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Best English defenders of All Time

Sat 26 March 2022 | 16:30

Let us take a closer look at England to see who are the best English defenders of all time?

English defenders have had a certain reputation in the world for being hard-tacklers who at times may seem vicious individuals that lack the elegant of perhaps their German and Italian counterparts. But that description really does not do them justice because they have been so much more than that.

Players like Bobby Moore, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Tony Adams were all thought to be one of the best defenders of their era and possibly of all time and you simply don’t get that reputation by just playing hard and mindless football. There is a lot more to English defenders than what they’re usually mistaken for and we are here to take a closer look at some of these players to determine who are the absolute

best English defenders of all time

.   

Best English Defenders

For choosing the best English defenders, we have cast the net as wide as possible, choosing players from every era of English football that we could. From the Second World War up to the modern day. So, let’s see who these players are:

Des Walker

We start our list of

best English defenders ever

with a

Nottingham Forest

and Sheffield Wednesday legend, Des Walker. Born in 1965, Walker would become one of the unsung heroes of England’s famous run to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup. He was also an accomplished player at club level, spending most of his career in English top flight, winning several trophies, as well as a season in Italy for Sampdoria.

Known for his pace and tackling, Des Walker was extremely precise in his defending. Well timed tackles and timely interceptions were a big part of Des Walker’s defensive style. Gary Lineker, who was England’s best striker at the time, hugely praises Walker as someone that would drive you mad when playing against him and that he was always paired up with him in England’s camp in order to give Lineker a challenge.

Walker has also been praised for his defensive mind that could read the attacks very well. He also lied to stay back on set pieces rather than go forward to score a goal, which resulted in him scoring only once his entire career. Having represented England 59 times, Walker was a big part of England squad in the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1992. Apart from helping England reach the 1990 World Cup semi-finals, Des Walker also appeared in 7 different cup finals with Nottingham Forest and won 5 of those.

He was also named in PFA Team of the Year and incredible amount of 4 times in his first spell at Forest, where he won Forest’s Player of the Year 3 times as well. A pure defender who kept his head down and represented his country and club as best as he could while being consistently great for both, Des Walker is truly one of the best English defenders of all time. 

Kenny Sansom

Next up we have an Arsenal legend and one of England’s greatest

fullbacks

of all time, Kenny Sansom. Born in 1958, Sansom went on to make his professional debut for Crystal Palace in 1975 before leaving them in 1980 to join Arsenal. Sansom spent most of his career at Arsenal where he became an established fullback for England and went on to feature a whopping 7 times in PFA Team of the Year which was more than any other player, a record that he still holds today.

Sansom was in some ways a player that set the trends for the modern fullbacks in terms of his playing style. The left back was relatively small (1.73m) but he was surprisingly good in aerial battles. But where he shone was in his passing, which made him deadly while going forward. Sansom famously avoided tackling players in general which gave rise to his nickname of 'Kenny White-Shorts' but he made it up with his interceptions which were phenomenal and did the job of winning back the ball instead of tackles.

Perhaps his time at Arsenal was the best in his career as he was chosen a part of PFA Team of the year in every single season as well as the season before when he was at Palace. In total 8 PFA First Division Team of the Year awards as well as 3 awards of the same nature for lower leagues during his time at Palace.

He capped off his Arsenal career by leading Arsenal in the 1987-88 League Cup final and winning the cup for the

Gunners

. He is also Arsenal’s record holder for having had the most England caps during his career (86). There is no doubt that Kenny Sansom is one of the finest fullbacks England has ever known and one of the

best English defenders of all time

, a player whose name should be heard more often.

Terry Butcher

Perhaps one of the most iconic images in English football history is the image above taken from a bloodied Terry Butcher in a game against Sweden in 1989 where after sustaining a head injury and some stitchers, Butcher carried on playing for England. His constant headers reopened his wounds and left him in this bloodied state which should tell you everything you need to know about Butcher and his dedication to his craft and country and why he is considered to be one of the best English defenders.

Born in 1958, Terry Butcher spent most of his career at Ipswich Town and the

Glasgow Rangers

. Having made his professional debut for Ipswich during the 1977-78 season it wasn’t too long that he was handed his England debut (1980) and from then on went on to play and important role in England’s backline during the 1980s, taking part in 3 different World Cups. The best he ever did with England was in the 1990 World Cup alongside the likes of Des Walker where England reached the semi-finals of the tournament.

Butcher represented his country 77 times scoring three times and captaining the side during the 1990 World Cup after which he retired from international duty. At club level, Butcher helped Ipswich win the UEFA Cup in 1981 and later won 5 major trophies with Rangers. Last year, like several of the players on our list of best English defenders of all time, Butcher was inducted into English Football Hall of Fame.

Sol Campbell

Moving on to more modern defenders, next we have Sol Campbell, who was a Tottenham boy through and through or so the Spurs fans would’ve thought before their academy graduate and club captain went and did the unforgivable act of joining their arch rivals, Arsenal. His move to Arsenal ruffled a lot of feathers and was a big story for a while but the impact he made on the pitch playing for the Gunners was immense and he soon made their powerful defense even more indestructible and in doing so became one of the best English defenders ever.

