When football conversations turn to the past, nostalgia can sometimes seem more like neuralgia such is the pain of the “don’t make them like that any more” or “today’s lot aren’t proper hard men” comments. A common complaint is that football doesn’t have such characters as it once had, though it’s not always clear if they’re referring to the blank chapter in Len Shackleton’s autobiography, or Peter Storey’s conviction for his involvement in a counterfeiting scheme.
One thing that is undoubtedly in decline in the game is the folk devil, people whose name need only be mentioned to start otherwise sane individuals foaming at the mouth and turning puce. In today’s game the likes of Lee Cattermole are more laughing stock than hate figure. Who can honestly get too upset at someone who is both outclassed by footballers like Yohan Cabaye, and toyed with like a child by real physical presence of the kind of Yaya Toure? Hold me back though, because here’s some who have got my goat…
What must it be like being David Speedie? A better player than anyone gives him credit for, he was also probably the most universally loathed player of his era. What had he done? A clue is the fact that his mouth seemed bigger than his entire head. I can’t picture him doing anything other than bellowing at officials,the opposition, fans, maybe even the moon. Dirty, mouthy, and annoying, he was everything Robbie Savage would have killed to be but couldn’t quite manage. If I had to give Sunderland credit for something which made a positive contribution to world football, it would be Gary Bennett throttling him in the crowd that time.
Only his mother could love Kenny Burns. Robust was one word for him. Another few would be fearsome spinning-eyed assassin. He appeared as if he’d be more at home drinking moonshine and playing a banjo than running an offside trap. Every time Southern Comfort is on telly, I expect him to be unveiled as one of the Louisiana Bayou murderers. Does he like Zydeco music? I think we should be told.
Poor Graham Fenton. All he did was score a couple of goals against Newcastle which ended our title challenge. Maybe he enjoyed himself just a little too much in the act of destroying the hopes of his hometown club of winning their first title since the Twenties. That’s the 1920s in case you’re not sure. Who’d have thought people would object to that?
Dennis Wise. Where do we start? A man who could start a fight in an empty nightclub, his talents sometimes shifted outside into the taxis. His playing career was one of vile cynicism mixed with foul play and a few decent crosses. A leading light of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, who defined physical long-ball football, it’s astonishing now to think that he played for England. Possibly the most unpopular player to represent this country, and there’s been some competitors for that title. Anyone know what happened after that? He’d make a great Director of Football for someone you hate. The man is itching powder in human form.
The Yorkshire Ripper, Mr Claypole and Trelford Mills. Three reasons never to have a goatee beard. Referee Mills puzzlingly disallowed two late goals in an 80s replay against Brighton at St James’ Park to put us out of the cup. Why him and not one of the many other refs who’ve done us a bad turn over the years? He loved it. Unrepentant to this day, he’s a hero on the south coast apparently, which if nothing else shows there’s two sides to every story.
Don Hutchison was a Newcastle fan who played for Sunderland and an Englishman who played for Scotland, and spent most of his time trying to ingratiate himself with his new pals. Signals to the crowd, over-the-top celebrations, badge-kissing, all of that. The sad thing is he could have saved himself the trouble. They would never accept him as one of their own, no matter how hard he tried, and anyone could have told him that. Booted out as not good enough for the Waggon, he’d signed for Liverpool within 2 years. Must have been a decent Sunday League team that.
Roy Keane joined Manchester United as the league’s most exciting talent, a barnstorming attacking midfielder whose pace, drive and finishing got him goals for Nottingham Forest. However he fell for the swagger at Manchester United, and as Alex Ferguson converted him into a combative enforcer in a way he failed to do with Alan Smith a decade later, Keane adopted the attitude of Paul Ince as well as his position. No referee escaped without Keane leaning on him, or rather following him round screaming in his face, he demanded preferential treatment and his club frequently got it. He got sent off at SJP once after going berserk when Alan Shearer kicked the ball away at a throw-in, and that was him in a nutshell. Outraged by the minor indiscretions of others, completely comfortable with his own faults and crimes.
Perhaps the overexposure of today’s footballers make it more difficult for bad behaviour to escape unpunished, or makes us more inured to the tricks which once would have enraged us so much. Or maybe they really are just duller these days. Whatever it is, match days are less fun without someone on the opposition to loathe.