It is often commonplace in football that attackers are the ones to grab all of the headlines. As the beautiful game is one that is won and lost by goals, it figures that the ones who score those most often are held in the highest esteem. This can leave defenders as the unsung heroes, however, this week we charged our writers with paying homage to their choice for the greatest defender of all time.
Liam Togher – Paul McGrath
When the Republic of Ireland played Italy at the 1994 World Cup, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta all featured, but these glittering defenders were outshone by the herculean Paul McGrath at the other end. Whatever Roberto Baggio and Giuseppe Signori threw at Ireland that afternoon at the Giants Stadium, McGrath repelled it heroically, bringing a steady assurance to the Irish backline as they pulled off a shock 1-0 victory.
It was the zenith of what had already been an impressive career from the Irishman, a winner of the FA Cup with Manchester United in 1985 and PFA Player of the Year in the Premier League’s first season with Aston Villa. Teammates often spoke of how he made the art of defending look so simple – indeed, while Liverpool fans like me often champion Virgil van Dijk as being “calm as you like“, the same praise could be directed at the peerless McGrath.
What made his brilliance on the pitch all the more remarkable was his troubled life away from football. Sadly, the Irishman battled heavy alcoholism and depression during his career, the former contributing to his exit from Old Trafford under Alex Ferguson. Those sensitive issues were broached in his hard-hitting, critically acclaimed autobiography Back From The Brink.
Whatever troubles McGrath endured off the field, he was a lion and a Rolls-Royce on it. To this day, nearly 25 years after his retirement, many Irish fans still rejoice ‘ooh, ah, Paul McGrath’ – and with very good reason.
Rodney McCain – Denis Irwin
I’ve been watching English football for over 43 years now; I’ve seen a lot of central defenders and full-backs. Yet ask me to name the best overall player I’ve ever seen in one of the traditional back-four positions, and I don’t even need to pause. His name is Denis Irwin.
Irwin first came to prominence as a full-back at Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic, helping the Latics to reach both the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final in 1990. It was perhaps those performances in that replayed cup semi-final against Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United that finally persuaded the legendary Scot to sign the quiet Irishman that summer. Irwin cost £625,000. It remains, in my opinion, without a shadow of a doubt the greatest steal of recent times.
In the twelve seasons that followed, Denis Irwin became the most versatile, most reliable full-back in modern English football history, a model professional. The fact that the Cork man was equally adept at either right-back or left-back simply underscored his incredible value to Ferguson as the United boss built a couple of title-winning squads during the last decade of the century. Both versions featured Irwin prominently, usually at left-back.
However, to simply label Denis a left-back would be to do the man a great disservice. Not only was the little Irishman a sensational defender, a strong, assured tackler with a deceptive turn of pace, but he became much, much more than that. At United, and despite the presence of players with huge goalscoring reputations like Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and Ryan Giggs, Irwin took more than his share of free-kicks and penalties, becoming a feared expert at dead-ball situations. He also popped up with some sensational goals, most notably a screamer from an Eric Cantona pass at Old Trafford against Tottenham Hotspur in 1993. He scored a total of 22 goals from the full-back position for United.
Capped 56 times by the Republic of Ireland and appearing at the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States, Denis made 368 appearances for Manchester United before finishing his career with a couple of seasons at Wolves. His final haul of winners’ medals reads: seven Premier League titles; two FA Cups; a League Cup; the European Cup-Winners’ Cup; and, of course, the UEFA Champions League in 1999. Not too shabby for £625,000.
Denis Irwin remains the most complete full-back I’ve seen.
Chris Darwen – Bobby Moore, OBE
Had Malcolm Allison not seen something in young Robert Moore in and around 1956, there is every chance someone else would have been climbing the steps at Wembley a decade later, wiping his hands on the cloth before shaking hands with the Queen and lifting the Jules Rimet trophy aloft.
Allison was in the minority at West Ham in claiming Moore had something other players didn’t have – in fact, he forced the point so hard that when Bobby made his senior debut for the Hammers it was in his mentor’s number 6 jersey, spelling the beginning of the end for Allison at the Boleyn.
