First to enter the pantheons of Welsh greats in our new feature ‘Top Boyos’ is one of Wales’ finest modern centre backs. Scott Johnson tells us why he admired former Cardiff City and Wales defender Danny Gabbidon so much. Scott writes for numerous reputable sites such as ‘In Bed With Maradona’, ‘Goal’ and ‘Wales Online’, as well as having articles featured in ‘FourFourTwo’ and ‘When Saturday Comes’.
Comfortable in possession and capable of bringing the ball out of defence like a sweeper. Quick enough to correct his rare mistakes, commanding in the air and a sage decision maker. Capable playing anywhere across the back four and would probably bag you 20 goals a season up front if you decided to station him there. In short, Danny Gabbidon was a class act, a Rolls Royce of a footballer and for a while, West Ham fans thought they had signed ‘the new Bobby Moore.’
A West Bromwich Albion apprentice, Gabbidon began his professional career at right back. The appointment of Gary Megson in March 2000 resulted in the Cwmbran-born youngster losing his place and moving to Cardiff City the following September, after an initial loan spell. Five years in his native South Wales saw Gabbidon and Cardiff progress from the bottom tier to become an established Championship side. His international career was also beginning to blossom under the tutelage of Mark Hughes, becoming a regular ahead of the 2004 European Championship campaign.
Named in the Championship team of the year in 2004, he signed a new contract with the club and formed a formidable partnership with James ‘Ginger Monster’ Collins in the subsequent campaign. Despite battling relegation for most of the season, Cardiff survived but both Gabbidon and Collins departed that summer, joining Alan Pardew’s newly-promoted West Ham.
Paired alongside Anton Ferdinand, Gabbidon made 32 league appearances as the Hammers spent the entire campaign in the top 10 and eventually finished ninth. He was also an ever present in their march to the FA Cup final, playing the full 120 minutes of their heartbreaking 3-3 draw with Liverpool and eventual penalty shootout defeat. His impressive first season saw him awarded the prestigious ‘Hammer of the Year’ accolade.
The 2006-07 season saw the arrival of both Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, West Ham plummet down the table and the beginning of Gabbidon’s injury woe. His struggles were actually long-standing and evident during his time at Cardiff, where he missed six months of the 2002-03 campaign with a nagging back injury. It was eventually established that he had one leg longer than the other and was instructed to wear a loaded boot.
Despite remaining largely free of injury in his first season with the club, he was withdrawn after 20 minutes of West Ham’s league fixture at Blackburn with a knock. He recovered to feature against Portsmouth two weeks later, emerging from the bench in the first half before enduring the ignominy of lasting only six minutes before suffering a recurrence of the injury. He tore a hamstring in November 2006 and missed the next month, before groin surgery the following January and again in April ended his season, after 22 appearances in all competitions.
West Ham started the 2007-08 season with Alan Curbishley in charge and Matthew Upson alongside Ferdinand in the heart of the defence. Gabbidon signed a two-year contract extension and featured in 14 games before sustaining the first in a series of back and abdominal injuries in a League Cup tie with Everton in December. He missed not only the remainder of the season but also the whole of the following campaign. He made his Premier League return at left back against Wigan in September 2009 during Gianfranco Zola’s solitary full season in charge, he made only seven further starts. The turnover of players and staff had been so great, that when Gabbidon returned to the side, he was the sole surviving member of the 2006 FA Cup final team, that had shown so much promise.
Returning to favour under Avram Grant for the ill-fated 2010-11 campaign, Gabbidon remained injury-free and played 27 times in all competitions as West Ham were relegated to the Championship, having finished bottom. Despite featuring on a regular basis, Gabbidon’s performances were becoming increasingly erratic as he entered his thirties and the accumulation of so many injuries began to take their toll. Where you could once count his bad games on one hand at international level, his retirement in October 2010 came as a relief, as he was becoming something of a liability. His return to the national side the following January barely registered and he is unlikely to feature under current manager Chris Coleman.
He started 17 games for QPR last season, after his West Ham contract expired the previous summer. A regular for Neil Warnock but tellingly the appointment of Mark Hughes, his former Welsh manager and formerly a vocal supporter, resulted in him being overlooked for the remainder of the season. He signed for Crystal Palace this season, having struggled to find a club during the transfer window after his QPR release. A bit-part player for the majority of the season, he started all of Palace’s final seven games, including both legs of the play-offs and all 120 minutes of the final, as the Eagles emerged victorious. He somehow managed to roll back the years and strut his stuff once more, displaying his class during and after the game, consoling Watford’s players before joining in the celebrations.
Seemingly destined for greater things before his body failed him, gone are the days of the dropped shoulder and saunters forward, the exemplary timed tackles and raking passes. Gone, but not forgotten. His career has essentially mirrored the Welsh qualifying campaign for the 2004 European Championships. After an explosive start, defeating Finland, Azerbaijan twice and Italy at a packed Millennium Stadium, they failed to win any of the following six games and missed out on qualification. Potential unfulfilled.
The enduring highlight of that campaign, Craig Bellamy’s winning goal in the 2-1 win against the Azzurri, immortalised Gabbidon at his finest. Taking possession deep in the Welsh half, he nonchalantly threaded a pass through the heart of the opposition to find John Hartson, who flicked the ball forward for Bellamy to seal the win. The chants of ‘Oh Danny Danny, Danny Danny Danny Danny Gabbidon’ may no longer reverberate, but the memories remain.
Scott Johnson (@roathboy)