DIPPING in to Arsenal’s first-leg win over Udinese last week on Five Live, I was struck by a comment from co-commentator Lee Dixon.
Praising some intervention or other on the part of Thomas Vermaelen, Dixon referred to the Belgian as a ‘centre-half’, before apologising and explaining he’s a bit old-fashioned and hasn’t caught up with the more modern term ‘centre-back’.
Dixon was partly right. The ‘centre-half’ from which today’s term ‘centre-back’ is descended is the Ron Yeats type – tall, commanding and primarily defensive, positioned quite literally at the centre of a team’s defence, flanked by two full-backs.
However if Lee is old-fashioned, he’s only so up to a certain point. In the early days of football, before Herbert Chapman revolutionised the game with his W-M formation, teams lined up in a 2-3-5, with the two full-backs forming the rearguard and the half-backs (the 3) forming the closest thing to a modern-day midfield.
In this system, which lived on at Liverpool long after other teams had abandoned it in favour of variants on the W-M (more of a 3-2-2-3), the centre-half was very much more than a defensive stopper.
Positioned at the centre of the half-back line, the centre-half was the heart and soul of the team, the pivot around which everything took shape, a barnstormer tasked with influencing play in the vast central space between the full-backs and the forward line.
We might describe Daniel Agger or Rio Ferdinand today, were either of them ever fit, as ball-playing centre-backs, something quite distinct from the kind of enforcer typified in recent years by Marco Materazzi or Walter Samuel.
But they would not be regarded as centre-halfs in the traditional sense, and nor would Vermaelen.
Centre-half before the Second World War was a very different position from the role into which it would later evolve. In effect, the true centre-half was killed off by Chapman and his formation, a response to the 1925 adaptations to the offside rule.
Football positions are as much about practice as theory, and often shaped by the men who inhabit them. Some players neatly fit an archetype – Andy Carroll, for example, is about as close to the traditional centre-forward as can be imagined.
Others carve out niches for themselves – who could confidently assign a positional term to the role taken up by Zinedine Zidane or Dennis Bergkamp?
This is where terms such as trequartista or false nine come in handy, words often imported from abroad and carrying a ring of exoticism matched in British terms only by Harry Redknapp’s famous instructions to Roman Pavlyuchenko to ‘just fucking run about a bit’.
Of all the Liverpool players down the years who have helped shape the popular perception of a position, Yeats is one of the most important. Shankly pitched Yeats to journalists and opponents as if he were some kind of Hollywood monster, a ‘colossus’ no forward could ever hope to get round, despite his being no taller than 6′ 2″.
It was 90 per cent kidology on Shankly’s part, an attempt to convince the public and perhaps the player that he could form the basis of a title-winning side.
Yeats lived up to his billing, proving dependable, durable and determined at the heart of the Anfield defence and providing a blueprint for subsequent centre-halfs and later centre-backs to follow.
Yet more than 60 years before Yeats, Liverpool had on show the archetypal traditional centre-half, an all-action player capable of covering huge distances during play both in attack and defence, of breaking up moves and starting his own, of inspiring ten others to achieve more than the sum of their collective parts and of carrying the hopes and expectations of the fans on his own broad shoulders.
Alex Raisbeck was for 11 seasons the crown prince of Anfield, club captain, centre-half and object of wonder for fans across the country.
Today the club website suggests he would today ‘undoubtedly be a pin-up’ along the lines of a Fernando Torres (might need updating, that).
While I accept the point being made, it’s a little like when people say if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be writing for Eastenders. They’re reflecting the fact he was a popular dramatist at the time, but ignoring the huge gulf in class between Shakespeare’s words and those of BBC soap opera scripts – a gulf which time does nothing to narrow.
Torres was a key man for Liverpool, and at his best is among the most dangerous players in world football. The club came to depend on his talents too much, and here the contrast with Raisbeck is stark.
While the natural gifts of a willowy striker who at times seemed to move on air were always an unsteady foundation on which to build a long-term challenge for honours, in Raisbeck Liverpool had a rock.
Strong, tall for the time, quick in thought and deed and utterly fearless, Raisbeck most closely resembles Steven Gerrard at his most impressive, with Gerrard in turn carrying echoes of Graeme Souness. The fact he achieved high enough standards to drag otherwise patchy Liverpool sides to two league titles is a testament to his overwhelming influence as a player and a man.
In every facet of his life Alexander Galloway Raisbeck seemed to embody the kind of values fans love to see in players.
From the type of Kopite whose sole tactical exortation to the side is a primal scream of ‘gerrintodem’ to those of us who prefer the clever pass or artful switch of play to the brutal lunge, Raisbeck by all accounts catered for everyone.
He both exemplified the typical centre-half and redefined the role, yet was strangely neglected by the Scottish selection committees of the time.
Perversely, though Raisbeck made only eight appearances for Scotland (seven against England), he was named captain for five of those matches.
At Anfield we’ve always liked our heroes to have a hint of the outsider about them, and the fact Raisbeck was snubbed by his national side can only have strengthened the communion between him and the club’s early fans.
Off the pitch, and in common with many of his contemporaries, Raisbeck’s life was strikingly similar to those of the Liverpudlians who went to Anfield, and frequently also to Goodison, every chance they got.
Living on Elsie Street, sandwiched between Walton Breck Road and Anfield Road, he spent the majority of his time at the club within the briefest of walks of the stadium.
Signed for £350 by Tom Watson, former miner Raisbeck used his spare time productively, fathering 14 children before going on to be a manager and later a scout back at Liverpool. He died in 1949.
While he clearly led a busy and chaotic life, it is as a player that Raisbeck should be remembered. While we’ve seen fantastic strikers, goalkeepers and wingers come and go, in the club never again had a true centre-half to match Raisbeck.
Now the position is lost to the modern game, its label misappropriated for a completely different role and now consigned to history even in that guise, we might truly say football will never see his like again.
*I should mention that for this piece I’m indebted to John Williams, who dug up many of the facts on Raisbeck for his excellent book Red Men: Liverpool Football Club – the Biography, and who clearly shares my enthusiasm for this early, overlooked Liverpool legend.