‘Who’s the greatest player you’ve ever played against?’ From 90 minutes to Shoot to the matchday programme; a question asked of every footballer in every football interview I’ve ever chanced to read. Its true purpose as conspicuous as its asking; to tee up the interviewee for the biggest name-drop in their sepia-tinged locker. CLANG – Paul Gascoigne in a testimonial; CLANG – Eric Cantona in a beer advert; CLANG – Lothar Matthaus in some charity wheeze.
As those who know me will attest, despite my willing, I am not a footballer; possessing as I do two standing feet and all the pace of a Samuel Beckett stage play. But then this is my gig, so indulge me if you will as I take my turn to answer that most-football of footballer questions. Come on, come with me to Lincoln and the summer of 2008.
It was here that I became a player in a match as regular as it was peculiar; a weekly fixture between the door-staff of Lincoln’s nightclubs and the city’s Chinese takeaway workers. Eleven-a-side, rock-hard Astroturf pitch, and friendly in nature so long as the bouncers weren’t more than three goals down.
It was as visually amusing a mismatch as you’re probably already picturing. Hulking great giants reliant on physicality and a big hoof up to a Lithuanian forward so vast he required planning permission, versus a team much smaller in stature whose game-plan centred on agility, pace and not giving away a corner. I was on the door-staff team – I was never quite sure how I got there, but as I’ve always preferred my nights out to free of the hard stares of SAS-fetishists I felt it disingenuous to ask.
Week one; plonked in midfield beneath a baking sun I sought an easy life and elected to mark their oldest player. A meek, diminutive, balding fella in his late 40s if not older; what damage could he possibly do?
It would transpire, a hell of a lot. He was phenomenal. He never ran; never broke sweat, yet was always in space and whenever the ball came his way he’d trap it instantly with a single touch, before pinging it at whomever he deigned worthy of receiving it. Five yards, 55 yards, it didn’t matter, he never missed – his team-mates would find themselves in possession before they knew they were open. And if none were on, he’d just give a little shrug and ping it into the top corner of the net instead.
I never heard him speak – not in English nor Mandarin – instead he let his feet do the talking, save for the occasional wry chuckle as he left our two lummocking Central European centre-halves flailing in the wake of another of his pin-point through-balls. I’ve no idea of his back-story, I never even knew his name, but long beyond that idle summer of Astroturf-burns and hungover shin-pad searching he remains the greatest.
The thing is, for all the talent of Xi Dan (the Chinese Zidane) had he been young, athletic, or had a full head of hair I doubt I’d remember him all these years on. I’ve another regular footballing foe of that time who sticks in the mind; a big fat fella who ambled about for the Post Office in the Wednesday night six-a-side. We knew what was coming, but still, without fail, every eight weeks or so, his golden right boot would unfailingly carve us open. Jan Mailby we christened him. A decade on, he’s still there too. Occupying a corner of my mind; pinging assist after assist.
But no matter how many times they made me look foolish, no matter how many times they arced another through-ball just out of reach of my desperate lunges, I couldn’t hate them. No, instead I loved both of those players because of what they ultimately were; footballers who don’t look like footballers. They were just average fellas, ordinary blokes who preyed on complacency and subverted expectation as deftly as they’d trap a goal-kick.
In the present-day footballing world of homogenised athletes – twenty two toned men all with the same boots, the same bantz, the same tattoos – it must be hard for anyone under the age of twenty to contemplate a world in which players of such unsuitable stature not only existed, but thrived, high above the leisure leagues and weekend kickabouts.
Now, even in the depths of non-league, you’ll struggle to find a player who looks like they might smoke a pipe, or a full-back with the proportions of a country publican – and the game is much poorer for it. You could offer me a hundred deep-lying trequartista’s with a fine-line in step-overs and I’ll trade them all for a fat moustachioed forward called Terry who smokes twenty-a-day, and runs a stall down the market.
Where have they all gone? Where are the fat players? The bald ones? The combovers? Attilio Lombardo had the hairline of a sub-postmaster when he won the Scudetto with Sampdoria. Mickey Quinn topped the Premier League scoring charts whilst looking like he drove a taxi on the side (a Ford Granada with wooden seat covers, naturally). Steve Ogrizovic didn’t let the fact he’d been drawn by Quentin Blake stop him racking up 600 top flight appearances. What happened to them? What became of the Dave Cusacks, the John Doolans? Paul Barnes? Always Paul Barnes; a man who could terrorise both a defence and a buffet in one afternoon.
I loved these players, because they looked like normal blokes, and in doing so they not only represented their clubs, they also represented hope. Our hope. The hope that our chance hasn’t gone; that we could still make it. That we could still have our moment. That there was still that chance that one day Darren Ferguson might turn to look at the sub’s bench, pause, shake his head and then scan the seats of the West Stand before pointing at you. You, three pints to the wind and with your paunch resting snugly on your elasticated jeans. You are the answer. ‘Get warm’.
Of course it wouldn’t ever happen. It couldn’t happen. But it’s why we need blokes among the athletes. Because so long as there’s someone out there on the pitch, who takes three sugars in their tea, whose horizontal hoops are doing their physique no favours, and who look like they’ve stubbed out a half-time cigarette in Donny Dog’s paw as they took the field, then at least there is hope. And who doesn’t want that.
This article was first printed in issue 88 of popular STAND fanzine, which was published in April 2017. popular STAND prints six issues per season, and subscriptions are available anywhere in the world.