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Is this the best Newcastle United defence most of us can remember?

5 years ago

Just how good is this Newcastle United defence?

Some clubs have a typical way of playing. So, in general you sort of know what sort of style to expect from, say, a West Ham team, or a Spurs team. At Newcastle over the years we have come to expect harum-scarum attacking, with the crowd roaring the team up the field. And at the other end, over the years we have come to expect panicky, hoof-it-anywhere defending, with waves of tension flooding down from the stands.

Sometimes, when you have a manager who becomes influential enough, that can change. So  it used to be that you knew what sort of thing to expect from an Arsenal team – until Arsene Wenger came along and changed the whole philosophy of the club.

Rafa is changing Newcastle in a similar way. Having watched on as Newcastle have tried to keep the ball out of their own net for the last 40 or so years, I don’t think I’ve seen a better organised Newcastle United defence than the one we have now.

Which brought me to think – who have been the best defenders we’ve had over the last 40 years, and how many (if any) of today’s players would make it into, or close to, an all-time-favourite NUFC 11. Up front, and in midfield, we’ve been spoilt for choice over the years. None of the current crop would get anywhere close to most old-timer’s all-time 11. But in defence? There haven’t been the same riches to pick from.

I’ve taken 1980 as a starting point – because I can remember the players clearly since then. Before 1980 I can remember a bit, but I spent more time swinging on the crush-barriers and picking my nose, than watching the football. So, I can’t really comment on the great defenders of the 70s and before. I’ll leave it to the older-timers to sing the praises of David Craig, Irving Nattrass, Alan Kennedy, etc, etc.

Just to define terms, by ‘defence’ I’m meaning goalkeeper, full backs and centre backs.

The 1980s

Oh God – the 1980s! Apart from those two glorious seasons with King Kev, the 1980s were pretty awful for NUFC. I’ve skimmed through the lists of appearances season-by-season, looking at the defenders who turned out for us, and noting down anyone who I thought might have even the slimmest outside chance of a place in an all-time-greats 11. And I came up with – Kenny Wharton, John Anderson and Glenn Roeder. Thin gruel!

As far as good defending went, you can forget about the 1980s.

The 1990s

The 1990s epitomise the difference between attack and defence at Newcastle. The riches we enjoyed up front and in midfield over those years make you drool. In defence it wasn’t quite the same. There were good players – some great players – but a lot of profoundly ordinary players.

Going through the lists, my first draft of candidates would be: Ray Ranson, Steve Howey, Brian Kilcline, Kevin Scott, John Beresford, Pavel Srnicek, Barry Venison, Robbie Elliot, Philippe Albert, Marc Hottiger, Darren Peacock, Warren Barton, Steve Watson, Shay Given, Nicos Dabizas, Aaron Hughes, Stuart Pearce, Alessandro Pistone.

And I think you can slim that list right down pretty easily. The only 1990s defenders who would have any realistic claim would probably be: Jon Beresford, Pavel Srnicek, Barry Venison, Phillippe Albert, Warren Barton, Shay Given, and Stuart Pearce. And, I think you can take a couple more out – Pav was a great character, but he wasn’t a patch on Shay Given, Stuart Pearce in his prime would have walked into an all-time-11 – but we didn’t have him in his prime.

The 2000s

When you consider how strong Newcastle were through much of the 2000s, it is amazing how slim the defensive pickings are when you look through the appearance lists across the decade. I have to say, it makes me look with renewed respect at the achievements of Sir Bobby when you look back at some of the defenders he was having to play week-in and week-out.

My first draft for the decade is: Olivier Bernard, Jonathan Woodgate, Steven Carr, Tim Krul, Jose Enrique, Fabricio Coloccini, Ryan Taylor. And sorting out the sheep from the goats, I think I would probably knock Carr and Krul out of that list.

