Legends of Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd are among the ten favourite footballing mavericks of our Johnny Nic, but not before an all too obvious number one.
There’s a little bit of Gazza in all of us. The forever child who refuses to grow up. The free spirit who is not responsible, who hasn’t a bad bone in his body, who behaves badly and annoys the hell out of everyone at times but then does something so brilliant, so breathtaking that it blows your mind.
I remember seeing Gazza playing for Newcastle in the early days. He was wild, untamed, revelling in his talent, free from the demons that would later torment him. You could hear him, mouth in overdrive. ‘Howay! Give us it!’ he would shout. Show the ball to a defender shouting ‘How mate…see it, see it? It’s gone! Ha ha see ya later.’ And he was away and gone.
It was a joke to Gazza but it was the thing he was divinely blessed with. He was a simple lad; never was anyone less equipped to handle stardom. We all know what happened, but on a cold grey Tyneside afternoon in the mid ’80s, he was the nearest thing to genius I ever saw, with a talent so big and wide it couldn’t be contained in one body. If you weren’t there, you don’t know. He was the best creative player this country has ever seen. Easily.
READ MORE: Daniel Storey’s original Portrait of an Icon on Paul Gascoigne
No-one’s ever done it quite like Gazza
Matt Le Tissier
These days he’s part of the tedious tin foil hat brigade. The most likely ex-player to say ‘wake up, sheeple’. It’s a sad end for a one club player, a great penalty taker and a man with magic in his feet. Time and again he’d go missing in a game – that wouldn’t be allowed nowadays – then out of nowhere cut though a defence with a mazy dribble and pop it in the net. The ball seemed stuck to his foot.
He was lazy, sometimes overweight, but he was worth paying to see, unlike 99% of players today. The conspiracy, anti-vax stuff is utterly unhinged, though.
He looked like a wee troglodyte in a wig and was, if anything, shorter than it looked on TV. But he brought Italian flair to a lumpen, largely English game. Was the man who brought a bit of class to that Chelsea team and to anyone who didn’t live to sit on someone’s head and fart which was, until his arrival, the default culture at the club.
Also brought the joys of wine drinking without having to drain the bottle while shouting ‘shall we get started?’. With 193 goals in over 600 games he wasn’t prolific but he remains one of the stars of that first wave of imports. His feet were so quick and his brain likewise, he gave many joy long before Roman Abramovich arrived and ruined football. Won seven trophies with the Blues. That near-post flicked back-heel melted the hearts of many. The less said about his coaching career the better.
He turned out to be a bit of a rotter but what a player. He was part of two great Newcastle teams, an unstoppable Liverpool side and a poor Everton. He was a strange player who was a sort of striker and a sort of midfielder. When interviewed he seemed to have had a stroke but when left to play football his nearly 250 goals in almost 800 games tell their own story.
Played some great games for England. None more so than against Poland in the ’86 World Cup, setting Gary Lineker up for an exciting hat-trick. Was the perfect man to assist for John Aldridge and Ian Rush at Liverpool. Could dance around defenders and had a good shot on him when required.
Even at the time, he wasn’t like other players. Never had a position named after him but the Beardsley half-in-half-out role was one he all but invented for himself. Had a two-year fade at Bolton, Manchester City, Fulham and Hartlepool, as well as in Australia. Was never fashionable but was a sublime goal getter and unpredictable dribbler.
Signed by Bruce Rioch (who also managed Middlesbrough) for £7.5million in the first wave of imports. No-one here really knew how good he was when he arrived. Has a good claim to be the best 10 ever. If I was a pundit I’d say he had a wand of a foot but that would be silly, suggesting as it does that a leg didn’t have a knee and was made of wood.
In your mind’s eye you can see him pulling the ball down at the near post and slotting it in at both the 1998 World Cup and against Leicester City. Was easily the eminence grise of Dutch football for many years. Definitely was That Sort Of Player and could stick the boot in and hard. Looked like Beavis from Beavis and Butt-head but probably didn’t like Van Halen or Winger.
The best example of insouciant Gallic temperament, he was even better than he often showed. Couldn’t be arsed much of the time but when he was on it, he was imperious. Was Players’ Player of the Year and Writers’ Footballer too in 1999. Newcastle paid £2.5million to PSG for him.
Impossibly handsome, he slotted right into Kevin Keegan’s entertain-at-all-costs team. Was sold to Spurs for as much as he cost Newcastle, then to Villa and Everton. Every club saw him play some great games but not enough. Famously put Barnsley to the sword and showed what he could do if bothered. Laughably played a handful of games under David Moyes, a man who is frightened of strikers that aren’t 6ft 4. Put him off the game for good. The Moyes effect.
Retired and threatened to have an acting career. Never happened. Instead was thrown off BT Sport for making a wanking gesture towards Jake Humphrey, which didn’t seem that bad to the rest of us.
Short-arsed magician who played fantastically at Chelsea and Lille. Was the last of the great dribblers who was basically a cheat code. When he turned it on, there was no-one like him. Played 245 times for Chelsea and scored 85 goals. Was a 10 or a four. In or out. When his tail feathers were up, there was no stopping him with a low centre of gravity. A real match-winner.
Left for Real Madrid but has just retired due to injury. When at Lille as a youngster he was one of the best prospects in the world. Just goes to show how injury can steal a career from even the best.
Paolo Di Canio
Notorious right winger prone to a Fascist salute. Fabulously talented man who was surpassed in his head by no-one. His three great contributions to English football were pushing over a referee and making them look daft; that volley; and catching the ball to stop the game due to injury when in a position to score.
Looked like a small terrier with sideburns. Loved a row. Could beat a team all on his own and had the ego to believe he could. Famously played for West Ham but also turned out for Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton. Went back to Italy to play for Lazio. Looks like Frankie Dettori.
Had a go at being a manager but his tenures at Swindon and Sunderland suggested he didn’t have the temperament.
Unfortunately named Welsh striker in the lower leagues who was hotly tipped to be the Next Big Thing. He was, but only due to over-consumption of pies.
Was famous for being the lower leagues’ superstar dribbler and trickmeister. Scored better than a goal every two games. Had the chance to move to Sheffield Wednesday, went on loan to Leeds for 10 games but didn’t shine. Was happy being a big pike in a small stream. He was a Liverpool fan and they half-threatened to buy him. It’d have been nice to see him in the top flight.
Now 47, he still plays for Mumbles Rangers and I bet he can still make the crossbar challenge.
King Eric. An actor, a poet, a weaver of words. Oh yeah, and he couldn’t half play. Had his collar up and made it look cool. He could do anything. Slow chip over the keeper? No problem.
Was part of two great sides, one at Leeds, one at Manchester United and he was the centre of gravity at both. Sensibly kicked an obnoxious fan alleged to have said ‘it’s an early bath for you Mr Cantona’. Yeah, of course he did. The only example of players rightly kicking back against abusive fans. No-one thought he was in the wrong.
Self-consciously eccentric. Plies this trade in a thousand ads and movies.
READ MORE: John Nicholson’s August 2020 profile of Eric Cantona