The concept of the ‘cult hero’ in football must appear bewildering to those with no affiliation or interest in the sport. How can such a broad spectrum of seemingly intellectual folk harbour so much praise for a man seemingly inadequate at his job?
I suppose it’s exactly the same reason why so many adore Boris Johnson, it’s the unique charm, regular examples of buffoonery and the simple fact that they are so compelling to watch. Boris has been trusted with the job of babysitting the nation’s capital but we believe in our heart that he means well and so when campaign promises fail to materialise, we simply cast our mind back to when he spear-tackled Germany’s Maurizio Gaudino in a charity football match or picture him suspended in mid-air waving those tiny Union Jack flags.
The man cannot fail to conjure a smile.
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But I digress; the unpredictable nature of football evokes so much emotion that individuals can obtain a god-like status simply for emitting the same passion as those around them. Park Ji-Sung was never going to decorate Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teamsheet on a weekly basis but his desire and determination enabled him to win over the affection of the supporters almost instantaneously.
The chants of ‘three lungs, he’s only got three lungs’ can still be heard echoing round at Old Trafford like a memory that refuses to fade.
Park’s transfer to free-spending QPR has somewhat damaged his reputation, especially since he has struggled to reproduce the same level of performance. The unappreciated trio of Damien Duff, Brad Freidel and Mikel Arteta – voted the Premier League’s most likeable player on Football FanCast – are worthy contenders for the title of ‘cult hero’, but they’re far too consistently brilliant for their own good.
A true cult hero is rarely praised for his ability and is instead portrayed as someone who continues to defy expectation. Someone, like Peter Crouch. Let’s face it the gangly striker is an anatomical anomaly in the beautiful game. His playing style couples sheer panic with the image of a baby giraffe learning to walk in roller skates and yet the man has a penchant for the spectacular. His portfolio of acrobatic goals were somehow surpassed when he produced that truly stunning strike against Manchester City last season.
‘Crouchie’ also appears to possess a humble personality, a rare trait of the stereotypical footballer and has publicly admitted that if he weren’t a professional sportsman, he would most likely be a virgin. However, tabloid tales of infidelity coupled with the fact he currently plays for the most undesirable team in the division has scuppered his chances of picking up this particular gong.
At the start of the season I was fully prepared to award the title of ‘cult hero’ to Carl Jenkinson, simply for struggling to overcome that nightmare drubbing at Old Trafford. In Jenkinson, Arsenal have a player that has a genuine affection for the club, although recollections of a certain Dutch striker will leave Gunners fans forever wary of such individuals.
Jenkinson once resembled a little lost lamb wandering towards repeated slaughter on that right flank, but Arsene Wenger appears to have instigated yet another brilliant transformation. Jenkinson’s performances this season have attracted praise from the national press and even prompted cries for international selection. Once again we’ve stumbled across as player that is simply too good to be dubbed a cult hero. Curse you Wenger.
In my eyes there are only two contenders for this accolade. In the blue corner, we have a man who would look equally at home on a building site as he does on a football pitch. A true one-club wonder, a loyal servant in era fuelled by greed and financial incentives. His blood runs blue, or possibly consists of toffee considering his devotion to Everton football club. I am of course referring to Tony Hibbert.
Hibbert caused a pitch invasion during his recent testimonial match when he fired in a rasping free-kick, a fitting example of his status among supporters. The 31-year-old is perhaps the last of a dying breed of full-backs, whose primary function is to defend rather than bomb up the pitch in support. Moyes can always rely on Hibbert and that’s what makes him special, he does exactly what is asked of him, nothing more but certainly nothing less.
The other name worth considering answers only to the alias ‘The Mackem Slayer’. Shola Ameobi flicks constantly between the sublime and the shocking, evoking more ooh’s and aah’s from the Geordie nation than a fumble between the sheets. Ameobi may never seriously challenge Cisse or Ba for a regular starting place but that’s not important, especially since he has his own song to the tune of a children’s nursery rhyme. His brother Sammy is also a member of the Toon Army, which offers hope that the cult hero strand of DNA runs in the family.
You may be wondering why I have failed to include the most obvious candidate, a man so endearing that we overlook the fact he’s a walking fire hazard or views teenagers as a dartboard. Manchester City have a real enigma in the form of Mario Balotelli but he seems too readily smeared by a tabloid glaze, which makes it difficult to know if any of his wonderful tales are actually true.
There is also a real danger of Mario maturing to such an extent that he fulfils his potential and reaches the self-proclaimed heights of Lionel Messi. If he manages that, then he won’t be a cult hero at all, he’ll be one of the few remaining legends in the sport.
Which player do you consider to be a ‘cult hero’ in English football? Leave a comment below.