Matt Nation talks about the modern day 'heroics' of footballers and a debut from an unlikely source

Come the revolution, come the incarceration of any journalist found guilty of using the irritating truism ‘heroics’ in their match report. Heroes perform acts of martyrdom, self-immolation and general utilitarianism. They do not merely do diving headers in the six-yard box.

The Amazons, Grace Darling and Hardy Kruger did not earn their place in history by simply staying on for the last ten minutes with a bandage on their head to help secure a 0-0 draw. And no deed on a football pitch, even going for a 40-60 ball with Roy Keane on a boiling hot day when he’s feeling a bit ratty, will ever deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the word ‘heroics’.

At least that’s what I thought until a bout of derring-do by a perfect stranger when our team was a man short this winter. Although he admitted that two decades had passed since he last moved more than fifty yards without the aid of a motor vehicle, a friend of a friend offered to make up the numbers shortly before kick-off.

It soon became clear that this man had never watched, played or heard of football in his life. The mere exertion of pulling on his shirt over his head provoked a wheezing fit, he kicked the ball in the manner of a concussed Morris dancer and his sprints were such that he was overtaken at one point by an elderly lady walking along the touchline carrying two heavy bags of shopping. As the game wore on, the referee looked more and more like a man facing a possible court case for aiding and abetting euthanasia. It was only a matter of time before something happened.

After half an hour and yet another hapless attempt to keep up with an opponent, his spirit succumbed to the will of his flesh, he fell to his knees and, in an ultimate gesture of Trautmannesque proportions, spewed up in the ‘D’ of the penalty area. Onlookers frantically sought his next-of-kin, spectators removed their hats and bowed their heads and sons’ mothers rushed onto the pitch, saliva-drenched handkerchiefs at the ready, anxious to dab the corners of his mouth. Nonetheless, with a polite, but firm, wave of the hand, he looked up, his brow furrowed in defiance and his shirt bearing a variegation that even the designers of goalkeepers’ jerseys can only dream of, and said heroically, “Don’t mind me, I’ll be all right in a minute. Just let the game carry on.” And so, after two or three minutes of mewling and puking that eclipsed even the antics of Kevin Keegan in defeat, he got to his feet, played on until half-time and then flaked out.

Why has such supererogation never happened in a professional game? While it could be argued that our team fulfilled one of the two most significant criteria of being a pub team (we do have a combined weight equivalent to that of the populace of a medium-sized London postal district; we don’t have any players called Barry) and therefore didn’t boast a particularly high level of physical fitness, this cannot be the only reason why it is left to amateurs to bare both their soul and the contents of their stomach. When one considers, for example, the number of erstwhile Nottingham Forest players who have told stories of being encouraged to drink till dawn with the then managerial duo; or a tabloid article last year in which a current Premier League defender was described as being “bollocksed” shortly before a game; the lack of disgorgement and the suchlike among professionals during the execution of their duties is a substantial surprise.

This phenomenon is even more mystifying in view of a certain double standard which appears to exist. Vomiting during pre-season training is disclosed to the press with untrammelled glee. In fact, it seems that copious chundering in the sand dunes (always the sand dunes) following a particularly strenuous sprints session during pre-season is a prerequisite for making the starting line-up for the opening match of the season. But as soon as the season actually starts, the whole matter of bodily clearance is shrouded in the vagaries of football parlance.

Take, for instance, those players – usually the same players each time – who are regularly substituted on the hour due to ‘tweaks’ or ‘niggles’. Although my knowledge of sports science is woefully inadequate, I don’t believe that either word can be found in an authorised glossary of physiological terms. Do the members of any other profession suffer from ‘tweaks’ and ‘niggles’ on the hour, or are these ‘afflictions’, as is more likely the case, mere euphemisms for ‘immediate danger of him chucking his ring up’?

Alternatively, one could review this season’s dismissal of John Hartson for two bookings for dissent within ten minutes of coming on as a substitute. There were no reports on what type of foul and abusive language was used, and the whole incident was swept under the carpet. However, close scrutiny of television footage showing the exchange between the Arsenal man and the referee reveals Hartson clearly mouthing: “Ref, get your hand in your pocket, I badly need to sit down on the dump truck and I’ve a professional reputation to consider.”

Only once has a player come clean and admitted to being in touch with his body. Following an inquiry in a magazine questionnaire about his most embarrassing moment, Gary Mabbutt once replied, in typically respectable Mabbuttese, “I once had to leave the field of play to use the lavatory.” It is no coincidence that Gary Mabbutt is one of the leading ambassadors of the game. Moreover, it is heartening for the future of football that he appears to have his finger firmly on the pulse of infant culture.

Young children are not really interested in, nor can they really appreciate, the intricacies of an Eric Cantona pass or an Alan Shearer goal; they are more interested in incidental matters because football is ostensibly something that they either do or get caught up in, rather than something that they watch. My initial visits to Bristol City were invariably prefaced by my father’s lionising of John Galley (“Watch Galley. Great big tanglefoot of a bugger but he makes ’em bump in, he does.”). Parental syntax having dissuaded me from watching the game, I subsequently spent most of my early seasons indulging in the comparatively more interesting time of climbing in and out of a hole in the corrugated iron at the back of the East End. If my father had said, “Watch Galley. Always widdles himself at some point during the game, he does,” I would have been enchanted by the match for the full 90 minutes and thereafter attempted to imitate John Galley’s every move for years to come.

Because, be it fortunately or unfortunately, children (as well as more adults than would care to admit it) are fascinated by eliminations of any description. This avenue will be explored to lure my own children to football matches, despite the increased risk of them developing into dysfunctional, scatalogically-obsessed teenagers. But if this also spawns an equally fanatical love of football, then it will be a small price to pay. And a good deal cheaper than buying replica kits.

From WSC 122 April 1997. What was happening this month

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday