…For more than one day. Sometimes the most entertaining players are the more unlikely ones. STEFF discusses the value of a great club cult hero.
I was at Wembley for that night in 1981.
I was on the Shelf for that night in 1984.
However there is a goal which rather perversely stands -if not shoulder to shoulder with those moments- most certainly a couple of bodies along in the same queue.
It was Sunday, April 8th 2001, and it occurred at Old Trafford during the FA Cup semi-final, in the 13th minute. I was seated in the huge main stand, lower tier, about five seats from the fan divide when Steffen Iversen got hold of a loose ball and leathered it goalwards. Well not quite. It was on par to hit some punter in the fifth row about 20 yards from the left-hand post, when suddenly an unlikely ginger head got in the way, deflecting the ball like a missile inside said-left hand post to put us 1-0 up.
It was such an utterly unlikely moment.
We had been under the cosh for the first 10 minutes of the match, and the scorer -Gary Doherty- was, to say the least, an unlikely hero. In fact, he was such an unlikely hero that even he knew it, his celebration being one of total bewilderment, as if to say, “these things don’t come from me because I am at best a cult figure”. It took me five minutes to sit down and stop taunting the Gooners a few seats across, and even as I write, I remember the explosive, volatile eruption of joy Doherty’s goal provided. It was the birth of a superb nickname -The Ginger Pele- and tragically, there is not one supporter I know who believes he meant to cushion that bullet into the net as he did. Instead everyone, to a man, woman and child, knows it simply bounced off his bonce.
Doherty was a classic example of the Spurs cult-hero.
A jack of two trades and master of none (he was deployed at centre-half and centre-forward), Doherty was a willful but not especially skillful trier who went out of his way to throw his body on the line for the club, procuring the odd moment of glory (as above), or more frequently, clownery, as with his incredible own goal chip against Leicester in 2004.
Yet when we look back, a major question arises. Does the cult hero really have to be an average-to-donkey class player, or is it permissible that the cult hero has silky smooth skills with more than a dash of insouciant inconsistency? It isn’t a straight-forward answer.
Take Alfie Conn, that mid-70’s Roy Wood/Billy Connelly hybrid midfield maestro who could light a match with his right foot (as in for your cigarette!) yet was also prone to bouts of outrageous clownery such as sitting on the ball mid-match. On his day, Conn made Michel Platini look like Gary Waddock, but sadly, his day didn’t happen with any consistency whatsoever, thus rendering him memorable as much for that explosion of hair and moustache as skill. John Lacy, a centre-half in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, had a giraffe like presence and was probably unfairly remembered as a gaffe machine, one of those names which elicited a groan when his name was announced over the tannoy and equally, someone who somehow become a comfortable “cult figure” for supporters to whinge on about. For entirely different reasons, you could argue that the rotund rocket Gary Brooke was another cult hero, his ability to super-sub onto the pitch and launch his generous frame into a howitzer which would end up breaking the net, becoming semi-legendary in the Burkinshaw days.
It continues to get tricky as you look through the eras.
Nayim was undoubtably a cult hero, but more for what he did from the halfway line in another shirt against Arsenal than anything he did for us, and then there’s Nicola Berti, who via nothing more than reputation, nationality and good looks became an instant love for us all, and who also had one of the greatest player songs ever with “My name is Nicola Berti…” Thinking about it now, is it possible that Nicola Berti is a golden example of a cult hero despite doing next to nothing of note in our shirt other than looking suave?
Steffen Freund acolytes would fiercely argue that notion.
Unglamorous, determined and grimly physical without any silk (or flairy skills for that matter), Freund was revered for his terrier-like space invader qualities, which saw him flying around pitches with scant regard for anything other than winning the ball. You’d debate that any team needs a Freund-figure -we currently have Hojberg- but compared to Freundy, Pierre looks more like Pele or Pirlo than plodder, and besides, there was something about the way Steff wore his hair and carried himself which just screamed “cult hero”…he also enhanced that legend tenfold by popping up on the terraces with us at away games. Thus was born, “I love Steffen Freund, Steffen Freund loves me.”
I know I’m missing dozens, from the dynamic Jose Dominguez to the indolent Stephane Dalmat, and I haven’t even investigated the notion that to be a cult hero you need to have a song (a mate and I once spent an entire, admittedly drunken, half at Man City away applying every player song from the decades to Clint Dempsey, a cult hero surely). Take Peter Crouch, who delivered another moment of I-was-there ultra-joy for me at Eastlands in 2009 when he nodded us into the Champions League for the first time. I mean, isn’t Crouchy too good to be a cult-hero? Can you be too good? However, when it comes to finding a current example of a universally-agreed, quintessential cult hero par excellence, it’s actually rather easy.
I understand the half cases for Clinton N’Jie and perhaps even more Georges-Kévin Nkoudou, but it is Sissoko who epitomizes everything a true cult hero is. Not especially masterful at anything, yet gloriously committed to the cause, he is a player who has sacrificed himself repeatedly at the altar of versatility in order to serve the team, a player who did not get a sniff of his best position for two years, instead filling in wherever duty called. He endured, to my mind, disgraceful abuse for some time as he gave his all in such situations, yet finally he started to win fans over. It started with the “wake me up before you go go/who needs Bale when you’ve got Sissoko” song of endearment, and continued to mushroom to the point where he ascended to having his own firm, direct song; “Ooooh Moussa Sissoko (repeat)”. And in many ways, just like the Ginger Pele in 2001, it is a Sissoko moment which will forever live in my memory as long as any glory night…
…There I was, on June 1st 2019 in Madrid, minutes before the CL Final kick-off, engaged in a the fullest of fulsome renditions of “Ooooooh Moussa Sissko” which rang out around the Wanda Stadium as the game kicked off. Within 30 second, it was Sissoko who had been (harshly to say the least) dinged for a handball and penalty. I put my arms around my friends, looked to the sky and uttered, “We’re not allowed to have nice things.” I will never, ever forget seeing the evening sky through the wanda outer roof, barely able to watch the penalty being taken, so many emotions coursing through my veins, my pre-match prediction that he would score the winner and thus become immortal suddenly looking as ludicrous as when I’d said it.
If ever a cult hero’s definition, and perhaps dichotomy, was defined, this was surely it. Because remember, had Sissoko not floated that ball 50 yards forward in the 95th minute during the semi-final second leg in Amsterdam, we would not even have been in the Final to start with.
His cult-hero statue outside the new Lane is surely guaranteed.