What are the ingredients of a cult hero in football?
With ticket prices rising, the regular punter being forced out of the stands and into the nearest pub and with chief executives arguing that football is little more than an ‘entertainment’ business now, the level of detachment, bordering on disillusionment that most supports feel is entirely understandable; the sport is no longer a game of the masses, rather an elitist cash cow that increasingly treats fans as customers, so holding on to a shred of folklore, a relic from a bygone era when times were simpler represents a tangible and attractive connection for most between the pitch and the terraces, found none more so than in the cult hero, but what ingredients go in to making one?
At the weekend, Newcastle held on to draw with Sunderland 1-1 despite going down to ten men in the first half after Cheikh Tiote’s red card, but the main incident that caught the attention prior to kick-off was that Shola Ameobi, otherwise referred to as the ‘Mackem slayer’ for his derby goals record, was handed his first start of the season.
Now there’s no denying Ameobi’s status as a cult hero on Tyneside, but he perfectly encapsulates the main factors – he’s a bit rubbish, he occasionally has moments of sublime quality, he tries really hard, he seems to genuinely care about the club he plays for, he’s loyal and most importantly of all, he seems to genuinely dislike his club’s rivals and more often than not raises his game against them to make a telling contribution. I support neither Sunderland nor Newcastle, but I quite like Ameobi, he seems like a passionate, thoroughly likeable footballer, which is rarer than you might think these days.
Cult heroess are never the best players in your side and they should always have at least one massive weakness which you love them for having all the same. For Duncan Ferguson, it was his infamous temper, which combined to numerous hilarious anecdotes off the pitch and his seemingly unlimited hatred of certain footballers on it made him a loveable character in a game increasingly short of them
How a player acts off the pitch usually has an effect on how view them as a player, despite our best intentions to judge them objectively. Jimmy Bullard was widely liked not because he was a tidy player with sound technique, but because it looked like he was having such a great time when he was playing and his enjoyment was infectious; there was nothing cynical about him, just the dawning realisation that he was living every fans dream.
There’s a different route to the status of cult hero, though, and that could often mean hitting a last-minute winner in a game of importance. I wouldn’t quite classify Sergio Aguero here simply because he’s a world-class footballer in his own right and there’s very little of the cult about him, but Jimmy Glass, Gary Mabbutt, Gary McAllister and Paul Dickov certainly fall into this category.
Another important factor is the one man club status, born out of loyalty to the shirt, but the temptation with this one is that if often gets muddled up with the status of ‘legend’. Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs and John Terry for example, are not cult heroes, but Matt Le Tissier, Sammy Lee and Tony Hibbert most certainly are, which in itself represents the various contradictions with trying to quantify something like this and there are several grey areas which leave themselves open to interpretation and personal preferences.I happen to have a weakness for Pablo Zabaleta, even though he doesn’t play for the club that I support.
For instance, Roma’s Daniele De Rossi is a world-class player, similarly to Aguero, but I’d classify him as a cult hero simply because he’s turned down the lures of Manchester City’s millions in the summer to stay put at the club he loves, which is exactly why aside from his penchant for scoring outlandishly brilliant goals, Le Tissier is still widely held in such high esteem by neutrals.
The sense of ‘what might have been’ can also play an important part – unfulfilled talents are almost always referred to as cult heroes. George Best, Paul McGrath and Ledley King were all hampered by injury to such an extent that they never made the most of their outstanding ability, but at the same time, there’s something appealing about a limited player making the most of himself and doing well, like Shaun Goater or Dennis Irwin.
Coming from a foreign country can often aid your cult status among the fans too, offering something a little out of the norm and during the mid-90s, the top flight was awash with flawed but creative geniuses such as Juninho, Georgi Kinkladze and Eyal Berkovic – the sort of players you’d pay good money to watch simply due to their ability to do the unexpected. They provided thrills not normally seen at these provincial clubs and they brought a previously unforeseen glamour to proceedings and a hope that there is something better out there.
There is not one clear path to the status of cult hero and it’s this malleable definition which lends itself to them being so highly regarded by supporters, often disproportionately so when compared to their ability. Whether it be through blind loyalty, genuine likeability or commitment to the cause, one thing is for certain, though, they are a dying breed within a game becoming increasingly aloof, introspective and self-serving and we could do with a whole lot more cult heroes to worship in the not too distant future.
What one quality above all else would you say is most important for a cult hero to have?
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1