In 40 years of watching football on an almost weekly basis, I have seen many, many great players.
Some have moved me more than others, and just a handful have left a mark to last forever.
With apologies to Barry Horne and Zico, who would have been numbers five and six, here are my top four.
I am not a Tottenham fan, but my first football hero was Glenn Hoddle. He was majestic. Sublime. I recall randomly going to watch a game between Stoke and Tottenham – I think my family was visiting friends in the area – at some stage in the mid-80s. I don’t even remember the result but I do know that I was totally enraptured by this sleek and smooth gliding presence in the centre of midfield, around whom the entire game appeared to be revolving.
Even now, more than 30 years later, I’d argue there’s never been a player blessed with a wider range of passing. Hoddle made the task of moving the ball from position A to position B look so easy, and I’ve certainly never seen anything like his ability to send long balls into the stride of forwards, imparting the perfect amount of backspin to make it easy for his teammate to control.
It’s a crime that the England national team was not built around Hoddle for a decade. He won 53 caps, which sounds like a lot, but he was rarely fully trusted by Ron Greenwood or Bobby Robson and wasn’t given the chance to run the team. In fact, Hoddle was only fully appreciated when he moved abroad to Monaco, where he won enormous recognition and a league title under young coach Arsene Wenger.
Of course, Hoddle later became famous – or perhaps infamous – as a manager with a mixed degree of success, but he should primarily be remembered for his glorious ability as a player.
Matt Le Tissier
From master to apprentice…my next footballing hero was someone else who idolised Glenn Hoddle during his youth and played in a similar fashion: Matt Le Tissier.
I grew up as a Southampton fan, which meant I was lucky enough to witness the entirety of Le Tiss’s career: when he emerged from the bench as a teenager to score twice against Manchester United in 1986, securing a 4-1 win in the League Cup which led to Ron Atkinson being fired the following day, I was there; when he bid an emotional farewell at his testimonial 16 years later, with the whole stadium bursting into spontaneous applause as a video montage showed his best goals to the music of ‘My Way’, I was there.
In between, Le God gave us so many special moments. His career was one long highlight reel, and choosing your favourite is just a matter of taste. That outrageous chip over Peter Schmeichel; a ridiculous match-winning double against Newcastle; a self-created volleyed free-kick against Wimbledon; the 30-yard missile against Blackburn and his best mate Tim Flowers; a hat-trick in the snow on Valentine’s Day against Liverpool. Just take your pick, but my personal favourite was a hat-trick against Norwich in 1990, rounded off by a casual chip into the far corner from way outside the box.
Of course, Le Tissier faces accusations that he could have made more of his career if he had shown a bit more ambition and desire. It’s a fair argument. But Southampton fans don’t care, because Le Tiss was ours.
I started working in sport in September 1998, when I was appointed programme editor and public relations assistant at Reading Football Club.
At the time, the Royals were in a mess, recently suffering relegation from the Championship and now bumbling around the lower reaches of the third tier, struggling to even half-fill the newly built Madejski Stadium. But we had Parky.
Phil Parkinson was a warrior. A fearless leader and ferocious competitor, he made up for his considerable lack of technical ability with an unmatched will to win. For Reading fans he was a hero, pretty much the only glimmer of light in a dark period for the club. Happily, he was also there during the transformation which followed the appointment of Alan Pardew as manager, and the most indelible mental image from my decade at Reading came in April 2002 at Griffin Park, Brentford.
It was the final game of the season, we were second in the table, but only one point ahead of the third placed team…Brentford. So it was effectively a final, with Reading needing a draw to go up, but Brentford needing a win to jump into second position and condemn Reading to the lottery of the playoffs.
The tension was unbearable, but eventually a brilliant late goal from Jamie Cureton – after a flick-on by Parky – secured a 1-1 draw and the point we needed for promotion. When the final whistle blew, Parky just slumped to his knees, mentally and physically exhausted, and let rip with a visceral roar which was relief more than celebration. That moment meant so much to him, and the image beautifully encapsulated the passion that football is uniquely capable of provoking.
I moved to Barcelona in 2012 and count myself privileged to have spent the last few years regularly watching in person by far the greatest player I have ever seen. Obviously, Lionel Messi.
I had been to the Camp Nou as a paying punter in the past, but my first game at the stadium as a reporter was Barca’s 2012/13 season opener against Real Sociedad. Messi scored twice in the first 16 minutes and the tone was set for everything else that has followed.
Watching Messi live rather than on television, the main difference I noticed at first was really appreciating just how fast his feet moved. It sounds simple, but he was able to dribble, pass or shoot better than anyone else in large part because he could do those things more quickly than anyone else. Before you knew what he was going to do, he had already done it and the ball was in the back of the net.
Over time, though, Messi has matured and now it’s his speed of thought which makes the difference. He sees passing lanes and potential angles that nobody else sees, and I genuinely believe a serious study of his brainwaves would make a rewarding line of research for neuroscientists. He might not actually be an alien, but it often appears that he thinks like one.
On a personal level, Messi will always be special to me for being the subject of my first book. I hope there will be more books to follow in years to come, but I will struggle to ever find a better footballer to write about. There will never be another Leo Messi.