Snipers moan an awful lot about the absence of characters in modern football. They bang on about George Best, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and Alan Hudson as if somebody had gone and broken the mould. But let me tell you, I can honestly say that none of the hell-raising characters of yesteryear could hold a candle to Mario Balotelli.
I could tell you stories of boozing, betting and birding – but as for driving into women’s prisons, firing guns, chucking darts at youth-team players and setting off fireworks in your bathroom, nope, that’s where I draw a blank. Then there was the brilliant story of poor old Mother Balotelli sending young Mario out to buy an iron and ironing board – only for the prodigal son to return home followed by a lorry containing two Vespa scooters, a trampoline, a Scalextric and a table tennis set.
Balotelli is becoming something of a national treasure, adding to the gaiety of the nation at a bleak time of recession. We love an eccentric in Britain and Balotelli is certainly that. We also love eye-catching brilliance in our footballers and it is beginning to look as if young Mario has that too.
The best players often have an imperceptible something in their make-up, a touch of genius bordering on madness. It’s probably the same part of his brain which makes Balotelli act like a lunatic in his home life, as the one which makes him capable of the on-field pyrotechnics that contributed to Manchester City’s historic 6-1 victory at United.
Paul Gascoigne probably came closest to Balotelli when it came to daft pranks. It seems the madcap Italian is, like Gazza at his peak, something of a hyperactive man-child. And just like Gazza, he will infuriate and delight his team-mates in equal measure. I’m not sure Balotelli will ever truly grow up – and perhaps that’s something we should all savour because wayward stars are crucial to teams and the popularity of the game.
There have been many great ‘establishment’ footballers, players who did it all by the book, such as Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Trevor Brooking and Sir Geoff Hurst (can you see a connection there?). Then there are those like Best, Bowles, Worthington, Hudson, Denis Law and myself who were never likely to end up getting gongs from Buckingham Palace but were determined to make the most of our playing days, both on and off the field. We certainly did manage to enjoy ourselves. Though not, I suspect, quite as much as Mario Balotelli.