Some things are simply insurmountable. There are positive thinkers who will have you believe that anything is possible.
But they’re wrong.
And in the case of the lesser-spotted defender, Colin Pates, his task was a mammoth one.
Break into the lauded Arsenal back four – and hold down a spot.
The finest defenders of this generation would have had similar fates were they presented with this thankless mission. The likes of Stuart Pearce, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Laurent Blanc, Des Walker – they may have had the edge on Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Lee Dixon in terms of certain facets of defending. They may have been quicker in some cases.
But put them together, add in the regimented schooling of George Graham and as a unit, they were unbreakable. And that is why any defender would have struggled to slide into the side in a defensive position.
And so was the case for Colin Pates. While no Baresi, Pates had built a solid reputation at Chelsea as a dependable defender who was strong in the air and no slouch on the deck. And it was why then Gunners boss George Graham decided to take the plunge and sign Pates in January 1990. He needed cover for a backline that was struggling with injury and fatigue. And the good thing was that Pates was available as he was at Charlton and could be tempted with a move back to the top flight.
And so, with half a million given in exchange for Pates’s services, Arsenal had their defender.
But the hard work hadn’t even begun to start for Pates.
First off was getting used to Graham’s notorious training sessions. If it wasn’t the extensive fitness sessions that finished you off, it was the mind-numbing, repeated defensive exercises that the defenders were made to practice, ad infinitum.
It sounded laborious and at the time it probably was, but it gave the famous back four the ability to register pockets of space between their teammates without looking. It gave them foresight to know exactly where each other were and what action needed to be made and by whom in order to snuff out danger.
That takes time of course and the going was tough for Pates to get game time.
In fact, Pates registered just one appearance in (some would argue Arsenal’s greatest ever season, check for yourself) the Gunners title-winning side of 1990-91. He left on loan in the middle of the season to Brighton to see out the rest of the campaign and get some minutes into his legs. The back four were established and couldn’t be dislodged – but Graham had also purchased Andy Linighan in the summer and there was also the small matter of Arsenal stalwart David O’Leary in front of Pates in the pecking order.
Pates’ Arsenal career did improve marginally – he did make another 20 appearances before leaving for Brighton in 1993 – but his task of breaking into the ranks of the famous Arsenal back four and staying in the eleven? That was never conceivable.
Pates wasn’t the first and wasn’t the last to try and dethrone Adams, Bould, Winterburn and Dixon. But they remained undefeated until it was only age that could force them to hang up their boots and break up what is the finest example of a backline that these shores have ever seen – before or since.
Which defender do you think could have slotted into our famous four?