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21 November 2018

Watching Harry Kane score, I asked myself: what makes a footballer truly exciting?

Bobby Charlton, one of our greatest ever players, was too cool, too serious, too emotionless to create excitement.

By Hunter Davies

In an interview the other day, Kevin Keegan said that none of the present England players excites him. Old players, old fans, old folks tend to think this. They feel the past was rosier.

England beating Croatia last weekend, and getting to the Uefa Nations League finals, that was pretty exciting. I almost burst my stitches. Harry Kane may not be quite as exciting as he was a couple of years ago, but he scored a goal. Raheem Sterling always gets me on the edge of the seat, painkillers permitting. Young Jadon Sancho, whom most people had not heard of half an hour ago, mainly because he plays in Germany, is really, really exciting.

But what is excitement in football? It comes in two forms. Someone who scores goals and someone who creates goals. Many professionals in their career have created moments of excitement, but never repeated them. And that is the third element. To be a truly exciting player you have to be consistently exciting, right to the end of your career, which is why Messi and Ronaldo are truly astonishingly exciting footballers.

Keegan himself was not a naturally exciting player – he made himself into one, by his determination and hard work.

George Best and Paul Gascoigne were genuinely exciting – and have become more exciting the further we get from them – but they never kept it up to the end, because of drink, self-indulgence and mental health problems. The current affection for Wayne Rooney is a surprise, as it was only in his early career that he was exciting for England.

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It used to be strange watching the effect David Beckham had on England crowds at Wembley. He was clearly exciting the England fans, many of whom screamed, having turned up especially to see him and scream. When you studied them closely, it was mainly families – their kids dragged to see him, having been told to be excited. Most real football fans only got excited when Becks took a free kick. And then he could be exciting.

In my life, the player who excited me most was Glenn Hoddle. I used to arrive early to see him warm up. On the ball, he had such polish, such confidence, such grace. Pity he didn’t exert himself more.

Bobby Charlton, one of our greatest ever players, was too cool, too serious, too emotionless to create excitement. It was only afterwards you thought: “Wow, where did that shot come from?”

Exciting players from the past do live on in folk memory. I was brought up in a Scottish family and they still sang songs about pre-war stars such as Patsy Gallacher. The biggest English star in the 1920s was Dixie Dean of Everton. His name and achievement do live on in Merseyside. The Welsh star of the 1900s was Billy Meredith. When I was young he appeared in comics and cartoons. You knew it was him as he played sucking a toothpick, which went back to his years down the pit, when he chewed tobacco.

But you don’t need to play for England or even a big club to be considered exciting. All 92 English league clubs have their own legends, big in their lifetime, big in their locality, unsung and unremembered elsewhere. Growing up in Carlisle in the 1950s, Ivor Broadis was our hero, followed later by Chris Balderstone. Hughie McIlmoyle, a Scottish player who scored countless goals for Carlisle in the Sixties, has his statue erected outside Brunton Park.

When I lived in Dumfries in the Forties, my schoolboy hero was Billy Houliston of Queen of the South, a bullet-headed centre forward who managed three caps for Scotland.

A local hero doesn’t have to be all that skilled, or known outside the community, but he has to get stuck in, and convince the local fans he might do it: something, anything. There is always hope when Skinner/Bruiser/Fatso/ Madman/Chopper/Psycho is on the pitch.

He has to put in the years, be cheerful and loyal, considered a good servant to the club. In local folk memory, that can be quite enough to pass for exciting. 

This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis