Posted by: Richard Frost | 7 Apr 2020

Sports feature: Death of the maverick footballer

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: February 2005
Outlet: Palatinate

Sports Editor Richard Frost investigates the malaise of Newcastle United and wonders if the temperamental star player has become a thing of the past…

Mavericks, fruitcakes, oddballs, eccentrics. Whatever their name, it’s a fact that every football fan idolises them.

They’re the players who bring a game to life, whether it be an act of breath-taking skill (Gazza’s volley against Scotland) or astonishing stupidity (Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick). The moments that fans will remember in 50 years’ time when even the league winners are forgotten.

Yet are these characters disappearing from our Premiership? Take Newcastle United. Less than 10 years ago, they were the official Home of the Maverick Genius (see Tino Asprilla, David Ginola), the Improbably Ugly but Talented (Peter Beardsley) and the Psychotic Fruitcake (Temuri Ketsbaia). After scoring against Bolton Wanderers in 1997/98, for example, Georgia’s most entertaining export Ketsbaia stripped off his shirt then proceeded to unlace his boots, start a fight with his teammate and savage a McDonald’s advertising hoarding!

Toon and out
Fast-forward to the present, though, and the current Toon Army are growing increasingly restless at the dour result-grinding approach of new manager Graeme Souness. Surely a few maverick performances would liven up the fans?

Interestingly, the Magpies still seem to possess the required eccentricity on paper. For Asprilla, Ginola and Beardsley, read Patrick Kluivert, Laurent Robert and Kieron ‘King of Bling’ Dyer. OK, Ketsbaia was thankfully a one-off. Although in Patrick Kluivert, they have a onetime night club-owner who has been convicted of manslaughter – and a player who scored the only goal in a Champions League final at the tender age of 18.

Such eccentricity has never been a problem at St James’ Park – until now. Kluivert has been vilified by fans, as has Dyer for refusing to play on the wing, whilst Robert has splinters from his customary seat on the bench.

Brazil legend Socrates with a Tino Asprilla figurine

Maverick Brazilian Socrates with a figure of kindred spirit Tino Asprilla…in Hull

Moving on the mavericks
Indeed, across the Premiership the mavericks are increasingly being branded as unreliable primadonnas. Arsenal’s Jermaine Pennant has been outlawed for a string of colourful misdemeanours, culminating in his drunken car crash whilst banned from driving. It’s a million miles away from the drink-drug-gambling-prison culture of Paul Merson and Tony Adams back when Arsenal used to field 16 Englishmen.

Meanwhile, serial-spitter El-Hadji Diouf, who also crashed a car whilst uninsured, has been widely condemned by both fans and his two previous managers at Liverpool. After outspoken criticism of his playboy antics by both Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez, Diouf is currently languishing on loan at Bolton. Disappearing too is the Spice Boys image of Mr Louise Redknapp, Stan Collymore and Robbie ‘snorting-the-touchline’ Fowler, nicknamed God by an adoring Kop.

Perhaps gone forever then are the days when George Best could wager bets with team-mates over whether he could nutmeg the opposing right-back 20 times in a match (for the record, he only managed 14 and duly paid up). And you can forget seeing another Socrates, the legendary World Cup-winning, back-heeling Brazilian, who recently played for Garforth Town and still smokes three packs a day.

Playing The Blues
These maverick talents are now out of favour in the top echelons of football. Taking their place are team players. For all Chelski’s money, what’s often been overlooked is that teamwork is the defining quality of their current crop of stars.

Previously, Chelsea had always bought maverick individuals from playboy Mario Stanic and cocaine-users Adrian Mutu and Mark Bosnich to whinging Emmanuel Petit. Yet now their money is spent on young, hungry players with an impeccable team ethic such as Frank Lampard, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. Undoubtedly skilful, but the emphasis has shifted from great mavericks to squeaky-clean players who value the team above individual flair.

Nowhere is this more evident than in manager Jose Mourinho. He has brought the same team mentality to Chelsea’s players that saw him unexpectedly triumph in the European Cup with Porto. It was a mentality ironically lacking in his Portuguese compatriots, as superior individual talents like Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo succumbed to the workmanlike Greece in Euro 2004.

King Eric
This team ethic is admirable, yet somehow it fails to inspire in the same way as say Cantona’s isolated genius. It was a genius that saw the colourful Frenchman’s off-pitch career veer from expressionist painter and philosophical poet to outspoken martyr, banished from the national side after calling manager Henri Michel ‘a bag of shit’. Forever quoting his favourite French symbolist, Cantona seemingly embodied Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘outcast’ philosophy, yet he nevertheless thrilled a generation.

Perhaps the key to this maverick appeal lies with what they can do on the pitch, and specifically with their ability to single-handedly alter games, or even championships. So a newly signed Cantona could inspire Leeds United to the championship in 1992, and disrupt Man United’s title bid with his kung-fu ban in 1994/95, before returning to lead the Red Devils to the Double with 9 goals in the final 13 games of the following season. An outcast undoubtedly, but the truly inspiring mavericks simultaneously became the team’s heartbeat in a way that is impossible in the modern team game.

Ultimately, if Newcastle United, or anyone else for that matter, want to challenge for trophies again, they must accept one fundamental truth. It is that, regrettably, the Time of the Maverick Genius is now confined to history.


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