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The Quarantine Selection – Centre Backs 28/05/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

How’s your lockdown going?  What I wouldn’t give for a game under the floodlights at the Vic.  Any game, obviously, in that it would mean that Stuff was Better.  But selfishly, flippantly, a night-time game at the Vic. Condensation on your breath. Hands deep in pockets. Bloody hell.

Centre Backs, then.  Commemorating 40 years watching the ‘orns, here my ten favourites over that period.  Not best, necessarily, though maybe that too, but Favourites.  As previously I’ve made executive decisions on who qualifies as a centre-back and who doesn’t.  Once again, there’s a quiz at the end.

10- Filippo Galli

9- Christian Kabasele

8- Tommie Hoban

7- Steve Sims

6- Neil Cox

Fashionable to have Galli higher up of course but whilst he was extraordinary, and it was extraordinary to have a player of his pedigree at the club even at the age of 97 and whilst he even managed to make Wayne Brown look good for a bit it was such an unlikable season that anything associated with it is tarred. Kabasele…  often a great defender, sometimes not but maturing with age.  And a top bloke.  Tommie Hoban… heartbreaking, but a cracking defender, better than his young injury-hit career had any right to leave him.  He looked like a veteran.  Simmo… proper centre half, proper tache, brute of a defender.  Neil Cox… defied being written off to captain the side through the toughest of times.  And a fine if rarely effective line in free kicks much beloved of this blog.

5- Craig Cathcart

You can’t put a price on just being in the right place at the right time.  Always. On making the whole defence look better, work better. You’re tempted to say “unflashy”, except that there’s a flash inside forward in there somewhere… a surprising array of flicks and tricks at the attacking end have peppered his Watford career, and his art is in leaving you surprised every time it happens.  He’s been pretty much a first choice ever since he (re)signed six years ago and yet you can see yourself walking past  him in the street without recognising him.  Brilliant.

4- Colin Foster

Difficult to describe if you weren’t there quite what a dramatic relief the emergency surgery applied to the squad by Glenn Roeder in early 1994 provided.  Tommy Mooney was the longest lived of those sticking plasters, Dennis Bailey burned brightly but briefly.  Keith Millen probably a more reliable defender, just because he stayed fit.  But Colin Foster was tremendous… like signing an oak tree and planting it on the penalty spot. Crosses and attackers were drawn to him and bounced off pointlessly.  When he lurched forward you he swayed ominously, nobody wanted to get too close.  If he’d stayed fit he’d have been a legend, but then he’d probably not have signed for us in the first place.

3- Marcus Gayle

Like Cox, an unlikely return to the fold after apparently being out of the door, but more so and with bells on.  Indeed, Gayle was played “out of position” twice over at Watford… a winger, never a target man in his successful career at Brentford and Wimbledon he was deployed as such by Gianluca Vialli on recruitment from Rangers with very moderate success.  Indeed, it’s difficult to reconcile that slightly awkward, clumsy season from Gayle with what came next.  From the point where he lined up to general surprise on the left side of Ray Lewington’s first central defence in the first competitive game at what is now the KP Stadium, he was magnificent.  Imperious, in fact, a strong, quick, elegant presence at centre half with Cox or Dyche alongside to nudge him in the right sort of direction;  so comprehensive was his transformation that he walked off with the Player of the Season award whilst becoming more of an attacking threat than he’d been as a number nine.

2- Adrian Mariappa

Mapps is a legend several times over.  Going way back, there’s the version who lead the Youth Team to the FA Youth Cup Quarters in 2005, leaving the pitch in tears after defeat to Spurs.  There’s the teenager who made his League debut off the bench, in central midfield in an absolute scrap at Elland Road (so long ago that BSaD was still going) with the Hornets down to nine men.  And then held his own in the top flight the next season.  There’s the version who played 113 consecutive League games.  The version who captained the side, who set a standard for the kids to follow, who was so demonstrably on another level to the rest of the side in 2012 that it was no surprise at all that he moved to the Premier League where he has played for eight seasons.  Or the version who came back to Vicarage Road, ostensibly as fifth or sixth cab off the rank only to re-establish himself, to captain the side, and to always be there to rely on if he does slip back to the bench.  A gem.

