Midweek Muse: Gareth McAuley’s marauding spirit in the Premier League era

Buccaneering centre-back Gareth McAuley notched his seventh goal of the season against Bournemouth on Saturday, helping the Baggies reach the magic 40-point mark which nearly always ensures Premier League survival. His headed effort also drew McAuley level with Salomon Rondon as leading marksman at the Hawthorns so far this season. Tom Simmonds looks back at two of the forerunners of McAuley’s marauding spirit in the Premier League era.  

If we look at McAuley’s record over his WBA career, 15 goals in 198 games at the time of writing, while it is noteworthy, it doesn’t register as being especially prolific on the face of things. However, it’s the threat McAuley carries at set-pieces which can be as telling as his goals. His record is good enough to let any opposition team know they run the risk of paying a heavy price should they fail to mark him at set plays.

McAuley and his prowess in the box at the opposite end of the pitch is, of course, not a stand-alone phenomenon. John Terry (40 goals in 488 games for Chelsea) is perhaps the best known recent example of a goalscoring centre-back in the Premier League era and, beyond these shores, the likes of Sergio Ramos and Mats Hummels can also boast of their threat in the opposition’s box as a distinctive aspect to their personal brands as players.

A man who would probably (after all his experience handling modern footballers) baulk at the idea of players being ‘brands’ is current Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce. In his former incarnation as a grizzled centre-back, he captained Manchester United in Bryan Robson’s frequent injury lay-offs and, later, in his own right. Bruce is sometimes talked of as the best player never to win a full England cap and it’s unthinkable the captain of the champions, of any country, would be overlooked for international honours these days.

While Bruce never had the film-star looks of a Ramos, or the polish conferred upon Hummels, it is undeniable the Englishman’s goal threat and Terry-esque ‘stick your head anywhere’ style of defending would make him worth millions today. He managed 36 goals in 309 games for United, which followed on from notching 29 in 205 for Gillingham and 14 in 141 for Norwich before he got to Old Trafford in 1987.

The 1990/91 season was his best, bagging 17 goals in all competitions, including nine penalties and one poached away from him by Mark Hughes on the line as the Red Devils beat Barcelona in the Cup Winners Cup final. However, it is a game from the 1992-93 campaign which contains his best-known goalscoring feat.

On the 10th of April 1993, second-placed United were trailing 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday at a half-built Old Trafford. Wednesday were hanging on grimly to the lead given to them by John Sheridan’s penalty. The red barrage breached the dam six minutes from time; Bruce popping up to equalise with a remarkable header. A corner delivered, at what looked a fiendishly low height, found Bruce around 15 yards out. He somehow twisted his neck to divert the ball from its flat trajectory to loop past Chris Woods into the top corner.

His second came from an even more improbable supply line. After a series of cleared corners in the sixth minute of injury time, Bruce’s central defensive partner, Gary Pallister, ran out to the left wing to fetch the ball and toss it into the mixer. The cross benefitted from a cracking inadvertent flick-on by a Wednesday head, which put it into the path of Bruce, who headed it back across Woods and into the far corner. It was that goal which prompted Alex Ferguson’s assistant, Brian Kidd, to kneel in supplication on the Old Trafford pitch while a spry and lithe-looking Fergie jumped in the air behind him. The win put United top of the league, and they never relinquished that.

Another centre-back instilled with the plundering gene, Colin Hendry, captained Blackburn to the league title two seasons later. However, it was a member of Wednesday’s squad that season who got an unexpected chance to unleash his inner striker who created big waves briefly; Paul Warhurst missed the game in which Bruce made arguably his most famous individual contribution to United’s history.

Warhurst first came to prominence as a centre-back in a brilliant Oldham Athletic side who, in the space of the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons, reached the FA Cup semi-finals (losing to United after a replay) and the 1990 League Cup final (losing 1-0 to Nottingham Forest) and winning the Second Division title in an exceptionally strong season. To be fair to Warhurst, he was never going to get a look-in up top with the likes of Andy Ritchie, Roger Palmer and Frankie Bunn, as well as sometime defender, sometime striker Ian Marshall around.

His two goals in 79 games for Oldham were testament to that, but it was his turn up front for Wednesday in 1992-93, enforced by injuries to David Hirst and Mark Bright, that caught national attention. Warhurst scored 12 goals in 12 games as an emergency striker, including five in the FA Cup and League Cup Wednesday reached the finals of, only to lose to Arsenal on both occasions. Warhurst’s burst earned him an England call-up as a striker, but the injury that kept him out at Old Trafford also prevented him testing his hot streak at international level. His Wednesday career never got back on track, and he couldn’t repeat that form after moving to Blackburn in 1993. However, there are still legions of defenders at every level of the game now who think they can ‘do a Warhurst’. Tony Pulis should probably watch McAuley’s tackles on Rondon and Nacer Chadli in training extra carefully, lest his taste for goals get even stronger.

Who are your favourite goalscoring defenders?

Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahOnEarth

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