Moore quickly became a regular for West Ham, standing out as a completely different type of defender to the norm of the time – slow, not particularly strong, average in the air at best, Bobby was the complete anti-centre-half. Yet, his innate ability to read the game and his vision on the ball was clear to see.
Walter Winterbottom called Bobby up to the England squad for the 1962 World Cup in Chile, a tournament in which he played every game – great preparation for what happened four years later in London.
Within a year, he captained his country and Alf Ramsey made him permanent skipper when taking on the role of manager in 1964.
We all know about 1966, the iconic images of Moore knocking the ball to Hurst in extra-time before his West Ham teammate scored that hat-trick, lifting the trophy and the scenes afterwards.
However, for me, it was 1970 that stood Moore out as one of the greatest players, not just defenders, to have played this wonderful game.
His battles with Pele in Mexico, coming after the whole Bogota debacle where Bobby was falsely accused of stealing a bracelet, are images that will live on until football finally dies. ‘That tackle by Moore’ forever immortalised in Baddiel and Skinner’s Three Lions, decades later.
And if Pele reckons Bobby Moore was the best defender he played against then that’s enough for me to have him on this list.
Graham Hollingworth – Sami Hyypiä
It’s safe to say there wasn’t much hype when Sami Hyypiä transferred to Liverpool back in 1999. However, he quickly settled into the side, forming an effective partnership with Stéphane Henchoz.
2001 was a stand-out year for the Fin, as Liverpool under Gérard Houllier lifted the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup. Sharing the captaincy with Robbie Fowler Hyypiä was a rock at the back as the Reds lifted trophy after trophy, being both strong in the air and in the tackle.
His collaboration with Jamie Carragher under Rafael Benítez yielded more success, most notably the 2005 Champions League. Given the clear inferiority of the Liverpool players compared with the world-class-in-every-position AC Milan side, you wouldn’t have blamed him for losing his head, especially being 3-0 down at half-time. However, he kept his composure, and was instrumental in keeping Milan at bay as Liverpool performed the greatest comeback of all time.
He would add a second FA Cup to his collection the following season, in another eventful 3-3 final, which also saw him miss in the shootout. Thankfully it wasn’t his job to score the goals, even though his aerial threat at corners and set pieces saw him hit the back of the net 22 times in 317 appearances.
What the current Liverpool side would give to have his calming presence at the back right now. Other than maybe Virgil Van Dijk, Hyypiä is the greatest defender have had in the last 25 years, and without doubt an all-time Premier League great.
Andrew Haines – Franz Beckenbauer
Having opted for Manuel Neuer as my greatest goalkeeper of all time in a previous edition of The Football Pink’s Greatest…, I’m starting to see a German theme emerging. Perhaps that is down to the fact that I first fell in love with football, so to speak, during the summer of 2006.
However, my choice for the greatest defender of all time had long since retired when the Germans hosted the World Cup that summer.
By the time I was born, Beckenbauer’s managerial career had even come to a close, yet his ability is undeniable and for me, it is enough to make him the all-time great.
His nickname of der Kaiser (the Emperor) alone is worthy of respect, but the playing style for which he earned his nickname is the true source of his legend status.
Having started out as a midfielder and standing under six-foot-tall, the odds may not have been in Beckenbauer’s favour to be a world-class defender, yet his ability aided him in forging the play style of a ‘sweeper’.
At club level, he won the Bundesliga title four times with Bayern Munich and once with Hamburger. He won four DFB-Pokals with Bayern, as well as back-to-back-to-back European Cups. In the USA, he claimed three NASL titles and on the international stage delivered the World Cup in ’74 and Euros in ’72 with West Germany.
The German picked up two Ballon d’Or awards during that time – making him the only defender in history to win it more than once.
Beckenbauer’s list of accomplishments and titles goes on, with a similar but less prolific pattern following into his managerial career.
While my appreciation of the now-75-year-old former centre-back is with hindsight alone, Beckenbauer led Germany’s bid for the tournament in 2006 where my appreciation of the beautiful game all began.