In appreciation of Tom Anderson - Doncaster Rovers' 'spellbinding' defender

Have you ever been in the presence of somebody who loves football in a totally different way to you?

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 12:04 pm
Tom Anderson. Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

It can be quite unnerving but also refreshing. Those that love defensive brilliance as much as attacking flair love football in an entirely different way to me.

Until now I have only truly loved the creative individual, the Juninhos, Cantonas and James Coppingers of the footballing world. I have failed to truly appreciate the skill of defending. Admittedly I have been able to appreciate watching elite players such as Carlos Puyol, but rarely am I raised out of my seat for a piece of defensive skill.

For those that love watching good defending, watching football alongside me must be akin to being with that one mate who claims they’re not that into music but still can’t resist the dancefloor for a classic Arctic Monkeys belter. You don’t know what you’re missing, mate.

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Tom Anderson and Louis Jones. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images

I am always curious, what exactly is it that these people love about defending? Yes, that was a good interception, but look at the little Brazilian who is showing for the ball despite being surrounded by opposition players, isn’t that better?

Maybe it is, but thanks to Tom Anderson’s recent performances I am starting to understand that good defending can be just as spellbinding to watch as creative, attacking play. The defensive qualities of Anderson are amongst the best I have seen in a Rovers shirt and as the season goes on, I am starting to appreciate how multifaceted they are.

Anderson seems to read the game faster than most around him and is positionally excellent. Like a heavyweight boxer, Anderson’s deceptively light footwork keeps his opponent within arm’s reach which as a result means his leaping header is quite often perfectly timed to meet the incoming cross.

On the ball Anderson is a growing force. Not flawless and not always easy on the eye when dribbling out from the back (the stiffness of Anderson’s shoulders at times suggests that amongst all the lockdown hobbies on offer, yoga was not the Burnley lad’s favourite) but with increasing consistency Anderson’s ball between the lines to a Rovers midfielder is right on the money.

Without the ball, Anderson’s organisational presence seems as key to Doncaster Rovers’ success as Virgil van Dijk’s presence is to Liverpool. Without Anderson, as has been seemingly evident throughout his period injured this season, Rovers are not even nearly as good.

I imagine that, as a Rovers midfielder, knowing that Anderson is behind you allows you to take more of those split second, calculated risks in the middle of the park that many of Rovers’ sharp, fluid attacking moves often hinge on. That Matty Smith half turn. That Bostock ball around the corner. All that fraction more confidently carried out thanks to Anderson’s presence.

As vital as the organisational presence is the attitude that Anderson displays. The most telling example of this came just after what is destined to be the most revered moment of Rovers’ watch-at-home era. As Coppinger’s late free kick against Hull found the back of the net, atheists across Doncaster momentarily re-found religion and the rest of the Rovers’ squad chased Coppinger around the scene of the miracle, Anderson was having none of it.

Back in position, pointing at the opposition goal, screaming for the sentiment to stop and the for lads to refocus. There’s three points for us here lads, save it for later. More than a great player, this kind of attitude is the trademark of a great leader. A man who can do both.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Anderson’s craft is his apparent love for (and complete brilliance at) the last gasp challenge. Rather than shrink with fear as he backtracks into his own box, Anderson seems to relish it, appearing to gain both stature and assurance as he explodes into action for a cinematically perfect last gasp challenge like a man who watches Die Hard every single Christmas.

Paulo Maldini famously stated that if he had to make a tackle, he had already made a mistake. Perhaps Maldini is right and Anderson is simply brilliant at recovering from previous mistakes. But here’s an alternate theory not at all blindsided by romanticism.

Within horse racing legend there is a theory that Red Rum knew just how good he was. The theory goes that Red Rum was so aware of his superiority that he consciously allowed his competitors to remain within reach before stealing the limelight for an adrenaline fuelled last few furlongs. Red Rum would apparently allow other horses to catch him up, ride alongside him and sometimes even gain a stride, only to gobble them up at the last breath.

Maybe Anderson does something similar, maybe he is so aware of his superiority that, rather than cleanly nipping the ball away from his opponent, he allows him to believe that he has found a clear sight of goal before shattering his hopes.

As you look down at your final chip at the seaside, the one you saved for last because it’s the best shape and has the most ketchup on it, Anderson is the seagull that’s been eyeing it up for even longer than you have, patiently waiting for the right moment to pinch it from you.

These days as I log in to iFollow and watch wind blow through an empty stadium in anticipation of the match, my mind doesn’t only race with excitement for the creative magic of Coppinger, it now also races with excitement for Anderson’s heroics. Rather than trying to convert everyone into thinking my way, into appreciating creativity over everything else, maybe I can start to truly appreciate defending. Maybe I can become a man who can do both.