Sol Campbell was an unstoppable unit in the defense, physically big and strong. He had some of the cleanest tackles and that alongside his intelligence in defense made him one of the best defenders of his generation. The proof of his impact on

Arsenal

’s defense could be felt in his first season at the club where Arsenal managed to secure the Double for the second time under

Arsene Wenger

. But perhaps his influence on Arsenal’s defense could be felt more in the 2003-04 season where Arsenal had a nearly impenetrable defense and won the Premier League without losing a single match.

Sol Campbell, who scored Arsenal’s solitary goal in a 2-1 defeat in the Champions League final against Barcelona, made 211 Appearances for Arsenal and scored 12 goals for the Gunners. He won the Premier League and FA Cup twice each. Having made his England debut in 1996, Campbell went on to feature in England’s setup for 12 years, being part of 2 World Cup squads and earning 73 caps. His defensive skills alone are enough to name him one of the best English defenders of all time.

Billy Wright

Billy Wright is the oldest person on this list who happened to be one of the

best defenders in the world

in the 40s and 50s while playing for Wolverhampton during his whole career. A legend of both the Wolves and the England national team, Billy Wright was a trailblazer for England and still holds a few records on international level. He later became a manager and managed Arsenal but it was because of his playing career that he became the legend he is today.

Wright joined Wolverhampton in 1938 when he was a 14 year old and made his professional debut for them a year later but due to World War II, that match doesn’t officially count so his official debut was during the 1945-46. In fact, Wright’s career like so many others from that era was affected by the second World War but what was amazing about Wright is the longevity of his career, partly due to how young he was when he started playing professional football.

A smart defender who relied on his mind rather than aggression to excel in defending, Wright was never sent off or even cautioned during his time at international level. He was the first person in world football to reach 100 caps and captained England for 90 of his 105 total caps, a still he now shares with only Bobby Moore.

Billy Wright is undeniably a legend at

Wolverhampton

, where he helped the club experience a golden era that saw them win 3 league titles as well as an FA Cup. Wright also came second in 1957’s Ballon d’Or awards which tells you how talented a player he was and why he is considered to be one of the best English defenders of all time.

Ashley Cole

Considered to be one of the

best left backs of all time

Ashley Cole was a product of Arsenal’s academy and a big part of their success in the early 2000s and later when he joined their rivals, Chelsea, he became one of the most important players in their success as well. Cole was also a constant presence in the England setup and is one of the most capped English players of all time. In terms of being a left back Ashley Cole changed everything bringing a whole other level of intensity to the game and for that he is regarded to be one of the

best defenders in the world

.

As a left back, Ashley Cole was a machine that rarely seemed to tire. He was one of the few full backs that balanced his attacking and defensive sensibilities perfectly. Cole operated like a midfielder in attack, which he displayed often in his time at Arsenal, and he was a capable defender and a great tackler who knew how to mark even the best attackers. His speed and agility made it so that he was rarely caught out of position.

Although Cole joined

Chelsea

to win more league titles, he only managed to win the Premier League once in the 2009-10 season but he did also win 4 FA Cup titles, 1 League Cup, 1 Europa League title and a Champions League trophy. His time at Arsenal saw him win 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA Cup as well as reaching the Champions League final once. With 107 caps for England, Cole is currently the 6th most capped English player of all time and one of the best English defenders.

Rio Ferdinand

While English defenders are renowned for being hard tacklers who often lack any sort of elegance or technique to their game, Rio Ferdinand was a player who defied all that and became one of the best defenders of all time with his elegance, ball-carrying capabilities and skill as well as his smart defensive work. The West Ham youth academy graduate became one of the best players of the Premier League era and his legacy at the club level is hard to top by any defender.

Making his debut for West Ham in 1996, it wasn’t too long that Ferdinand impressed the England set-up enough to be called to the national team, becoming the youngest defender ever to play for England (aged 19) when he made his debut against Cameroon in 1997.

Following his impressive displays with a young and talented

West Ham

side under Harry Redknapp, Ferdinand moved to Leeds United and then Manchester United in the span of 2 seasons, setting the record for the most expensive defender in the world twice (for £18 million and £30 million respectively).

At Manchester United he became part of the club’s most successful era, helping them win 6 Premier League titles, 2 League Cups, a Champions League title and a Club World Cup, becoming one of the most decorated English players of all time. On a personal level, Ferdinand was featured in Premier League Team of the Season 6 times and was considered by many to be the best center back in the world at some point of his career, which is why his inclusion in our best English defenders of all time is a no brainer.

Jack Charlton

Many football fans may instantly recognize Sir Bobby Charlton, the Manchester United and England legend, but the Charlton family legacy extends to his brother Jack as well since he is definitely one of the

best English defenders

. Born in 1935, Jack Charlton is another one-club man on our list who spent the entirety of his long career at Leeds United during the club’s best years at top flight. And like his brother, Jack Charlton was an integral part of the England 1966 World Cup winning team, partnering up with the legendary Bobby Moore in defense.

