My best Blues’ eleven

The last line of defence

One of the most difficult decisions as Blues have been blessed with great goalkeepers throughout the years, starting, before my time, with England internationals Hibbs and Merrick. Poor Gil, forever remembered as the keeper who let in 13 in two games against the Hungarians in the fifties.

A few clunkers – Greimink and Gosney spring to mind – but, generally keepers have been of a high standard, think Butland, Bennett, Vaesen, Taylor, Montgomery, Thomas, the underrated Wealands, Coton, the list goes on.

In the end, it came down to three. Two only played one season, Joe Hart and Ben Foster, but, boy, were they good seasons and, of course, Foster has the added bonus of being a winner on that never to be forgotten day at Wembley 2011.

“Finally, I plumped for someone I didn’t actually see that much of.”

Finally, I plumped for someone I didn’t actually see that much of. 1982 – 1986 I was away at college and only got to St Andrew’s during Christmas and Easter holidays. This was mainly Ron Saunders’ days and for the last couple of years the main custodian, after Saunders had fallen out with Welands, was England’s second-highest capped goalkeeper, David Seaman.

It could well be argued that like Montgomery before him, Seaman best work came away from St Andrews, but, especially for one season, 1984-85, when we were promoted from the old Division Two to the top flight, Seaman was nothing short of miraculous. It was this season that bought Seaman to the attention of the wider world of football after his earlier false start at his boyhood club, Leeds United.

Seaman had cost a mere £100,000 from Peterborough. Money well spent, even for an increasingly impoverished Blues, as, pre-ponytailed but already ‘tached, Seaman’s goalkeeping, along with the goals of Clarke and Geddis, secured promotion for Blues to the top flight for the last time until Steve Bruce and another great day at Wembley in 2002.

David Seaman is the best goalkeeper I’ve seen play for Birmingham City.

Four at the back

Right back

David Langan

David Langan (@davylangan) is the stand-out right-back of my time watching Blues.

The best right-back Blues have ever had came before my time, in the person of the tragic Jeff Hall. Hall succumbed to polio at the height of his career in 1959 when he was a many capped and current England international. This was in the days before vaccination against the disease. Indeed, his death did much to bring vaccination into the fledgling vaccination programme.

“Maxime Colin is a good comparison, but Langan was better.”

In my time, most right-backs have often been solid journeymen types – I’m thinking Jimmy Calderwood as a prime example – with odd flashes of class, Poole, Rowett, Colin.

When Blues got promoted back to the First Division in 1980, Langan was Jim Smith’s only addition to the squad, replacing Kevan Broadhurst in the first XI. A good defender, Langan’s main attribute, though, was his ability to get forward and get the ball into the box from wide positions, supplementing the work of Alan Ainscow on the right-hand side. Maxime Colin is a good comparison, but Langan was better.

Langan survived the change in manager from Smith to Saunders but was deemed surplus to requirements by tough old unsentimental Ron after a bad knee injury. Langan had the last laugh, linking up again with Smith, this time at Oxford United, to play again regularly in the top division and win the League Cup in the process – a good feeling as we all know.

Centre halves

Matthew Upson

With seven appearances, Matt Upson is the most capped Blues player of the 21st century.

There have only been three others – pub quiz question answers in the comments below, please. Four doesn’t seem much, but you need to put it into the context that before the turn of the century you had to go back to 1978 and Trevor as the last England capped Blues’ player.

“…. strong and dominant centre-back who could play a bit too”

113 games over a four-year period was a good return for the strong and dominant centre-back who could play a bit too. It would have been more but for an injury in a season when we were relegated from the Premier League. We repeated this trick in 2011 when Scott Dann’s injury was a major contributory factor in our demise, leaving Roger Johnson running round like a headless chicken, a bit like Harlee Dean under Clotet and Karanka.

Upson beat off competition from the likes of Joe Gallagher, Kenny Cunningham, Roger Hynd, Noel Blake and Vince Overson to claim one of the centre back slots in my best Blues eleven.

Colin Todd

No contest. Todd was not only the best Blues defender I’ve seen play, he’s the best English defender I’ve ever seen. High praise, but Todd’s worth it. Like Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer, Todd glided across the surface and his ultimate skill was in his reading of the game, always effortlessly in the right place at the right time to snuff out danger before it arose.

