What has become of the great Scottish centre back?



In the wake of Scotland’s 2-1 defeat to Wales at Hampden last week, a number of questions have been raised about our national team and changes that could be made to improve it in the future.

While I wouldn’t put much of the blame on centre back pairing Gary Caldwell and Grant Hanley for the defeat – even though they were caught woefully short for Wales’ winning goal – the heart of the Scottish defence is seen by many as a problem.

Indeed, in the wake of that defeat, football fans and writers alike have been wondering what has become of the once mighty Scottish centre back?

In the 80s we had players of the calibre of Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Paul Hegarty, David Narey and Alan Hansen challenging for the position, while the 90s saw the likes of Colin Hendry, Colin Calderwood, Richard Gough and Dave McPherson play at the heart of the defence during World Cups and European Championships.

Through the naughties, guys like Steven Pressley and David Weir would often play there for us, and while they weren’t exactly world beaters, I’m sure most Scottish fans would love to have them in their prime kicking about the squad these days.

Because while the centre back position used to be a strong point for Scotland, it’s now the area where we lack the most depth by some distance.

Now, in 2013, our centre backs include Gary Caldwell, Grant Hanley, Danny Wilson, Andy Webster, Charlie Mulgrew and Christophe Berra.

Let’s be honest; these guys are not exactly world beaters. Gary Caldwell is probably the best of the bunch and an alarming number of fans want him dropped. Hanley and Wilson both have potential, but have only played a paltry 88 senior games between them at club level. Webster and Berra don’t fill anyone with confidence when they pull on the dark blue shirt, while Charlie Mulgrew is more a jack of all trades rather than a specialist centre back.

You could see Hanley and Wilson being our first choice pairing for the future if they get regular game time, but who else is there? Who can Scotland call upon in the future?

As the Head of Scottish Research for the Football Manager series of games, I have – I hope – a decent grasp on who is coming through for Scotland and who is available to us now that we might have overlooked (after all, Football Manager had Liam Bridcutt playing for Scotland well before Mark McGhee supposedly ‘discovered’ him) thanks to our extensive database.

The Current Candidates

According to our database, two of the top four centre backs with Scotland as a first or second nationality have sadly already chosen to play for other countries.

While I doubt we were ever in with a chance of landing Liverpool’s 6″5′ Uruguayan – Sebastian Coates – he was at one point eligible thanks to his Scottish father.

Conversely, we did have a shot at securing Reading centre back Alex Pearce, an English-born player with two Scottish parents. Sadly, despite playing for us at Under-19 and Under-21 level, he switched his allegiances to Ireland – who he qualifies for through the grandparent rule – because he didn’t see a full international call-up from us to be forthcoming. That seems fairly short-sighted by the SFA.

Beyond those two, if we wanted to bring in an experienced player tomorrow to bolster the squad, our options would be limited to:

Gordon Greer: The former Kilmarnock player has enjoyed a relatively successful career in the lower leagues of England and has now shown his quality as the captain of Brighton & Hove Albion in the English Championship.

Some might say that at the age of 32 he’s not the sort of player we should be bringing in uncapped, but if he displays leadership skills and knows what direction to clear the ball in, he’s better than some options.

Martin Cranie: Having played for England from Under 17 to Under 21 level, Martin Cranie might not be a popular choice to play for Scotland among some fans, but once upon a time the former Southampton and Coventry player was called up to the Scotland U-17 squad. Now a regular at Barnsley, the 6 foot centre back has started 28 games in the Championship this season.

Kirk Broad….Let’s not go there

Scott Boyd: An unfashionable choice playing in an unfashionable team he may be, but Scott Boyd has been a rock at the heart of a Ross County defence that has done astonishingly well in the SPL this season. Hey, Garry Kenneth once got a call-up to the Scotland squad, so don’t scoff at this choice.

Emilio MacEachen: Here’s a wildcard for you; Emilio MacEachen is a Uruguayan born player – just like Coates – who has moved to Serie A to play for Parma at the age of 20.

I recently had a meeting with an SFA Performance Scout who admitted that the level of scouting done by the SFA isn’t exactly top-notch at the best of times, so here’s a player they might not know about. Admittedly I don’t know a huge amount about him either, but that’s not the point!

Players For The Future

Worryingly for Scotland, there don’t seem to be many young centre backs playing regular or even semi regular football for their clubs.

The current Under-21 side lines up with Kevin McHattie, Lewis Toshney or Fraser Kerr at the centre of defence, and while they have had exposure to first team football this season, McHattie has played almost exclusively at left back for Hearts, Toshney has only just made the transition to centre back for Dundee and Kerr has barely featured for Motherwell since the turn of the year.

Out of all the young players, the most promising of the lot might be big Murray Wallace of Huddersfield. He came through the Falkirk Academy and was exposed to first team football at a young age. Having played in the Championship earlier this season he’s been back at Falkirk on loan, although it’s fair to say they haven’t had the best of seasons in Division One.

Looking beyond them, promising players like Marcus Fraser and Stuart Findlay of Celtic, John Souttar of Dundee United and Mark O’Hara of Kilmarnock are either too young or inexperienced for us to know for sure whether they could make it or not, and it’s often the case that young players are moved out to full back when they do make the transition.

Whether or not a player makes it at first team level and fulfils his potential largely depends on attitude, but for centre backs, size also matters. If a young player doesn’t fill out or grow tall enough, he might not have a future in the heart of defence. It’s always a potential risk.

So Is It Something To Be Worried About?

When you compare the amount of young and talented Scottish midfielders and attackers coming through the ranks of clubs both north and south of the border to the number of centre backs doing the same, it’s a real worry.

As a Scotland fan, I’d be confident that if we punted Charlie Adam, Kenny Miller or Shaun Maloney from the national side tomorrow, there would be a number of similar or potentially better players waiting in the wings to take their place. You’ve only got to look at the Tannadice trio of Johnny Russell, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay Steven to know that there are quality young players out there. And there are plenty more at U-17 to U-19 level too.

But the centre back position is a worry. If you replaced any of the current defenders with the alternatives I’ve suggested, you wouldn’t be guaranteed a better standard of player by any stretch, and there don’t seem to be many young guys out there even remotely ready to replace them.

It seems as though we’ll be asking what has become of the Great Scottish Centre Back for a few more years yet. Until then, there’s always Gary Caldwell.

You can read more of Stuart’s musings either on Scotzine in his Dundee United blog or on his own personal website: Stuart Reviews Stuff.


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