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4 March 2020

From Grealish to Gazza, we want players who excite us every time they have the ball

 You don’t always know what Grealish will do next – the vital ingredient all exciting players must have. 

By Hunter Davies

What do I want in life, what’s left of it? Simple, really. I want excitement. Obviously I want good health too. Who doesn’t? And happiness, of course. But happiness is a by-product of other things and tends to be only recollected in tranquillity.
By excitement I mean action, events, new people, new work, new experiences, social intercourse with family and friends, in fact most forms of intercourse. 

And what do I want in football? At the top of the bill it is pretty much the same. Excitement, that’s what I want.

I was really looking forward to the Caribou Cup final, partly to find out how to pronounce it and discover what the hell it is, but mainly to watch Jack Grealish, the Aston Villa captain. He didn’t have a good game, but I still love him. I don’t want to have his babies. In bed he would be fussing too much with his hair. But on the pitch, I can’t take my eyes off him. His socks are always down, which makes him easy to spot. Too often he is floored by ruffians. He is the most fouled player in the Premier League, always a clue to a player considered too exciting.

I like his name, so prewar, straight off a football cigarette card. He is determined to go forward, but also prepared to hold the ball. You don’t always know what he’ll do next – the vital ingredient all exciting players must have. 

He has matured so much this season, without losing his strut, his confidence, which is presumably why Villa made him captain. Oh, I wish he played for Spurs, he would walk into the present team, and also for England, though it feels as though Gareth Southgate is not sure how he would fit in.

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Raheem Stirling is obviously faster and a better dribbler than Gentleman Jack. He has been England’s most exciting player for several seasons, yet Pep still appears not totally confident in him. He does tire and fade in hard games, and gets ratty, unlike Grealish, who is always willing to carry the team along.

Mo Salah is clearly exciting – and such a joy to watch as he takes pleasure in playing, smiling even when things go wrong. He seems humble and modest, which is unusual for players who excite us.

I don’t find Kevin De Bruyne exciting, though I would always have him in my team. There is something mournful about him, workmanlike, serious, functional, which detracts from any excitement he might otherwise radiate. Same with Jordan Henderson. My heart doesn’t leap when they get on the ball. Exciting players have always got to be capable of surprises – even if all they do is fall down.

I love it when Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Place gets possession, but somehow his own natural excitement in himself, in playing, is beginning to seep away. That failed spell at Man Utd has knocked a bit of the stuffing out of him.

I have high hopes of Adama Traoré of Wolves. He is hard not to notice because in this day and age he is physically unusual for a Premier player. They mostly come off a conveyor belt as clones of Thierry Henry, tall, slender, graceful, elegant. Traoré is built more for rugby, with thighs and arms like tree trunks, a chest bursting out of his jumper. It is impossible not to believe he has spent his life body building, which he has denied. 

His speed and control when in full flow is wonderful to behold, but in a way his physique acts against him. He sometimes goes too fast, which must be frustrating for his team. Those muscles are so overdeveloped that when stopped, he goes down so quickly. If I were a Wolves fan I would worry all the time that he is going to pull something. 

The most exciting player I ever saw was George Best, who had the archetypal physique of a winger. Gazza was built differently, but he was the ultimate in doing the unexpected. You held your breath waiting to see him do something wonderful, though oft it turned out really stupid.

The two best players in the world today, Messi and Ronaldo – so different in style, with such different bodies – have the same element in common. When they get the ball, you feel excitement. Which we all want. 

This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10