In the mid-seventies, all the talk was about how good Roy McFarland, Todd’s central defending partner at Derby, was. McFarland was ok, but he was made to look better than he was by playing alongside Todd.

Some funny things happened during the seventies when it came to England selection, particularly when Mr Carpet Bowls himself, Don Revie, was in charge. That was the only Bowl(e)s that was getting a regular outing for Revie’s crappy, disjointed England sides, Stanley, along with Charlie and Frank fell foul of the distrust of temperamental flair that the former Leeds manager had inherited from his predecessor, Sir h’Alf, a trait which would dog England for years.

“I still dream of Colin Todd playing football in that classic Blues Adidas strip”

In a similarly bizarre move, we saw the two outstanding central defenders of the day, Todd and Kevin Beattie, shunted out to the full-back positions, while more workmanlike defenders like McFarland and Phil Thomson got the nod. Might have been their inability to get rid, as Todd liked to play his way out of defence, very much verboten in England in the mid-seventies, despite the winning template of Moore in the previous decade. Like I say, bizarre.

I was already a big fan of Todd, so I was delighted when he joined Jim Smith’s side which had been revamped using the famous million quid for Trevor. Strangely, he had to wait to play at centre back, mainly alongside Joe Gallagher, as the form of be-permed former midfielder Tony Towers kept him at right-back for a few games. But class will out, and Todd oozed class, along with calm and experience as we gained promotion. He then went on to show that he could still do it, no bother, back in the top flight.

I still dream of Colin Todd playing football in that classic Blues Adidas strip of the late seventies/early eighties.

Left back

Mark Dennis

There’s been a line of bordering-on-the-psychopathic left-backs in my time with Blues – Van den Hauwe, Dicks, Grainger. There was also a notorious team of hard men under Ron Saunders – Coton, Blake, Hopkins, Harford, Van den Hauwe, again – many pictured with black eyes in a famous pre-season team shot where it had all got a bit tasty out on the town the night before. But one man stood out even among these tough guys – Mark Dennis.

Dennis had come up through the ranks, part of a London contingent at the time, along with Van den Hauwe, who although born in Belgium, didn’t ‘speak no Belgian’.

Dennis made his debut in slightly bizarre, but very Blues, circumstances. Travelling with the first team for experience aged 17, he found himself thrust into the action on the wrong side of the pitch as a right-back when Jimmy Calderwood slipped in the shower before the game and did himself a mischief.

Dennis turned out 130 odd times for Blues, part of Jim Smith’s 1980 promotion-winning team and player of the year the previous season. He also almost clocked up a ton of appearances at Southampton, where he was in a team that finished as First Division runners-up.

“Players were scared of Mark Dennis. I was scared of Mark Dennis and he was on my side and I didn’t have to play against him.”

But the stat that defines Mark Dennis was that in just over 250 senior games he was sent off 12 times. Some going, including a unique record of being sent off home and away against Wolves in the same season.

A description of him I found of having a “no-nonsense attitude and tough tackling” is woefully inadequate, makes him seem like Robbie Savage. When the red mist descended there was no stopping him. That home dismissal against Wolves typified the original ‘Psycho’. Wolves winger, going about his business on the touchline, no harm to anyone, Mark twenty yards infield starts charging at him and you knew this was only ending up one way – Old Gold in the perimeter hoardings.

But he could play. Never seen a full back who was better at crossing a ball, a positive boon for Harford who would arrive back stick, Jukey like, to take everything, man, ball, into the net.Great at beating his opposition full-back, mainly knock it past him and then running hell for leather, to get into those crossing positions. A modern type wing-back before we’d even heard the phrase. And, by fair means or foul, not much got past Mark Dennis at the other end of the pitch.

A measly couple of under-21 caps to his name. Of course, his England career was held up by his disciplinary record, but, believe me, he was better than Kenny Samson who ended up playing 86 times for his country.

Mark Dennis left an indelible mark on my younger self and on many an opposition forward. Players were scared of Mark Dennis. I was scared of Mark Dennis and he was on my side and I didn’t have to play against him.

The engine room

Howard Kendall

The best uncapped midfielder in the country, they said of Howard Kendall – and they were right.

Boy wonder, Kendall was the youngest player to appear in a Cup Final when he turned out for Preston against West Ham in ’64 at the age of 17 years and 345 days.

But he was most famed for his part in the legendary Everton midfield, along with Alan Ball and Colin Harvey, that saw the Toffeemen (there’s only one Blues for me) win the First Division in 1970. That gave Kendall a sniff of a place in the Mexico World Cup squad of the same year, but it wasn’t to be.

Kendall was double-feted on the blue side of Merseyside. Following his exploits as a player at Goodison Park, Kendall, as boss this time, managed to wrestle the limelight from the juggernaut that was Liverpool Football Club in the late seventies and early eighties with multiple league and cup wins, only to denied his rightful place in Europe by the ban on English clubs after the Heysel tragedy.

Kendall had a tough gig at Blues. He’d arrived as part of a British record swap deal involving local boy made good Bob Latchford going to Everton in return for Kendall, left-back Archie Styles and some cash, a deal worth £350,000 – big money in those days.

Blues fans rightly bemoaned the sale of our best young talent, it had happened before and would happen many times again, but Freddie Goodwin had to do something to arrest the slide back into Division Two. Reckoning that he needed some leadership and someone to take charge of the midfield, and knowing that he had a ready-made replacement for Latchford at the club, in the form of the ultra-versatile Kenny Burns, Goodwin withstood the brickbats and did the deal. And it worked, as Kendall steered the ship to safety.

“But like all players of that era, Kendall’s Blues’ career was blighted by the failure in the Cup Semi-Final of 1975 against Fulham.”

But like all players of that era, Kendall’s Blues’ career was blighted by the failure in the Cup Semi-Final of 1975 against Fulham.

Fulham was the draw that everyone wanted, the only Second Division team left in the competition, and Blues, playing well in the lead up to the game, got them. Then Goodwin changed the team on the day, they didn’t turn up and scraped a 1-1 draw. The replay at Maine Road, Manchester saw us batter the opposition, but the ball would not go in until the last minute of extra time when the crappiest, scrappiest goal you’ll ever see saw Fulham through.

That semi-final was the biggest what-if of many during my time watching Blues. If they’d won the Cup that year, they’d have been in Europe, they’d have had money in the bank, their name would have meant something more and they’d have actually won the Cup, having been runners-up in ‘31 and ‘57’. We’d have to wait until 2011 for a major cup win at Wembley.

Instead, Kendall, as captain, presided over regular relegation battles as the heart was ripped out of the club by that defeat. But throughout Kendall exuded class, energy and tenacity allied with a great passing range.

Howard Kendall was the best uncapped midfielder I saw down the Blues.

Barry Ferguson

Barry Ferguson was very good and he knew it. Playmaker, runner of shows, Ferguson had an arrogance about him. Not the captain, that was Stephen Carr, but he was a leader in a team blessed with strong personalities which allowed the Blues to compete in the Premier League achieving their best top-flight finish since the fifties.

Ferguson arrived under a cloud ‘at St Andrews. Some off-field shenanigans saw him banished from his native Scotland, but Rangers’ loss was Blues’ gain as the mix of superb passing and movement along with a wee bit of nastiness drove us on to an unbeaten run of twelve in the Prem and that magical day at Wembley in 2011.

“… one of the best I’ve ever seen Blues score”

Two moments epitomised Ferguson at Blues. Check out the Cup match away to Everton, Ferguson’s part in Chucho’s opener is sublime, but even that’s topped by his goal – one of the best I’ve ever seen Blues score.

And then his reaction after Obafemi Martins puts the ball in the Arsenal net. Not content to just enjoy the moment, Ferguson chooses to rub it in by slapping Koscielny, who has been part of the calamitous mistake that has just handed us the Cup on a plate, on the back of the head as he runs past with the mob scene of his teammates.

Of course, it all ended in tears as we were painfully and incomprehensibly relegated at the end of the season and Ferguson was out of the door to Blackpool as costs were dramatically cut. But for a couple of seasons, Ferguson ran the show down the Blues as they enjoyed easily their best period of the 21st century.