Although prominently a defender, Jack Charlton was quite an accomplished goal scorer as well, scoring 101 goals for club and country during the almost 800 official matches he played. Having made his debut for Leeds United during the 1952.53 season, Charlton experienced relegation with the club but led the club once again to the top flight in 1964 and they immediately challenged for the title, with the eventual champions (Manchester United) being decided in the final day of the season.

Jack Charlton played a huge part for

Leeds

’ success in the decade that followed helping them win a league title, an FA Cup, a League Cup and two European titles (Inter Cities Fair Cup) but the crown jewel in his achievements was the World Cup title he won with that legendary England side in 1966. Jack Charlton won the FWA Footballer of the Year a year later and has always been regarded as one of the best English defenders of all time as well as being perhaps the best Leeds United player of all time as well.

Tony Adams

Known as “Mr. Arsenal”, Tony Adams is one of the longest serving and certainly one of Arsenal greatest players ever Adams, who is yet another One-Club player on our list, was an Arsenal academy graduate who made his debut for the club in 1983 and went on to play for the club for 19 years before retiring. He gradually became a regular first team player but would not experience great success with the club until the appointment of George Graham in 1986.

Adams who was a born leader and already a captain by the age of 21, remained as Arsenal’s skipper for the following 14 years. his no nonsense defending brought success back to Highbury, as in the 1988-89 season where Arsenal won its first league title since 1971. With Adams as captain, the Gunners would go on to win it again two years later. That Arsenal team under the management of George Graham was famous for its defensive prowess and Adams was the mastermind of that.

Adams’ career was not smooth sailing as the center back struggled with alcoholism off the pitch, even going as far as being incarcerated for 2 months in 1991 because of a drunk driving accident. But with the appointment of Arsene Wenger in 1996 and the new dietary regime and restrictions he brought, Adams was able to get back to his best again and somehow deal with his alcoholism. He has credited Wenger for helping him in this matter which resulted in a prolonged career.

Tony Adams then went on to help Arsenal win 2 Doubles as well as a couple of cup trophies, which brings his trophy total to four league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. a statue of Adams was unveiled outside the Emirates stadium back in 2011, celebrating one of best English defenders of all time. His time with England was not as glorious despite his 66 appearances for the Three Lions, however he remains to be the only English player to represent England in international tournaments in 3 different decades (Euro 1988, Euro 1996 and Euro 2000).

John Terry

When it comes to the top clubs in England, Chelsea is undoubtedly one that has recently joined the ranks and so much of their success in the past two decades could be laid at the feet of their captain, John Terry. A player that had all the qualities a captain should have but was also a complete defender, one the best defenders in the world in fact, Terry led his boyhood club Chelsea through thick and thin over the years and became a symbol for the club.

Having made his first appearance for Chelsea in 1998 long before the Abramovic’s acquisition of the club, Terry became a regular starter for Chelsea in the early 2000s. a ball playing center back who initiated the build-up play but was also a phenomenal man-marker and a great tackler as well as being a goal threat from set-pieces, since he excelled in the air. He was named UEFA’s Defender of the Year 3 times and PFA’s Player of the Season in 2005, the same season he led Chelsea to their first ever league title in 50 years.

With 717 appearances, Terry has the 3rd most appearances for Chelsea. He has also scored an impressive tally of 67 goals. Terry is also the most successful captain in Chelsea’s history, having led them to 5 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 1 Europa League and 1 Champions League title. His partnership with Rio Ferdinand in England’s defense lasted a long time as he made 78 caps, scoring 6 times for England but despite being one of the best English defenders of all time, none of the players from that era achieved anything significant with England.

Bobby Moore

Bobby Moore is undoubtedly one of the

best defenders of all time

and an English icon. A great leader who captained England to their solitary World Cup title in 1966 and therefore wrote his name in the history of football. Moore who captained West Ham for many years during his career is regarded as their best ever play and even helped them win a couple of trophies. The club even retired his number 6 shirt 15 years after his passing in 2008.

Moore who was made captain of England in 1964, only being 23 years old at the time, was a composed central defender who preferred to anticipate the opposition’s game rather than going in for hard tackles. He was praised by many to be one of the greatest defenders ever, with Pele in particular calling him “the best defender he ever faced” and Franz Beckenbauer who called him “the best defender in the history of the game”.

At the club level, Moore helped West Ham United win an FA Cup in 1963-64 season and he also captained them to a European Cup Winners’ Cup win the following season. But it was in England’s national team that he shone and became

best English defenders of all time

as he captained the greatest ever England side to win the World Cup trophy on the home soil in 1966 and then helped them to their 3rd place finish in the following Euro 1968. No matter what any other English player does, no one will be able to get one over Bobby Moore as he is the only English captain that held the World Cup trophy and that will be his unforgettable legacy.

 

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