In his latest despatch from six decades on the terraces Christopher Backhouse recalls the colossi whose motto was none shall pass
“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about.” William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar.
This quotation always comes to mind when recalling the centre halves of the late Forties and Fifties. Strangers to finesse, possessed of mighty boots, hammer heads and massive legs, they bestrode the centre of the field attempting little more than hefty clearances by head or boot when danger threatened.
At that time, before floodlights, on windless days the terraces were enveloped sometimes in fog but always in a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging around the ubiquitous cloth caps of the almost exclusively male crowd. In the dark, winter months it could be difficult to see from one end to the other.
No replica, ever-changing shirts were to be seen, only a few hand knitted red and white scarves and at cup ties, rosettes bearing a tinfoil replica of the trophy. Some wooden, raucous rattles still survived from pre-war days.
Peering down from the top of the Grosvenor Road terrace the centre halves appeared giants to my young eyes. Tommy Gale was the first one I saw and then Bert Brenen (pictured right), a survivor from prewar days, taller than Gale and just as happy at right half as in the middle.
Surprisingly, only six centre halves played in half of the 59 seasons between the war and the descent into into the Conference in 2004. As they say in Strictly Come Dancing, in no particular order these were Stewart, Jackson, Topping, Tutill, McPhail, and Swallow. It is these that I remember best.
First came Alan Stewart of Cup semi final fame. A tall imposing figure, his career covered seven seasons in which he faced some of the most famous internationals of the day, Stanley Mortensen Jackie Milburn and Vic Keeble among them. None of them scored.
Alan gave seven years of outstanding service. He was succeeded by Joe Spence, no relation of Ron, Alan’s team-mate, of whom more in the next article.
By 1958 the semi-final team had almost broken up, and Barry Jackson established himself as first choice for the next 12 years, becoming my favourite and also the crowd’s. Barry, a local lad, was very tall, possessed of a bright ginger mop of hair. His shorts were very short, his legs long.
Barry commanded his penalty area with great enthusiasm, sometimes too much, as he was wont to fall foul of referees. I remember him giving away penalties in two successive games. Tommy Forgan saved them both. In all the seasons he played he scored only ten goals in nearly 600 games, despite being very powerful in the air. He bestrode the the last third of the field, a true York City colossus.
Like buses, then two came along together, Chris Topping and Barry Swallow. Chris, another local boy, was perhaps more versatile than Jackson and less noticeable as his hair was darker but still tended to remain in his own half. He had the distinction of playing in two promotion teams and in the clubs short-lived stay in the Second division. Barry Swallow served the club with great distinction on the field, but did the club disservice off it.
John McPhail and Barry Swallow were more in the mould of the modern centre half. McPhail scored three times as many goals as Barry Jackson in about a third as many games and Swallow about one every ten games.
More recently there have been other excellent centre halves such as Paul Stancliffe, Steve James, and Tony Barras who had shorter careers, but the best centre half performance that I ever saw at Bootham Crescent was by an opponent, Jan Molby for Liverpool in a 1984 Cup match.
Jan would agree that he wasn’t the fastest around the pitch but he had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time without seemingly even trotting from place to place.
York City have been well served by the relatively small number of centre half colossi. If I have to make a choice my long time favourite is Barry Jackson also City’s longest serving player.
- Read Part One: When goalies wore green here
- Read Part Two: Backs to front here
- Many thanks to David Batters for kindly giving us permission to reproduce pictures from his books Images Of Sport: York City Football Club, published by Tempus, and York City: The Complete Record, published by Breedon Books and available from the York City shop and online here