In Their Defence

Many of you will remember the Scottish footballer, Alan David Hansen. He played for Partick Thistle, of course, and became known for his robust views on defending. Every Saturday evening for twenty-two years on Match of the Day, he reminded us that he was still alive by telling us how ‘shocking’ or ‘diabolical’ modern-day defenders were. Alan never quite got over his addiction to make-up, though, and, as it was plastered on in his face in ever increasing quantities, only to melt during his dissections under the TV lights, he finally faded away from view(ers) three years ago.

Some said that Alan was an ‘old-school’ defender; others called him a visionary. Still more called him other things. But the truth was plain to see. At the age of 15, Alan ran into a plate-glass panel at his local youth club, after diabolically playing volleyball instead of football, which left him with a large, shocking Vulcan-like scar on his forehead. If his response on the field was usually a calm and measured ‘elementary, captain,’ his vision of his team-mates and his own ability was almost certainly impaired from that moment on.

Alan also defended Liverpool’s goal for a while. I know that sounds like irony these days, but he actually did – usually alongside Mark Lawrenson, whom the entire nation wish had faded away long before 2014. Mark also failed to see past his own ego and so he too left distribution to the likes of Parcelforce and DHL However, very little got past these two on the football field, or opportunities to perform off it.

Alan and Mark probably were old school. They were what we used to call ‘stoppers.’ With tough-tackling protectors like Jimmy Case in front of them, they were more solid than a piece of Sam Allardyce’s chewing gum which, despite endless television replays of his masticating technique, never seems to soften.

Liverpool had phenomenal forwards in those days, from Keegan and Toshack through to Dalglish and Rush. Kevin Keegan learned half a lesson from this when turning it into a ‘we’ll score more goals than you’ strategy for Newcastle United. Unfortunately, the half that he forgot was that you had to have some kind of defence – if only in the media.

Despite Alex Ferguson turning on his side and all of Kevin’s failings being exposed, it is as though there is something of a revival of his ideas these days among the leading teams in the Premier League. ‘We are falling apart again’ may well be a humorous nod to Joy Division but there is surely little satisfaction in seeing defences being unpicked with such ease by seemingly all and sundry if they just tune-in and play down the channels or, worse, get a set-piece.

Manchester United’s attack against Arsenal on Saturday evening was awesome and how we all enjoyed commentator Darren Fletcher’s comment on BT Sport when he alluded to players also having minds of their own: ‘it’s as though the coaching manuals have been ripped up, and the players are just going for it.’

We should remember that Darren also plays for Stoke City so ‘mindless’ might be more appropriate, but that also applies to the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, who felt so bad about his appalling misplaced pass in front of goal that he pretended to be injured and accepted the inevitable punishment of having to write ‘I am a defender’ 100 times, in his own blood and with the ‘sword of Bould’ hanging, menacingly above him.

Arsenal have another German defender – Per Mertesacker – but he is so slow that he makes trains look as if they are running on time, so he wasn’t risked against United’s attacking express. United themselves are notoriously bad at defending but their goalkeeper, David de Gea, is so determined to get a big money transfer back to Spain that he still performs for the cameras. United’s defence is so bad that Jose Mourinho this week praised Luke Shaw, which is a bit like Jeremy Corbyn telling the Commons how much he admires Theresa May’s hair.

Like United, Manchester City have adopted the Kevin Keegan school of ‘attack, attack, attack and worry about the defence in your memoirs, which might make you a few quid when you pack it all in’. City’s defence is so bad that having shown how easily they could concede a goal against Huddersfield, they promptly performed the same party trick against West Ham United. Yes, West Ham United. Yes, under the expert defensive coaching of David Moyes!

None of this matters in the modern game does it? As long as, unlike Alan and Mark, defenders and goalkeepers can play the ball out from the back, in vain attempts to emulate their continental cousins, who thrash them every season in the Champions League or, at international level, every other season at FIFA or UEFA’s Luxury Hotel and Resorts programmes, then all is well.

Is there anything of use behind Nicolas Otamendi’s beard? Well, stubble. Is Vincent Kompany the new face of BUPA? Well, quite probably until he performs miracles against England next summer.

Even Tottenham have paid the price for employing Toby Alderweireld and making us all check the spelling of his name whenever we refer to his latest injury. Chelsea have at least seen through the mass of David Luiz’s hair and discovered what the rest of us knew all along: a nit.

Shocking and diabolical though it might seem, attack is no longer the best form of defence, because there is no defence. That form guide seems to have gone out of the window, along with perma-tans, mullets and afros.

About the Author

Mark Rasdall
I am a writer and football historian. My background is in information architecture and online search and all of this has come together in The Football Ground at