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 full-back too often devalued by his consistency.
Dependable. That’s the word that so often pops up whenever Leighton Baines’ name is committed to print. Even UEFA succumbed to it, once describing a player who has represented England on thirty occasions as a ‘dependable left-back’ on their official website. Fortunately, it has been updated since then.
It’s a somewhat belittling term that the Kirkby-born defender unquestionably does not deserve and probably derives from his durability that once saw him play every single minute of a Premier League campaign and another time play 99 consecutive games for Everton. It’s pertinent too of course that Baines was consistently excellent throughout, otherwise it would merely be his attendance record that would be lauded. He would be an ‘ever-present’.
Personally I hate the term. It implies that the 34-year-old has never let Everton – and formerly Wigan – down. In fact he has does more than most in lifting both clubs to impressive heights and though it’s an extreme example, are The Beatles called ‘dependable’ because they never failed to knock out an album per year during their peak era and all of them were of a high standard?
Since the Premier League’s inception Baines is one of the very few players to have plied his trade across all four divisions, bossing the left flank for the Latics as they rose from League Two to dreamland. That’s not dependable. That’s commendable.
In 2010/11, four years after his £6m switch to Goodison Park, he won every club award going by a landslide, ranging from the Toffees’ Player of the Year to the Player’s Player of the Year to the Goal of the Season. Only five players in the top flight made more assists, all of them wingers and creative midfielders, while Baines did so from his left-back berth. That’s not dependable. That’s estimable.
The following year his routinely brilliant displays earned him a place in the PFA Team of the Year, becoming the first Evertonian to achieve this honour for 22 years. That’s not dependable. That’s admirable.
In May of 2013 Baines was again selected for the PFA’s finest XI which is hardly a surprise given that he was the best component of a defensive quintet that shipped in less goals than champions Manchester United that season. Not only that but his forward raids were now becoming substantial and that year Leighton Baines created 116 chances: twelve more than anyone else in the Premier League.
That’s not dependable. That’s incomparable.
The shy and down-to-earth son of Merseyside also happens to play the guitar and is mates with the Arctic Monkeys. That’s just ace.
When choosing Baines’ slice of genius it was a no-brainer to opt for a free-kick because on so many occasions he made the specialist skill-set appear to be a breeze and that naturally led to his double against West Ham in September, 2013. First he went one way, for an equaliser from a full 25 yards out. Later he sought out the other corner, confounding Jussi Jaaskelainen with an accurate dink. ‘Move over Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. There is no-one in the world quite like Leighton Baines for amazing free-kicks’. That was how The Daily Mail responded the next day.
Instead though, his long-distance rocket that floored Newcastle several months earlier stands out. It stands out because no matter how many times it’s viewed it staggers on repeat.
In David Moyes’ final season in charge Everton were a goal down to an early Papiss Cisse effort at St James’ Park. An infringement is blown for roughly halfway between the centre circle and penalty box and with a slight angle and the vast distance from goal, Marouane Fellaini thumps up preparing for a floated delivery. Phil Jagielka too hauls himself into contention because surely the percentages here demand a cross. Only the deluded or exceptional would attempt a shot.
Being the latter Baines takes a longish run-up – three steps, maybe four – before pelting the ball as sweet and crisp and low and powerful as any ball has been struck since. It zips. It sings. It deviates once past the wall and you suspect that goalkeeper Tim Krul is quietly relieved to see this because for the first few moments it appears destined to take the Dutchman’s head off. That deviation aside the ball does nothing but fly straight and true, neither accelerating or slowing down on route. It is as unrealistic as a goal on FIFA until gamers complain about it in focus groups so EA Sports tone it down in the next version.
It is a free-kick propelled by accuracy and sheer power. It is a free-kick that singularly would make a hyped Brazilian great.
The reaction from the commentator is fairly muted considering what occurs before him. Then you remember that this is Baines pulling off something extraordinary. In such situations there is no-one more dependable.