1- John McClelland

It’s difficult to do justice to the majesty of John McClelland if you didn’t see him play.  Looked like some kind of troll carved from granite, built like a wardrobe but moved like a gazelle.  Literally kept pace with the quickest strikers despite looking like even getting up a trot was a bit of an effort.  Had telescopic legs that would surgically extract balls they had no business reaching.  Stuck his arms up in the air before taking free kicks (and corners?  did he really take corners?).  Couldn’t drive, so walked or caught the bus everywhere.  Brought in to plug an appallingly leaky defence in 1984 and plugged it comprehensively for four and a half years before moving to Elland Road, where he’d play 18 times in a League title winning side at the age of 37.  Magnificent.

Another one done.  Different flavours of midfielder to come in a bit. Once more…  here’s a little quiz.  Every centre back to have appeared in competitive action for the ‘orns since the start of 1979/80…  to reiterate, I get to decide who’s a centre back and who isn’t .  Centre backs to have appeared in friendlies only are hidden bonus answers – again, can’t promise that this is exhaustive.

Centre Backs Quiz



1. Harefield Hornet - 28/05/2020

No bones with any of the above although I have to admit I always thought Maps was better suited to playing full back in his younger days, which he actually did at times? MAC was just absolute class and a top bloke! Was Pierre Isa a Centre back ? He deserves a mention for being tipped of a stretcher!

Matt Rowson - 28/05/2020

Mapps had his first proper run at right back, true. Issa, yes, a CB but doesn’t qualify for this exalted list…

2. Stuart Campbell - 28/05/2020

“built like wardrobe but moved like gazelle” – brilliant, Mr Rowson! Simultaneously brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.

3. Harefield Hornet - 28/05/2020

One glaring omission is Ian Bolton who played CB and in midfield at times. GT’s best ever signing – according to GT himself. Was he just before your time?

4. Jamie Parkins - 28/05/2020

No Jay from the USA? Interesting given that as a personality he certainly contributed both on and off the pitch.

Matt Rowson - 28/05/2020

Yes, wrestled with that a lot and on reflection not QUITE sure how I omitted him. As you say he contributed loads and developed immensely from the point where he was a willing athlete but needed someone to tell him what to do, to playing in a World Cup Finals tournament.

5. Hornets29 - 28/05/2020

Matt, thoroughly entertaining during these strange times. I happened to be the guest of some Leeds fans for our 1-6 game, which was a bit special – but the highlight of the day was meeting John McLelland who was a perfect gentleman and waxed lyrical about Graham Taylor and Watford. Ps. The Vic under lights is special!

6. James - 28/05/2020

Neither Palmer nor Page? I can only assume you’ve got Palmer in midfield… but, was he not a better centre-half?

Matt Rowson - 28/05/2020

I had Palmer I midfield yes. Thought he was great in both positions but loved his low key effectiveness in the middle. Page… great player, great captain.. but there’s only one way that players get that good at last ditch tackles. Practice.

James - 28/05/2020

Yeah good point! I’ve often said similar things about Demerit.

Also, I guess Shittu misses out because you’ve got him up front?

Matt Rowson - 28/05/2020

Ha. No, that’s not why he misses out.

7. JohnF - 29/05/2020

Totally agree about John McLelland, who I knew quite well. One of the nicest guys to play for Watford (or anyone else for that matter) and a brilliant central defender. Remember he captained “The rest of the world” team against England at Wembley. Agree also about Tommy Hoban who could have gone on to be our greatest if injury hadn’t intervened. Hopefully he will recover from his latest set-back and play again for Aberdeen. We could do with a really pacey central defender.

8. Harefield Hornet - 29/05/2020

Not related to above but how do you feel about the proposed closed Doors end to 19/20. I absolutely get all the reasons why it’s necessary and other things are more important etc etc – but it breaks my heart to think of games taking place at the Vic and not being there…….! Also – really annoyingly – Bmuff , who were on the slide, have a good few key players back from injury now so the delay may have played very nicely into Mr Smug’s hands!

Matt Rowson - 05/06/2020

I think it’s unfortunate, but then COVID is unfortunate. Least worst outcome.

9. Michael - 29/05/2020

Love this Matt – thanks as ever. No mention of Steve Terry? While can’t say he was anywhere near the top – seemed to be around for an age and the headband still conjures up fond memories of GT and great times.

Big John. Legend mind.

Matt Rowson - 05/06/2020

Steve Terry was great, but not sure he’d be in my top 10.

