Football's most iconic centre-backs

Football's most iconic centre-backs

With Virgil van Dijk gracing the cover of the April 2019 issue as he led Liverpool’s title charge, FourFourTwo listed football’s most iconic centre-backs. Including…

DAVE CHALLINOR

The legacy: The long throw as a key component of set-piece armoury, pinning opponents back into their goalmouths like terrified medieval serfs in a blazing sacked church.

Defining moment: Barring those oddballs who loaf about in goal, most footballers are best remembered for what they do with their lower limbs. Not so Challinor. The Tranmere captain became renowned in the 1990s for his piercing long throws as the second-tier Merseysiders enjoyed lengthy cup runs under John Aldridge. Imagine Rory Delap to a Lightning Seeds soundtrack.

It was a somewhat reductive stereotype: the Chester-born centre-back was no mean player, and Tranmere had a variety of other weaponry, from the midfield guile of Kenny Irons through the wing wizardry of Johnny Morrissey to the narky nous of Aldo himself up front. But sometimes we play up to labels, and his coronation as Lord Longthrow came in a 1998 Guinness Book Of Records challenge at Prenton Park, where he set a world record of 152 feet (over 50 yards).  

And finally: After Challinor moved on to Stockport County, a poorly-judged tackle on Martin Pringle gave the Grimsby striker a double leg-fracture. The referee deemed it a yellow-card offence, but Challinor was fined a fortnight’s wages by his manager, the renowned aesthete Carlton Palmer.

PEPE

The legacy: The 21st-century revival of the centre-back as narky blurt and wind-up merchant.

Defining moment: The Ordem do Merito (Order of Merit) is a Portuguese honorific title given to those whose actions reveal self-sacrifice in the service of the community. You can see why one has been given to Kepler Laveran de Lima Ferreira – Pepe to his friends and enemies, although the latter group might suggest the title be changed to Casa do Merda. The richly-decorated centre-back has won five league titles, seven domestic cups, three Champions Leagues, three intercontinental titles and a Euros via a sworn dedication to the ancient defensive art of shithousery.

There have been big incidents – storming into the referee’s dressing-room to call him a “rip-off motherf***er”, or the 10-match ban for the 2009 assault on Getafe’s Javier Casquero (two kicks, one to the lower back, plus a few stamps and a swing at Juan Angel Albin’s face for good measure) – but Pepe’s throwback genius is the constant needling of opponents, and exaggerated reaction when they retaliate, the better for his team-mates to prosper. If football is a pantomime, Pepe is the arch villain we love to boo.

And finally: A Google search of “Pepe shithouse” returns over 17,000 results.

BRIAN KILCLINE

The legacy: The big man at the back who you’d want on your side in a pub car-park brawl.

Defining moment: Looking like an extra out of Braveheart, even though it came out very late in his career and more importantly he was a Nottingham-born England U21 international, Brian Kilcline was the very epitome of untamed manliness in a pre-Premier League age of humbler men playing simpler football. Nicknamed Killer by his adoring and slightly fearful fans, the 6ft 4in centre-back sported long shaggy hair and a blond moustache that was later embellished with handlebars and chin-strip.

In truth he was more deterrent than deathly, although Gary Mabbutt might not agree after a challenge late in the 1987 FA Cup Final which made ref Neil Midgeley ask “What the effing hell was that?”. Off the field he was best labelled unorthodox: he lived on a narrowboat (but a tall one) - “I had a game of chess against Andy Mutch there once” – but he was a leader of men. He was the first man brought to St James’ Park by Kevin Keegan, who later called him “the best signing I ever made for Newcastle United.”

And finally: Kilcline was once booked because, according to the referee’s report, he “went over to the linesman and called him an egg.”

GERARD PIQUE

The legacy: The very model of a modern major generalissimo: the ball-caressing centre-back who can play a bit too, you know.

Defining moment: Strange to think now that when Gerard Pique returned to Barcelona in 2008, it was seen by some as a retreat. He had spent four years at Manchester United, freshly crowned kings of Europe, but couldn’t dislodge Fergie’s final great centre-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and returned to his hometown under experimental new boss Pep Guardiola.

Pique had started in Barça’s youth squadrons as a defensive midfielder and was never merely a stopper, often setting the tempo with his assured distribution and contribution all over the pitch. An early but evocative example came late in the May 2009 Clasico at the Bernabeu; thundering out of defence into the centre circle, Pique fed Leo Messi and kept going, eventually turning in Samuel Eto’o’s cross at the back stick to make it 6-2 at the home of the hated rivals. Barça were on their way to a treble (which they’d complete against his old United mates), and Pique was en route to Catalan immortality.

And finally: His better half Shakira – precisely ten years his elder, and now the mother of his two children – detailed her desire for the defender in her song  Me Enamoré [I Fell In Love]: “I thought, ‘He’s still a boy, but what am I to do?... What a reddish mouth; I like that little beard.”

Originally published by FourFourTwo, March 6th 2019

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