Crystal Palace's Neil Shipperley, Aston Villa's Grant Holt, John Parkin at Fleetwood Town... let's hear it for those centre-forwards of the modern game with turning circles of Canterbury Cathedral.
There must exist – in some statistician’s mind – the concept of the perfect football match. Eleven of the best players on earth in one team pitted against another equally matched outfit. Each of the 22 players would be at their physical and mental peak. The managers will be the best the world has to offer too. Both team’s managers will aggregate every tiny advantage over their opponent through strict training, diet, technique, mentality and strategy. Twenty two men representing the nearest Earth has to perfection battling it out over 90 minutes. Well, if this spectacle ever does come to a TV screen anytime soon, count me out. I’d rather watch Grant Holt huffing and puffing for Norwich City.
February, 26, 2011 and Grant Holt is partnering tiny Wes Hoolahan up front at a Norwich City away game at Barnsley. The pair look like they’re playing in a father-and-son side. Wes is petite, his frame as feeble as a matchstick model of a Victorian orphan. Holt on the other hand is a walrus of a man. Holt’s giant head has proper cheeks and a discernible under-chin. The yellow number nine shirt looks like a stab-proof vest. The Barnsley fans mock the big man’s physique by lifting their shirts and patting their equally ample bellies. Holt just laughs and rips Barnsley to pieces.
Norwich City's Grant Holt is not the quickest player alive but what he lacks in speed he more than makes up for in guile. Barnsley nervously encircle him like the dogs of a Russian townsfolk waiting for Grizzly to dance. However, Holt pays no mind and wins it in the air and on the ground. He gets into dangerous positions. He has a couple of pops. He stands firm and holds up the ball. When Holt runs, defenders know he could go to ground as, like a grand piano falling down a flight of stairs, he genuinely can’t stop. He pulls them all over the pitch creating space for Hoolahan, Lansbury and Crofts. For 90 minutes Holt is a constant distraction to the Barnsley defence and a god to the Norwich fans.
Sightings of the big beefy centre forward have not been that common over the last couple of seasons. Yes, there are still tall, muscley strikers who can stick the odd elbow out, but we’re talking about the big dogs here, the glorious pub-style athletes with some serious junk in their trunks. We’re talking Grant Holt.
Now, it used to be that centre halves were the HGVs of the team, but recent years has seen a trimmer, leaner gamekeeper perfectly able to keep up in this Michael Owen era of nippiness, constant practice and precision strikes. Gone are the days of Razor Ruddock moving across the pitch like a Mississippi Steamer. Midfielders are more agile now, too. Could the human bouncy castle that was Jan Molby survive in the modern game?
However, the larger man up front could actually be due a renaissance. With defenders having to watch their every move, a player as clumsy as Grant Holt has a much greater chance of squeaking a spot kick (which Holt regularly does much to Neil Warnock’s chagrin); and the ref certainly won’t lose sight of the lard arse in a tangle of legs. Holding up the ball, fending players off, there are definite advantages to his game and the most powerful shots ever recorded are nearly always attributed to an XXL.
There are still a few jelly bellies around. There’s John Parkin at Fleetwood, who scored a cracker against the Canaries the other year, and his former Cardiff team mate Michael Chopra who looks like he enjoys a McFlurry or two at half time, but the pot-bellied bag buster does seem to heading towards history as a crumb-covered relic of a bygone age. A sad fact that could ultimately be to the detriment of the game.
Gazza wasn’t loved because he was good, he was loved because he good – and as fit as a butcher’s dog. We loved him because he defied logic. How can someone upholstered like Alan Sugar’s boardroom chair play such sweet football? Indeed, the lump up front’s most important gift to us is that sense of carnival. The pantomime which pits the athlete against the ‘bloke’.
Michael Owen spent his childhood repeatedly kicking a tennis ball against the garage door for hours on end, day after day and eventually his mindless, repetitive practice paid off and we were treated to one of the most charmless, automatons of the modern game. Give me the lazy, crazy genius of Gazza and Maradona any day.
As players lose the pounds, we’re losing a lot more besides. We’re losing football as theatre. We’re just giving way to science and the notion of ‘perfection’. Is football edging towards athletics and its empty seats, split-second tedium and polite applause? “You thin b*stard!” is not an even faintly amusing chant unless you’re at a Spice Girls gig. “Who ate all the muesli bars!?” is equally lacking in verve.
It will be a sad day when the last of the big men up front are finally phased out, and the ripped rule the plains forever more. Kids of the future will flick through archived jpegs of Parkin and Holt and gasp that these lardy lumps were still being allowed to play professional football during this millennium. Grandfather might nod his head and tut, but deep down inside Gramps will know that something has been lost. That perfection is not always beguiling.
Neil Shipperley, Crystal Palace
Surprisingly mobile for a wide load ‘Big Fat Ships’ was a consistent and well-loved player at most of his many clubs. By the time he got to Palace in 2007 however he did look like a med-addicted escapee from a local loony bin, but still the fans loved him.
Hot Shot Hamish, Princes Park
With the most powerful shot in the world, giant Hebredean striker HSH (from Scorcher and later Roy Of The Rovers) was a maverick who lived in a caravan with his pet sheep McMutton. The fact his shirts could never quite cover his gut mattered not a jot to Hamish, as he broke goalposts with his (hot) shots.
Bob Latchford, Birmingham City, Everton
The archetypal aggressor the Birmingham City/Everton hitman had a phenomenal strike rate. At Everton, the big fella bagged 138 in 268 appearances. When Latchford rushed to the crowed as he celebrated his equaliser for Everton against West Ham in the 1980 FA Cup Semi Final replay, it looked like the big man was going to pull the perimeter fence out from its very foundations.
Micky Quinn, Coventry City
“He’s fat, he’s round, he scores on every ground,” sang Coventry fans as the Mighty Quinn set the inaugural Premiership alight in 1992 by claiming ten goals in his first six games. The only player that has admitted to scoring with his penis, the mustachioed Micky, with a gut like a medicine ball, defied all modern sports science by scoring 228 times in 515 games.
Known to the Hull faithful as Billy ‘Tightshirt’ one fan described the former bricklayer’s performances as ‘90 minutes of blood, thunder, brute force and mayhem’. Whitehurst was a real firebrand, and was once rumoured to be supplementing his wages at Oxford United by engaging in bare-knuckle fighting with local gypsies. You can’t imagine Theo Walcott doing that.