10. Harry Rowson - 30/05/2020

Thoroughly enjoyed this. Of course you got so much wrong. Sons always seem to do that when they leave home. Ian Bolton was very special indeed, but before your time, albeit it started very young and standing on an upturned rectangular, green Addis bucket amongst the ‘men’. I suspect some of your omissions were to enable the inclusion of the entertaining Galli but I’ll forgive you that.
You will recall when your brother, Will, and I spotted John McLelland in B&Q in Leeds. He was so chuffed that he’d been recognised by Watford supporters and chatted warmly for a while about the old days. Then he popped into our box when we were away at Leeds. A Hornet. No finer accolade.
Great fun, and as you always remind me, so many players to recall with a less than acute memory.

Matt Rowson - 30/05/2020

😊 case in point… McClelland not McLelland. Though you weren’t the first to make that mistake.

JohnF - 31/05/2020

I made the same mistake too. It’s a fact of age and small writing, an excuse I’m sticking to and your Dad is welcome to join me.

11. Old Git - 04/06/2020

We know Galli was an exceptional player but at less than 30 league appearances, can he really qualify at the expense of many others? I note that Jay Demerit, Ian Bolton and Robert Page have been mentioned in responses to your choices and your dad’s thoughts on the pre-Matt days could easily have included Sam Ellis and Alan Garner. For me, Simmo ranks way higher than 7 and don’t forget that he was often kept out of the team by Steve Terry who played with the centre-half’s Badge of Honour, the protective headband and who certainly deserves a mention.
But Matt, there is another baffling omission. I quote from BSaD .’The fondness with which Keith Dublin is remembered, the way that fans still tell tales of remarkable own goals, insanely cavalier defending and sporadic heroism with broad smiles and genuine affection, demonstrates that perfection isn’t the be-all and end-all for supporters.’

Matt Rowson - 05/06/2020

I refer the honourable gentleman to the many disclaimers. Favourites. Mine. Not necessarily “best”. Galli maybe a generous choice but he WAS wonderful, and I’ve kind of always felt bad for failing to recognise him and therefore properly appreciate him coming up and saying hello to me at some dinner that season. He walked away looking slightly abashed at my vagueness and I realised who it was. I’m sure he’s got over it…

12. Old Git - 05/06/2020

Ah yes, disclaimers. Spoken like a government adviser. You are just protecting yourself from the inevitable criticism you will get, should you omit Harry Willis from your list of favourite midfielders…

13. robpayne79 - 23/11/2022

Ever since you mentioned a few reports ago it was an Bsad/ bHAPPY anniversary I’ve been slowly working my way back through the site and catching up on bits I missed and reliving some wonderful memories. I’ve just got to the Covid bit, which I admit I totally missed first time around, so great to read. I have to say though, where on earth is David Holdsworth? Great pace, ridiculous heading practice before every game where he would stand on the bye line and head it to the halfway line repeatedly! He was class in a team that mostly shipped loads of goals, but he was still just brilliant, and form the youth team. I was just to young for Sims, but surely the Tache can make way for Holdsworth? And surely, surely Robert Page has to find a place in there doesn’t he? Galli? One season?! I think the lock down might have gotten to you! Anyway, having a lovely time reading through this incredible work that you have produced week in week out for years. You really should publish a best of.

Matt Rowson - 23/11/2022

Thanks Rob. This was a long time ago – I had to read read. The emphasis was on “favourites” rather than best, but since you asked… Holdsworth for me was great alongside a senior partner who told him what to do (eg Roeder). See also, in particular Wayne Brown (with vs without Galli) and to a lesser extent Jay Demerit (Cox/Dyche). Rob Page was great and a great captain, but I’ve always felt that you only become an expert in saving tackles if you’ve had practice, ie positioning suspect? Anyway, they were my flaky decisions in the middle of a pandemic and I stand by them….

robpayne79 - 24/11/2022

Haha! Well quite right, I would put DH in my favourites as I was at an impressionable age. Great pint about defenders that rely on last minute tackles, I totally agree and it’s why I don’t put John Terry in the same league as Rio Ferdinand, I think Page would still make my favourites though as Captain of my favourite ever team! Weirdly Keith Dublin would be close to my favourites as well… Anyway apologies in advance if I send more comments from back in time over the coming weeks!

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