The Lars Word: great centre backs from King Charlie to John O’Shea

Lars Knutsen: opening the defence case

Lars Knutsen, Sunderland exile in the USA, praises the contributions of our centre-back regulars to the unbeaten start to the new season and looks back at the rock-like figures who played for SAFC in the days when there was one in the middle and he was called the centre-half …

SAFC vs MUFCJohn O’Shea in action vs old mates: image by ‘vagueonthehow’


A satisfying week then for Sunderland fans. A run of mainly draws and the odd defeat that stretched back to March that no one at the club seemed particularly bothered about has now come to an end versus Wigan, and the glass is now half-full.

Despite the disappointment of dropping a point after leading for most of the previous league game at West Ham, some real positives came through. Notable was the performance of John O’Shea, who is clearly enjoying his time at the club; he really caught the eye.

We have joined Man City and Chelsea as the only unbeaten clubs in the Premiership, with a win and four draws in what has been a tough start to the season. Two great sources of encouragement so far for me – obviously Stephen Fletcher’s scoring form, and the fact that the defence has been solid.

Fletcher has shown himself to be a quality acquisition, excelling under the pressure of having to impress in a new playing environment.

Jake hails our goal machine

He is clearly revelling in it, and has even patched up his differences with the Scottish national team boss Craig Levine (but could do with a driver for the next six months after picking up a totting-up ban – ed). This is all positive, with Fletcher’s arrival a particular tonic when we looked at one stage as if we were starting the season without a proven Premier striker.

In the scoring charts he is in the esteemed company of Robin Van Persie and Luis Suárez, with only a certain Demba Ba from the deluded barcodes ahead at this stage.

Charlie Hurley: this and subsequent photos courtesy of therokerend.com - see footnote*

The case for the defence is also strong, despite the injuries to the gifted Phil Bardsley and Wes Brown, the departure of Kieran Richardson and Michael Turner, and the recent introduction of on-loan full back Danny Rose. Testimony to our solidity is the fact that we have never been behind in a game so far, not least because of the excellent form of Simon Mignolet between the sticks, and the excellent contribution of Craig Gardner at right back.

Dave Watson*

The main point, as I see it, is that with the present choice from John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar, Matt Killgallon and Titus Bramble for centre backs, we are very well covered in the middle of the defence. Bramble put in an excellent performance against his old club at the weekend.

And this leads me to look back at some of the great centre backs that Sunderland have had over the years.

These are players who do not just perform their jobs as players outstandingly by dominating the penalty box, but have also been great, resilient characters who could pass on their drive, determination and infectious will-to-win to the whole team.

Centre-backs I have seen play for the Lads that stand out are Charlie Hurley, Dave Watson, Jeff Clarke, Ian Atkins and Gordon Chisholm as well as Emerson Thome.

To that list I want to add John O’Shea if he keeps on providing the goods…

To join this parade of legends you have to have not only one or two great games, but several great seasons. These players used to be called “pivots”, and although that term has fallen out of use, in a real sense the whole team would rotate and function around them, such was their importance.

Ian Atkins*

The players listed above shared similar traits, being:

* great tacklers, who can anticipate the play

* excellent in the air

* possessors of superb positional sense

* leaders of the back line, who do not know the word “defeated”

Jeff Clarke*

Emerson Thome had a nickname of “the Wall” and I really saw him in action from close range side at a 2-0 win at West Ham in early 2001. The whole back four were a unit that day, but Thome was particularly impressive alongside Jody Craddock, Mickey Gray, Chris Makin with Thomas Sørensen between the sticks. We were right down at pitchside and could hear the players driving each other on and actually communicating among each other, so important.

From the current team I believe that all three of our current fit centre halves, John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar and Titus Bramble can join that list. They have most of those qualities I outlined, but one could just wish they were five years younger.

Gordon Chisholm*

* Salut! Sunderland offers its customary thanks to The Roker End, a commendable website featuring former players of SAFC, for permission previously granted to reproduce photos that appear there.

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8 thoughts on “The Lars Word: great centre backs from King Charlie to John O’Shea”

  1. I liked Jeff Clarke, who came when Watson, Tueart, & Horswill went to City. Arrived with a reputation for scoring ogs, but didn’t manage that feat for us. Scored half of his six goals in four games in Jan 78.
    The best free transfer the Mags ever got

  2. Loved Shaun Elliott who I thought was class. Also, though he doesn’t qualify for multiple seasons, Steve Bould should be included for the impact he had on our first season back up under Reid.
    Interesting choice of Ian Atkins who I really rated but who played most of his time for us in centre mid. I also met him and he was still angry about Tom Cowie breaking up the 1984 side assembled under Alan Durban that, if left in tact, could have established us as a top flight team 20 years ago. Imagine where we would be now if that had happened.

  3. George Kinnell – absolute top player – got a few goals too as I recall. Best of all in my memory was Dave Watson however. In my opinion even better than King Charlie. What a pity we didn’t see the best of him. Watson and Todd would be the perfect centre back pairing.

    • When I saw the headline I wondered if GK would be included.

      IMHO, he was very under rated, maybe because he was attempting to fill CH’s boots.

      That cannot, though be said of his reputation for imbibing, alongside his two “social buddies”, Jim Baxter & Neil Martin.

      Nobody would ever have underestimated his talent in that area!

      • I should, also, have added that it was GK that was tasked with “looking after” a very young Colin Todd and teaching him how to play at senior level.

        He seemed to do quite well at that!

  4. Yes Keith, Jim Holton was a tremendous centre half. There’s really no substitute for experience in the centre back positions and we have a wealth of that right now. It’s a shame that the partnership between Turner and Bramble was broken up by various absences as it was on their joint performances that we were faring well under Bruce (despite obvious limitations elsewhere). Circumstances prevented them from further establishing this partnership when both were fit and available at the same time.

  5. Although he didn’t play a whole load of games i always thought Jim Holton was great centre half. George Kinnell and Sam Allardyce were both better than Chisholm, but then its all a matter of opinion

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