The 2010s

And so to the modern era. In spite of Ashley’s extreme austerity-regime, we’ve had a few canny defenders to enjoy. My first-draft would be:  Danny Simpson, Davide Santon, Matthieu Debuchy, Paul Dummett, Daryl Janmaat, Jamaal Lascelles, Chancel Mbemba, Ciaran Clark, Martin Dubravka, Florian Lejeune, Deandre Yedlin, Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar. Sifting that, I would knock out Santon and Mbemba.

So my overall shortlist looks like this:

Jon Beresford, Barry Venison, Philippe Albert, Warren Barton, Shay Given, Olivier Bernard, Jonathan Woodgate, Jose Enrique, Fabricio Coloccini, Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson, Matthieu Debuchy, Paul Dummett, Daryl Janmaat, Jamaal Lascelles, Ciaran Clark, Martin Dubravka, Florian Lejeune, Deandre Yedlin, Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar.


It’s a simple contest between Shay Given and Martin Dubravka. They’re head-and-shoulders above the other keepers I’ve seen play for us.

I’d go for Shay as first choice because he did the business for so long and never really let us down.

Dubravka has been excellent since he arrived – but he would have to be with us for a good while longer before he would knock Shay Given off my top spot (and if he keeps on playing like he is doing, how long are we going to be able to hold onto him, I wonder??).

Left back

John Beresford, Olivier Bernard, Jose Enrique, Paul Dummett.

I think there would be an argument for each of them. Probably John Beresford for me – but Paul Dummett would certainly be in with a shout.

Right back

Barry Venison, Warren Barton, Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson, Matthieu Debuchy, Daryl Janmaat, Deandre Yedlin.

(I always think of Barry Venison as a full-back – but I seem to remember him playing all over the place when he came to Newcastle, so I’ll leave him aside.)

For me right back would be Barton – but Yedlin wouldn’t be a million miles away. He isn’t the best defensively, but his pace gets him and the team out of all sorts of problems, and gives the team options going forwards.

Centre back

Philippe Albert, Jonathan Woodgate, Fabricio Coloccini, Jamaal Lascelles, Ciaran Clark, Florian Lejeune, Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar.

Looking back over the records of previous seasons just emphasises for me how strong our current selection of centre backs is. Five of that list are currently on the books. In general there is a tendency to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses – but when I look back at our centre backs over the last 40 years, I can only find three who I would say are up to the standard of the current crop.

If I had to choose top picks, my all-time back five would probably be Given in goal, with Beresford and Barton as full backs. Centre halves would be Woodgate and one other. If I could have Coloccini at his best I’d have him – otherwise probably Lascelles.

But the point overall is that so many of our best defenders are on the books at the moment. Out of the 20 names I came up with as possibles from the last 40 years, seven are in the current squad.

I’m sure there will be players I’ve missed – and it would be interesting to hear other folk’s ideas and suggestions. I’ve just tried to come up with a quick, rough-and-ready comparison of our current crop of defenders against those from previous years that I’ve seen. It seems to me that they stand up to the comparison extremely well.

As an overall unit, the only back fives I’ve seen that would stand comparison with the current one would be from the Keegan teams in the mid 90s – but even there, there was generally at least one weaker link. Barton, Beresford and Albert probably gave more going forward – but as defenders, I think our current unit is stronger.

And of course, the other key element in any defence is the manager.

I bow to no man in my reverence for King Kev – but even I wouldn’t put defensive organisation up there as one of his strongest suits. Sir Bobby was able to make a fantastically good fist of it with resources which, defensively were quite limited a lot of the time. But Rafa is a defensive maestro. He has been able to identify talents already on the books like Lascelles, bring in other talented defenders on the tightest of budgets, and organise the unit better than any other manager I’ve seen.

I wonder how some of those players might be affected as and when Rafa decides he’s had enough. They might look like a right shower without him telling them exactly what to do – and unfortunately, I expect we’ll find out the answer to that next season.  But, subject to that, for my money this is the best Newcastle United defence I’ve seen. We should enjoy it while we can.


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