Some are more 'culty' than others and some are more heroic than others. Thomas Markham-Uden delves deep into the crazy world of players that are rough around the edges but manage to wander into our hearts.
Loved but underappreciated. Above criticism while adored due to their their shortcomings. Romanticised but rough around the edges. Sentimental yet exotic. Long serving stalwarts and glamorous flops. Cult heroes are a ubiquitous oddity of football.
The cult hero has a long and proud history within the game – the very best of them being discussed with slightly hushed reverence long after they’ve hung up their boots – but what actually constitutes a cult hero? And what does a player have to do – or perhaps not do – in order to achieve such adoration?
A cult hero player is not be confused with that of the proverbial fan favourite. The latter are your star attractions, your prize assets. Fan favourites will be almost universally adored, trotted out to front ad campaigns and kit launches and generally act, to varying degrees, as a figurehead for a club. The clue is in the title: favourite. The best. Grant Holt is unquestionably a fan favourite. So too Iwan Roberts, Darren Eadie and Robert Fleck.
Further afield it’s players like David Beckham, Gianfranco Zola and Thierry Henry. Leading by example, a slight twinkle in their eye. We all love them: from children to the old folk who have been going to games since the ’50s, the manager, the club hierarchy and the press.
But what of the cult hero? While often held in equally high regard by many, the archetypal cult player often possesses something that makes them unable to attain fan favourite status, but still enables them to be elevated to loftier heights than other players around them. Oddly, however, the characteristics which one can see in cult players are not universal, as if the true making of a cult hero footballer is some unspoken agreement between fans. Or maybe the consequence of a clandestine meeting in the bowels of the stadium, like a scene from the Stone Cutters episode of The Simpsons.
“Upon who shall we bestow the coveted title of ‘cult hero’ this season?
“Agreed. Now swear the oath of allegiance on this copy of the Norwich City Miscellany.”
There are those players for whom cult hero status has been achieved by virtue of the fact that, despite being an exceedingly good footballer, their position on the pitch and their general demeanour while playing makes them appear unfashionable. Huckerby and Roberts might have been banging in the goals while sporting glinting blonde highlights and a cheeky, gap-toothed smile, but the unsung hero of that era was one of my personal favourite cult heroes, Steen Nedergaard.
Unassuming and polite, the Dane put in shift after hard-working shift on the right side of our back four, combining steadfast defensive work with a series of sublime crosses and the odd goal. Steeno was never one to grab the headlines, but his contribution to the team during that period was invaluable and the fans knew it. Other cult heroes in a similar vein are Craig Fleming, Erik Fuglestad and Adam Drury. In fact this category of cult footballer is often made up of more defensive players, fitting in with the theme of importance masked somewhat by their unfashionable nature.
Another attribute possessed by the cult footballer is actually just a profound lack of fortune. I sat across the aisle from Gaetano Giallanza at Portman Road last month, scorer of what is still one of the finest team goals I’ve witnessed (away at Blackburn in the August 2000, look it up if you can) before injury curtailed his promising Norwich career. That missed potential; the “what if?” musings so beloved of football fans across the globe: that’s a sure-fire way to become a cult hero footballer.
Another fine example of misfortune befalling a player was Diego Forlan’s time at Manchester United. Try as he might, the Uruguayan just couldn’t find the net; a scoring drought that lasted a mighty 26 matches. Some fans would turn on such a seemingly inept player but such was Forlan’s continued determination and good grace that the Old Trafford faithful took him to heart and the reaction when he finally did find the net was that of a player scoring the winner in a cup final. I guess it’s also really hard to hate a player who gets christened ‘Diego Forlorn’. Such inexplicable affection for a goal shy striker will, of course, chime with all Norwich fans who looked on as our very own Ricky van Wolfswinkel totted up a similarly meager tally in his attempts to find the back of the net.
This sense of misfortune can also turn players not currently occupying starting positions in the team in to cult players in the eyes of some fans; the misfortune aspect coming from supporters feeling that such players are unlucky not be given a chance. This category can be divisive - *cough* Lafferty *cough* - and is essentially based upon the belief that the player not playing must be better than those currently on the pitch.
This sense of injustice and clamour for the new-found hero to start increases exponentially with each passing game that they don’t make an appearance and can go two ways: either the player starts and is good, thus ensuring cult hero status and general smugness for ever more, or they start and are rubbish, at which time everyone denies that they ever rang in to a radio phone in demanding the manager start said player and moves on to find another poor sap currently warming the bench.
Sometimes, the aspect that is profoundly lacking in a player is not luck, but actually just skill. Such ineptitude is a fine line between charming farce and maddening, “why the fuck are they even on the pitch?!” outburst, but those that tread this line well are generally viewed in the same manner as those who pick up the ‘best attitude’ award at summer football training courses: they’re not very good, they probably know it, but it’s not their fault and hell, at least they’re trying. Football is awash with this sort of player, particularly at the lower levels of the professional game, and they tend to be flawed forward players or defenders prone to comedic errors of judgement. Adrian Coote is a classic example of the former, Steven Whittaker a current iteration of the latter.
A final category of cult footballer is that of the energetic midfield enforcer. Charging round the pitch, flying in to tackles and generally displaying a demeanour that can best be described as “feisty”, these footballers actually occasionally stray in to fan favourite territory. However, something about their sheer unpredictability and intenseness retains a cult like mysticism around them, while also embodying the trait most beloved by many fans: the desire to “get stuck in.” Gary Holt is the absolute pinnacle of this type of cult hero player, the thee-lunged bastard, and his desire to cover every blade of grass was immortalised in a gloriously literal chant. Gary O’Neil is perhaps a more up-to-date version of this player, but frankly, the song that he earned was no where near as good.
Whatever way you categorise them, from work-horse defender hiding in the shadows, to the comically bad but diligently try hard forward, cult hero players are a mainstay of the game. In fact, the joy is that everyone can look back through their years of football supporting and pick out their own. There’s often no rhyme or reason to why they get chosen, but the game would definitely be duller without their presence.
Thomas Markham-Uden tweets at @_thomasej