Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a blisteringly quick provincial prince.
Darren Huckerby is loved in Norwich and need never buy a pint in Coventry for the rest of his days. At Manchester City – where the striker played for two and a half seasons, one of which saw the Blues promoted as champions from the Championship – he is fondly recalled but during his time there he was overshadowed by brighter stars despite his impressive exploits. At Leeds he was considered a disappointment but again this was largely due to being outshone by household names.
The Nottingham-born forward played for nine clubs during a career that spanned 16 years but these were the four that he is best associated with and by virtue of his success at two and struggles elsewhere is it too simplistic to suggest that Huckerby was in his element when at less fashionable clubs? That he lost something when amidst the metropolitan crowd? That he was instead a prince of the provinces?
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Whatever the truth is when the blisteringly quick talent felt at home in homely surroundings he terrorised defences like few others have managed before or since. At Highfield Road his darting movement and trickery provided the perfect foil for Dion Dublin. In East Anglia – where he was often deployed out wide – his first, second and third thought was to attack his man and make things happen. When he was on his game he was electric to behold: the kind of fearless, dribbling, adventurous-of-spirit footballer we all imagine ourselves to be if we had the ability. At Coventry and Norwich he was usually on his game.
Huckerby made 202 appearances in the Premier League and scored a third of his 120 goals there. A third of those were special.
Additionally he had that rarest of qualities for a modern day player: loyalty. At City he rejected a loan spell at Celtic. At Norwich he turned down the overtures of Liverpool then promptly went on to win his second Player of the Year award at Carrow Road after another outstanding season of virtuosity.
It is in the West Midlands where we concentrate our attention though mainly because we’re suckers for a brilliant double-act up front and for two years the Sky Blues possessed one of the most iconic of recent times.
The partnership between Dublin and Hucklerby was a classic in its make-up with the former’s aerial prowess and fine awareness creating all manner of opportunities for the relentless hustling of an attacker who surely in decades past would have played with his socks rolled down. In tandem for a top six side the sheer number of goals they scored – and assisted for the other – would have seen that team challenge for a title. At Coventry it was enough to stave off relegation as was the case in 1997 when Gordon Strachan’s men pulled off a remarkable, nay miraculous late recovery to stay up. So much of that was due to their twin threat up front that a statue is warranted in the city centre.
It is several months later however – at home to Manchester United – for one of Coventry’s most famous victories where we find Huckerby’s slice of pure genius.
It is December 28th 1997 and Coventry are hovering perilously above the drop-zone. The visitors typically are top of the pile and they arrive in the Midlands boasting an unbeaten streak that goes back to autumn. True to form they go into the final flushes of a thoroughly entertaining clash 2-1 to the good.
A Dublin penalty squares it with just minutes to spare and that’s the story that is going to print; that’s the story everybody will read about in the papers. Valiant Coventry pull off a comeback to share the points.
Only Huckerby had other ideas and it was an idea he had all by himself.
The ball is scrambled to him halfway inside United’s half and immediately Gary Neville and Nicky Butt descend, the latter dismissed with a drop of the shoulder. Butt is now a spectator as Huckerby drives infield.
Neville though, as ferrety as ever, tracks his opponent, only committing to a sliding tackle when he’s absolutely sure the ball is there to be taken. He is mistaken however. So very mistaken.
Worse yet for the United back-line Huckerby’s touch to his left that leaves Neville kicking at thin air has lured in Henning Berg and he’s their last man. The Norwegian visibly looks dumbfounded as the skilful forward slaloms his run, knocking the ball to his right in an instant. There is now only the keeper to beat and Darren Huckerby, in the final minute, has single-handedly tortured United’s resistance. He’s left them groping for sense.
With a nonchalant side-footed finish the magnificent goal is completed and as the commentator’s voice rises several octaves the Highfield Road faithful explode. At first they celebrate the moment, who wouldn’t? They then acknowledge the creator. Their rarest of talents. Their prince.