helped by Premier League relegation, but the one-time Tottenham youth product exudes more of a commanding presence than either Jones or Smalling.

Such brittleness extends to full-back areas in Roy’s ranks where Glen Johnson and Leighton Baines are aggressive, attack-minded defenders who remain suspect at what should be their stock in trade.

Hodgson’s experiment with James Milner at right-back in the recent friendly against Ecuador highlighted the scarcity of his resources in Brazil.

The painful truth is the best defenders in the Premier League no longer hail from England and that stark fact could be to Hodgson’s detriment over these coming weeks.

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