My best Blues eleven – defence

My best eleven from over forty years of supporting Blues, moving on to four at the back.

Right back

David Langan

David Langan 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, a trick we’d repeat 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 whole kit and caboodle …

Best Blues eleven

Lined-up in a 4-3-3 to fit the talent in, the best I’ve seen from over forty years of watching Birmingham City

2 thoughts on “My best Blues eleven – defence

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