Archie Gemmill

There was a term that was used to describe midfielders, mainly on the pre-Panini stickers and gum cards of my childhood, that is no longer used but sums up Archie Gemmill perfectly – bustling. Nowadays, midfielders are more elegant, but Archie was all action, non-stop, ratting around, raring to go and feisty. That’s not to say that he was without skill, anyone of my vintage will remember his goal against Holland in the ‘78 World Cup as one of the best they’ve ever seen.

When Archie fell out with Cloughie about European Cup Final selection, the Bald Eagle, Jim Smith, saw his chance to get the leader he needed for the Second Division promotion push. Smith duly gave Clough back some of the money he gave him for Trevor to secure his captain.

Like Colin Todd, and maybe even Frank Worthington, Gemmill came to Blues just past his prime. But that’s always been the way, top-notch players tend to be at St Andrew’s before and after they were at their best.

“But the following season Archie, and indeed Blues, ran out of steam”

Nevertheless, Gemmill did his job and in some style, as the revamped team made their way back to the First Division, led by the Scotsman driving them on from the middle of the park.

Archie held his own in the first season back as the Blues finished a respectable 13th, playing some pretty entertaining stuff as they went. But the following season Archie, and indeed Blues, ran out of steam, as Smith’s veterans all seemed to go over the top at the same time, resulting in the manager losing his job in dubious circumstances to tough old Ron Saunders. Saunders soon shipped Archie off across the Atlantic to Jacksonville Tea Men.

The forwards, the entertainers

Christophe Dugarry

Du, du, Dugarry. My God, Le God, a French World Cup winner in Small Heath. Of course, not the first World Cup winner to play for Blues – step forward the tempestuous and hugely unsuccessful Alberto Tarantini.  

Tarantini had entertainment value, but mainly off the pitch as he prototyped Cantona by wading into the crowd to take issue with a fan who had expressed his misgivings about the curly-haired one’s contribution. and commitment to the cause.  

Dugarry was different. It was short but ever so sweet. Probably the best condensed period of quality, just a few months at the end of the 2002/03 season, 16 games in total, that I’ve seen, and an individual performance against Southampton that was the best I’ve witnessed by a Blues player. Almost lost in that halcyon period was a goal against Middlesbrough that ranks up amongst the best.  

How Brucie managed to persuade Dugarry to spend the winter in Small Heath is still a mystery, as Blues languished in 15th place in the Prem and were decidedly looking over their shoulders at the bottom three. Let’s not question miracles though. 

It would be unfair on the contribution of others who joined during that window, Clapham, Upson and Clemence, to say that Dugarry single-handedly saved us, but he certainly galvanised the whole team, including those already at the club, to finish 13th, well clear of any trouble.  

“And he was the absolute master of the Gallic shrug. When he wasn’t running the game, he was refereeing it, quick to point out to the man in black how his performance could be improved and what decision he should be making next.”

For one month, April, Dugarry was outstanding, unplayable, scoring in four consecutive games; against Sunderland, an incredible flicked effort away at Charlton, two in that game against Southampton, and a Frankie Funtime Worthington-esque effort against Middlesbrough. It was a privilege to see this kind of quality at St Andrew’s. Generally, we’ve been a team of grafters, so this kind of icing on top of the cake was to be savoured and forever remembered.  

And he was the absolute master of the Gallic shrug. When he wasn’t running the game, he was refereeing it, quick to point out to the man in black how his performance could be improved and what decision he should be making next. Goal celebrations were equally continental, with blown kisses lapped up by the hard-working Brummies who’d never loved a man so much.  

It couldn’t last. A whack on the knee early in the next season after he joined the club permanently put him out of sorts and he gradually lost interest as his thoughts turned back to the vineyards of his homeland, but it had been the most delicious dream while it lasted. 

Trevor Francis

I have a confession to make. When I first started watching Blues, in 1973 at the age of 10, my favourite player wasn’t Trevor. That feels almost sacrilegious.   

My favourite player was Kenny Burns, Scottish, irascible, dirty, powerful, gap-toothed and versatile. Burns won England’s Player of the Year while at Forest as a central defender, played midfield for Scotland, and bagged twenty goals in one season playing upfront with Trevor for Blues. Four goals in a game at home to Derby, three on a frozen pitch at Filbert Street in front of the Match of the Day cameras (you can catch a glimpse of my twelve-year-old self jumping up as one of the goals goes in) which won him a TR7 donated by a local car dealer to any player who scored the sixth goal for Blues in any game. Kenny may or may not have kept the car to himself, rather than share it with his teammates who helped him achieve the feet. There was much for an impressionable teenager to like about Kenny Burns.  

But this list is about the best, not favourite, players. Was Trevor the best player to play for Blues? I can only pass judgment on those I saw play, so Bradford, Merrick, Hibbs, Hall et al don’t come into the equation, but Trevor was the best player I saw play for Blues.  

A turn reminiscent of Cruyff, blistering pace to get away from defenders on to the ball over the top, particularly before the first Achilles injury, a snapshot with minimum backlift, a dribble and finish to leave Frank McLintock on his backside and Phil Parkes groping at thin air, a team player, a prodigy, scoring four in a game at 16. For the best part of a decade, whether we were doing well or otherwise, the main tactic was give it to Trev.  

“Trevor was the best player I’ve seen down St. Andrew’s.”

It was a source of immense pride when Trevor became Blues first England capped player in decades when he played against Holland in 1978. It was a source of tears when we knew, after a few false starts, that he had to leave the club to achieve his ambitions. It was as much the realisation that we weren’t good enough for him as that we wouldn’t see him in a Royal Blue shirt again.  

He went on to achieve those ambitions, with Forest after that famous first million-pound transfer and playing at a World Cup with England, but Blues was where his heart always lay, shown by his return as manager where he and we kept falling frustratingly short, repeatedly blowing it in a series of ‘typical Blues’ ways in the playoffs, before handing over the reins to Brucie to do it at the first attempt.  

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that for sheer talent Trevor is the best player I’ve seen down St. Andrew’s. 

Frank Worthington

Elvis impersonating, fun-time Frankie. The great entertainer, Worthington had already had a colourful career with Huddersfield, Leicester and Bolton before joining Blues. There had also been an aborted move to Liverpool when the medical was failed due to a heart problem. Rumours always abounded that the blood pressure difficulty was a temporary state of affairs brought on by excess in a club the night before the test.  

Frank was another of those skilled, flamboyant mid-seventies players so distrusted by England managers of the period. Eight caps in total.  

Delightfully, Worthington’s flamboyance off the pitch was matched by his performances on it. Worthington’s game was built around a great first touch which allowed him the time and space to do his thing, which included ball juggling and a great left-foot shot. All of this came together in one famous goal for Bolton against Ipswich. So famous and great is the goal that if you start typing Frank’s name into Google, an autocomplete of “Frank Worthington goal’ comes up, and that is the Ipswich goal.  Go see if you want to know what a baller looked like in the seventies.

In the days before regimented warm-ups, where the players just had a kick-in, we used to turn up early just to see Frank play keepie-uppie. Often this would be the main entertainment of the day. The difference with today’s freestylers was that Frank could take it on to the field and use it as an effective tactic, and all with some hairy hatchet man hacking away at him from behind.  

Frank spearheaded the push for promotion in 1979/80, dovetailing well with the more straightforward, hard-working Keith Bertschin, until Jim Smith got a touch of the Don Revie’s and left him out of the crucial last game of the season against Notts County, distrusting Frankie when push came to shove and replacing him with the more solid citizenship of Don Givens.  

“While it lasted, it was certainly a fun time with Frankie. “

Frank was good in our first season back in the top flight grabbing 18 goals. The following season he was again paired with his old sparring partner at Bolton, Neil Whatmore, but the magic wasn’t to be repeated.   

When Sgt Major Saunders replaced Smith, the writing was on the wall for Frank. Stating the obvious, Frank was not a Saunders’ kind of player or person. He was soon swapped with Leeds for Byron Stevenson and the more Saunders’ friendly, but almost equally good, Mick Harford was bought.  

While it lasted, it was certainly a fun time with Frankie. 

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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