Leo Moynihan’s ‘Thou Shall Not Pass’ is a wide-ranging exploration of football’s centre-half position. I have personally always preferred the role of striker and the glory of scoring goals but this story of centre-halves provides a welcome insight into their vital role in any team.
Centre-halves are often overlooked and misunderstood and Moynihan’s book explores the mindset of the traditionally bruising hard man, determined on destroying the opposition’s attacks.
Thou Shall Not Pass (from a command England captain Terry Butcher shouted before every match) celebrates the football position where brutal characters are loved for their hard-hitting tackles and bruising mentality, and yet laughed at for their apparent lack of skill.
Butcher used to shout, “Fix bayonets, Lads”, when they were under pressure. ‘Bayonets, digging in, being in the trenches; there is a certain militaristic tilt that occurs when discussing defending in this country….’
But this is not just a story of big brutes and dogged defending but of the evolution of the position through the decades incorporating European and South American influences and how modern players such as Virgil van Dijk can combine both the physical with the erudite.
When the continental style was taking off in the 1960’s Bill Shankly was the first to bring two centre-halves to Anfield in 1964 and the central defensive partnership soon became the accepted formation.
The England 1966 World Cup winning central defensive partnership of Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton were complete opposites.
Moore said of Charlton, “ A big man and a big character. Some days we’d be going out and I’d look at him and wonder how the hell this giraffe played football. But he was tremendously effective. We used to argue black and blue because I wanted to get the ball down and play the game and he wanted to hoof it away to safety. But we made a pair.”
Moore was the consummate central defender of his generation and his tackle against Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup remains as brave a defensive moment as it is iconic.
“What he would do was when people ran him, he would bide his time,” says Harry Redknapp. “ Jairzinho has ripped everyone to bits in Mexico, but not Bobby. That tackle is great. But the whole game, Bobby waited and ran him to the corner or timed a perfect tackle. He did that to me every day in training. Fantastic.”
Despite their evolution Moynihan states that centre-halves are still something of an enigma. Put simply, they are a complex and mixed bunch, some who can play and some who still prefer the big boot.
It is an enjoyable read which includes interviews with many well-known centre-halves and plenty of entertaining anecdotes but, for some reason, it never quite soars to the heights of the centre-half who rises majestically to head away the danger.
Thou Shall Not Pass – The Anatomy of Football’s Centre-Half by Leo Moynihan. Published by Bloomsbury Sport. Price £16.99.
This review first appeared in the March/April edition of Late Tackle magazine.