BASTARDS in football. We all love them, don’t we?
In my fairly short-lived football career, I was a centre forward in the mould of Peter Beardsley (nowhere near as good but better looking and with a bit more pace) but I wanted to be a bastard. The lad that everyone turned to if it got tasty on the pitch. That guy who would go the extra mile, put his foot in, take a booking, take a red, hammer the ref or simply drag his team-mates through the shit when they needed it most. Those guys made you play better, you didn’t want to let them down, and you daren’t look them in the eye if you did.
Imagine playing alongside Tommy Smith and pulling out of a 50-50 or telling Luis Suarez you thought it was a better idea to shoot from 25 yards while he was waiting in the penalty area unmarked, ready to tap one in. Try explaining that in the dressing room after the game, no thanks. You’d either get the death stare or a barrage of abuse. The good bastards demand the best, they set standards and the rest follow.
Men like Suarez ooze bastard behaviour to the point where it makes other fans despise him while his own fans worship the ground he walks on. His mere presence in a game drags lesser players along for the ride, desperate not to let him down, desperate to prove they belong on the same pitch.
In footballing terms, there’s not necessarily one attribute that makes someone a bastard but you know one when you see one.
Over the years we’ve been blessed. Smith, Suarez, Graeme Souness and Steve McMahon all fit the mould of what a bastard should look like. Men with very different personalities, different shapes and sizes, but bastards nonetheless.
They were footballers you’d want in your team if you’re going into battle, into the lion’s den — or in the case of Souness and that Liverpool team of 1984, into Eastern Europe to face Dinamo Bucharest in a European Cup semi-final. The story goes that Souness had been singled out for some special treatment from Bucharest’s hard-man during the first leg at Anfield, but he had come off second best with the Liverpool captain handing out a broken jaw to his opponent. Bastardry of the highest order but I’ll take that guy, give me that guy every day of the week for my football team.
While I’m not advocating that our current players go around breaking bones, I can easily get on board with our players not taking any shit. Sometimes you have to earn the right to play. The best teams, the best players could always mix it.
Alan Hansen tells a great story about when the Reds went out for the return leg and for me it encapsulates some of the finest bastard behaviour from a Liverpool player:
“When we went out to Romania for the second leg of that tie, Graeme was targeted from the moment we arrived. He had to put up with threatening gestures from the airport personnel, from the soldiers and from the police. Their meaning was clear: if he escaped with only a broken leg he was going to be fortunate. Before the game itself, at the warm-up 80,000 fans howled abuse at him whenever he touched the ball. That was the signal for the rest of us to make sure he had the ball as often as possible! It was a wind-up and Graeme knew that, and he responded by playing keepie-ups out there in the middle of the pitch as cool as you like in the most hostile atmosphere any of us had ever known.
“He handled it so well that his attitude rubbed off on the players and instead of desperately defending the single goal lead we had from the first game, we went on to add two more and coast into the final. Graeme was just incredible that day.”
To be fair to Souness he didn’t just limit his bastardry behaviour to his playing days. He certainly made an interesting impression during his tenure in Turkey. Galatasaray fans still to this day talk about the time he drove a club flag into the heart of the Fenerbahce pitch after a bad-tempered derby in 1996. What a bastard.
At any level of football, when team-mates look around the dressing before a game you want to know that there’s players in the group who have got your back no matter what happens once you’ve crossed the white line. Lads who will do what needs to be done to get you a result. By that I don’t necessarily mean cheating outright, but sometimes knowing when to push the boundaries to the absolute limit can be crucial. You look at the current league leaders and they have the ultimate bastard leading their line, taking the fight to the opposition and everyone else follows.
Just like Diego Costa, I want my bastards to be good at the actual footy bit as well. The likes of Julian Dicks and Neil Ruddock never interested me. They might have ticked one or two boxes required to be one but they lacked quality, they lacked ability. I want more than that. You need more than that. The game has moved on and so has the role of being a bastard.
Which brings me nicely onto Javier Mascherano. This week is the 10-year anniversary of the Reds signing one of my all-time favourite bastards so I could hardly write an article on such a subject without mentioning the man from San Lorenzo.
El Jefecito (the little chief) arrived on Merseyside in 2007 after a short spell at West Ham, having started his career at River Plate before moving on to Corinthians. He went on to play over 100 games for the Redmen before Barcelona came calling and our loss was the Catalan giants gain.
While his time at Anfield ended in slightly controversial circumstances — that, with hindsight, could have been handled better by all parties — it still shouldn’t detract from what a truly fabulous bastard the Argentine was. A player that, in my opinion and for a number of reasons, we’ve never replaced.
Anfield may have witnessed midfielders with more style but there have been very few that could match the South American for consistency and desire while not underplaying the fact that he could actually play a bit too. You don’t play for Barcelona for seven years (most of it at centre-back) if you don’t possess technical ability that most of us can only dream of.
On the most recent AFQ Football on TAW Player, we discussed players we’d love to be able to bring back into the current Liverpool team. What do Jürgen Klopp’s Reds need right now? It says a lot about the impact Mascherano had during his relatively short stay on Merseyside that he still remains part of that conversation.
While most of us can appreciate the current Liverpool midfield have looked fantastic at times this season, you’d find very few fans who wouldn’t want Mascherano at the peak of his powers, patrolling the space in front of the back four, offering the protection we’ve lacked at crucial moments this season. This current Liverpool team has many attributes but it also has a fragility to it as well. Far too many times this season, players have been allowed to run virtually the length of the pitch unchallenged onto a back four in desperate need of protection.
In 2008, while Mascherano was a Liverpool player, Diego Maradona described him as the most important player Argentina had in their ranks. “Mascherano and 10 others,” high praise indeed from arguably the best player to have played the game, and not bad considering Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez were part of that same Argentina side.
Mascherano was the ultimate bastard. