GAWA: Appetite for destruction – NI midfield destroyers

Northern Ireland

I’ve never been happy with the term watercarriers. Yes, I get it and understand its genesis. It is a snappy title and it is generally understood in the modern football lexicon. I start to have difficulty though with the star striker type who dismiss those ‘there to serve them’ and of course the supporter who follows in that slipstream.

Interestingly, the man who coined it in reference to Didier Deschamps in the French national team does not cause me angst in the way mentioned above. Eric Cantona had all the characteristics attributable to the star striker- difficult to manage, temperamental, arrogant….but he didn’t half work hard for his team and you never hear any teammate have a bad word about him. That makes a huge difference. Yes, he had the ego as the lead singer needs to but he used it in the right way.

I’m sure many of you have played in teams though where Goldenballs up front throws his arms around all match when the ball you put to him was six inches too far. Wearing isn’t it. So to a degree, it depends on who’s saying it. If you’ve ever been in an operating theatre you’ll notice that the scrub nurse is the axle that it all hangs on. If we want to analogise here, the anaesthetist is the goalkeeper and the surgeon the star striker but Sally Scrub is the lynchpin. And in any good operating team, the surgeon won’t be scoring goals without her. He knows that and understands her importance so he shouldn’t ever be ‘at her’ providing she’s doing her job.

I imagine that a lot of you will recognise the title as that replicating Guns ‘n’ Roses’ great rock album of the late eighties. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’- yea, welcome to the midfield. Getting serious for a minute though most people immediately think of Axl Rose when they think of G&R. And that is where we diverge away here from rock and roll. Axl, certainly a charismatic frontman but definitely unreliable and in my mind would have always been complaining at his midfield or more likely his rhythm section. My focus today is on solid, reliable, tunnel rat characters who do the hard yards, day in, day out without complaint- in short, the axle that everything else in the team smoothly revolves around.

Their job is to break down and destroy the creative of the opposition and then feed their team. It is such a disciplined position. Most find their way by design in their playing ability but to me their character and disposition more than comes into the equation. Let’s throw up a few of the more famous of history.

Nobby Stiles of 1966 is probably the most famous of the art but ably supported by Remi Moses, Claude Makelele, Gennaro Gattuso, Nicky Butt and Didier Deschamps to form a fine and aggressive pack of snarling dogs.

I wanted to talk about the defensive midfielders who have shone for me throughout the years for Northern Ireland. Trust me people, when you follow NI about the place defensive midfielders are like centre-forwards in most other teams. It’s a tough gig. An equivalent job might be along the lines of being the motorway toll attendant on the highway to Hell. So you’ll certainly be busy.

David McCreery is not only the first of our green Factor fifty protection heroes but also my personal patriarch of this tale. I knew him fairly well before his roles in green via his sojourns on the fringes of the mid-seventies Manchester United sides. Being an East Belfast lad and breaking through into the international side at roughly the same time would have been the obvious reasons for his catching my attention. But even in those early days before seeing him live and ready he struck home in other ways. I knew a few girls at the time were who ‘dyin’ about him as we say over here or in regular English, found him a very handsome chap. But for me, what shone through was the sheer eagerness of the guy.

In those days when teams only had one replacement he was Man U’s permanent number twelve, making his debut for club and country at a respective seventeen and eighteen. He tended to come onto the field of play as a bolus injection of energy rather than for any particular reason. Sixty-six and a half inches of purpose, he whirled around the pitch like a fly on ricochet. One of five brothers and a sister, two of his brothers Ron and Rab played for Glentoran.

Any film footage you see of him he is simply running and running. I always felt that somehow he could never see the ball but had been told it was out there and he was to hunt it down. His favourite comedian was Benny Hill and sometimes I felt he replicated Benny’s fast forward antics on the pitch. This may suggest he was aimless but far from it as he was a nightmare to have on your case. He didn’t so much enforce as enrage such was his dedication to disruption.

Star midfield playmakers of the era may well have had their stuffed heads mounted in the McCreery home such was his frequent nullification of them. I remember in October ’77 his battle with Johann Cruyff in Belfast. Cruyff got so fed up he drifted out to the left wing to get a bit of peace. Another ‘head’ to my mind would have been Liam Brady’s after the East Atlantic derby in September ’78. It is no surprise that his finest performance corresponded with Northern Ireland’s in the country’s historical highlight against Spain in Mundial ’82. In a very physical game his small frame was caught many times by shellfire but he was off the canvas every time to harass and intervene. The engine never spluttered and he ran to heaven and back. Even in the many team photographs taken he’s always in the front row barely able to kneel such was his desire to get onto the pitch.

I remember going to a Tommy Docherty Q and A type evening once and his immediate surroundings notwithstanding, Docherty in response to a question said that ‘Wee D’ was the best professional he had ever worked with. Wouldn’t doubt it!

Visiting the Newcastle United training ground in November 1983 whilst on a sibling visit, he remembered me from outside the Luis Casanova stadium seventeen months earlier in Valencia. Not only that but he then took me up to his home in Hepscott in Northumberland to meet the family and show me through all his footballing artefacts. It was a bit surreal as he introduced me to his wife as “Henry…..the guy who was on TV before the Spain game” as I had been interviewed on BBC1 that evening. Hell, just another PR gig for us in demand NI fans. What a guy-top man.

So in many ways, he was the template for me in this role and a few came close to his mastery of midfield misery over the years.The next exponent of this art to be mentioned in dispatches is Damien Johnson. It took a while for him to register with me that he was the no in ‘no-nonsense’. His residence in the Northern Ireland central midfield more or less spanned the first decade of this century. I can imagine the scene. As smoke and the smell of decay billow around the Northern Ireland side of the late nineties, the officer asks the equivalent of looking for volunteers for a raiding party on the German trenches circa 1915.

“I need someone to do midfield for Northern Ireland for the next decade”. As faces look to the floor his hand shoots up and an impassive face says “I’ll do it, I’m your man”. Our man he certainly was, and that fixed face devoid of emotion carried him through ten odd years of battle and tackle. He had a few midfield partners, but generally, Kevin Horlock was his co-pilot for the first part of the decade and Steve Davis the latter.

He had a slightly bow-legged gait but was guaranteed to be first at anything to be fought for. He gave the impression that he played in a disruptive pattern rather than green shirt and white shorts. Tough guy he was too, playing on once through a broken jaw inflicted by West Brom’s Paul Robinson to the end of a game.

My lasting image of him was always diving into some minefield and coming out with the ball. Another lasting creative image of him was ripping up Sweden’s east coast in a Belfast match in March 2007 to put in a perfect cross for David Healy to dink in for a classy winner. I finally thought he had scored for the national team in a match against Poland two years later assisted by an amazing mistake by Artur Boruc. Unfortunately not, as it was deemed correctly an own goal. A great servant who would never seek praise or publicity, he was honourably discharged via retirement in 2010.

Our final member of the cell was similar in disposition, attitude and application. These guys just always strike you as ‘pint men’ rather than anything else. God help you if you were in a round with them and you had an umbrella sticking out of your drink. In fact, I think an umbrella, full stop, would be an outrage with any of them. Chris Baird came from Rasharkin in the northern reaches of County Antrim. There’s a placename you’re unlikely to get in the Home Counties.

Starting his defensive life as a right back he announced his arrival in high fashion in the 2003 FA Cup final against Arsenal. Earning his team’s man of the match was no mean feat whilst up against Robert Pires and his international debut arrived v Italy a month later. This right back position explains somewhat his 6’ 1” frame which tends to run against the small to average height norm of Ulster central midfield.

His steady and reliable play enabled the team to move Aaron Hughes to centre back. He has seventy-nine caps of a story and thirteen years of international service. Starting in the middle of the two and a half year goal drought and ending in the sun and glory of Nice in Euro ’16, he served steadily and solidly through four managers. He was never as ferocious or busy about the pitch compared to the previous two honourable stablemates and that was probably due to his great reading of the game. He was however masterful at creating a sterile zone ahead of the defence and was our ‘Baird line’ to France’s Maginot.

Along with a few club managers it was Michael O’Neill who moved him as a defensive screen in central midfield. The move smacked of the graduate becoming a professor. The man simply broke up move after move through interception and anticipation and his steady demeanour provided experience and calmness to boiling bubbles around. Famously though, the only time this demeanour was punctured was the ten second double foul against Hungary in September 2015 which resulted in his red card for the team in that 1-1 draw.

Like Johnson, he nearly ‘scored’ for the team against Finland six months earlier but it was disallowed inexplicably. His international retirement, typical of the man was done low-key after the Euros. Happy with his work he handed the key of the back door over to Corry Evans.

The scoring blank these three doyens accumulated somehow adds to their ‘no glory for me’ mystique that surrounds them. Perversely that appeals to my dubious competing fault lines of fan and writer. Though defensive midfielders were never sought out by the cameras these three all naturally tended to shy away from publicity. Like Paul Scholes, they were more than happy to let the pretty boys sparkle whilst they checked their Davey lamp before returning back underground.

Application, duty and grit – all material that can’t be diluted by water.