England's stalwart still on the defensive

Despite an international career spanning 10 years, Gary Pallister (right) is not guaranteed a place in Hoddle's plans. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online
Gary Pallister has seen them come and seen them go. Since making his international debut he has played under four England managers and seen 22 other centre-halves wear the three lions, nine of them as defensive partners.

This week he has been celebrating his 10th season as an England international, but if he plays against Moldova at Wembley on Wednesday it will only be his 23rd cap. Why has he not played more often?

"That's difficult to say. Obviously, everyone would like to feel they could have played more games for their country. I'm just pleased to be involved at the moment with the World Cup coming up," was his bland answer after training at Bisham Abbey this week.

Anyone looking for clues would have had one right under their nose. Pallister's foot was wrapped in an ice pack. Another injury?

Not this time; just a bruised toe where his foot had been trodden on in training, not that Pallister regards himself as injury prone. Indeed, the mere subject is a sensitive one, with the Manchester United defender being known to preface interviews with "I'm not talking about injuries".

"I keep hearing I'm injury-prone this and injury-prone that but I played a fair number of games last year and for people to keep talking about it is annoying," he said this time. "I'm fit as far as I'm concerned."

Since Pallister missed 15 United games last year and 21 the season before, it is hardly surprising he is regarded as having an injury problem. The most serious aspect has been his back which, when at its worst, meant he was struggling to play two games in a week. That factor was certainly responsible for his missing out on Euro 96 and hardly augers well for his World Cup chances in France next year.

"I have not had any trouble with it since November when I was out for three weeks," he said. "I just have to be careful. There were daft stories about not being able to travel - about having a bed in the bus - that's not true."

Until two seasons ago Pallister had missed only eight League games in nine years, so maybe his recent reputation is undeserved. He certainly appears fit enough. A lack of training may sometimes tell on his physique, but experience at reading the game gives him a yard start and he has been outstanding in Manchester United's perfect defensive start to the season of five clean sheets.

More telling, perhaps, when it comes to international selection is the memory of Barcelona in 1994, when Romario and Stoichkov bamboozled Pallister and Steve Bruce, and Oslo in 1993 when he was left exposed on the left of a back three by one of Graham Taylor's more bizarre selections.

That was several years ago, however. In his two appearances for Glenn Hoddle, in Moldova and as a second-half substitute at Wembley against Poland, he has looked comfortable. He does appear happier as half of a central defensive pair, as with Bruce or Tony Adams, than in a three but the same was once thought of Adams. Pallister cites Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson as his heroes and, given the chance of playing in the centre of a three, could prove a success. Several seasons of European football with United have improved his distribution and perception.

"It's always difficult to evaluate your own form but I'm playing at the moment so the manager [Alex Ferguson] must be pleased. We have seen over the years he is prepared to change things if he is not happy. There have been some great players leave the club and if you can't match his desire, his will to win and to improve all the time, you could be one of the names going out the door.

"He has an unbelievable passion for success and that is reflected in the team. You should have seen him in our dressing-room after we played Coventry. It was the first time in my career I had won 3-0 and got a roasting. He was not happy, we were not about our business; Coventry could easily have got something and he didn't hold his punches afterwards. That sums him up."

Ferguson's determination to improve United saw him invest pounds 5m in another centre-half, Henning Berg, this summer. He, Pallister, David May and Ronny Johnsen will now be competing for two positions.

"It keeps you on your toes, which is probably a reason we have kept the clean sheets. Last year we had a few injuries and the manager wanted to ensure there was not a repeat of the situation in the Champions' League last year when, at times, two of the centre-halves were injured."

Pallister was also in the dressing-room for when Hoddle dished out his biggest roasting to date, after the fortunate 2-1 win over Poland at Wembley last year.

"They [Hoddle and Ferguson] have different styles but both have got that passion to win. Because he was not a box-to-box player like Bryan Robson people might have a perception that Glenn is one of those silky, glossy players without passion but, if you listen to his team talks, you can see he has plenty.

"After the Poland game he let us know what he thought in no uncertain terms."

Due to injury, being out of favour or England not qualifying, Pallister has yet to play in a major tournament, and he added, with hope, "Playing in a World Cup would be the pinnacle of my career."

Having outlasted the Walkers and Wrights, and seen off the Ruddocks and Coopers, he must have a chance but Tony Adams is still in the frame and the young guns - Sol Campbell and Gareth Southgate- have muscled ahead.

Time is running out for 32-year-old Pallister and he, more than most, will be awaiting the announcement of Wednesday's team with interest.

England's 23 centre-halves since Pallister's debut, February '88

Robson Taylor Venables Hoddle caps

Gary Pallister 2 9+1 8 1+1 20+2

Tony Adams 10 9 12 2 33

Dave Watson 2+1 2+1

Mark Wright 10+2 13 2 25+2

Terry Butcher 23 23

Des Walker 23+2 33+1 56+3

Paul Parker 1 4 5

Earl Barrett 1 1

Gary Mabbutt 3 3

Martin Keown 8+1 4 12+1

Keith Curle 1 1

Carlton Palmer 2 2

Steve Bould 2 2

Neil Ruddock 1 1

Steve Howey 4 4

John Scales 2+1 2+1

David Unsworth 1 1

Colin Cooper 2 2

Gareth Southgate 6+2 9+1 15+3

Gary Neville 3 5+1 8+1

Stuart Pearce 4 6 10

Ugo Ehiogu 0+1 0+1

Sol Campbell 6 6

Appearances, in chronological order since Pallister's debut, refer only to matches played as a central defender (whether in central duo or trio). Butcher, Wright, Adams, Watson, Mabbutt had previously played there.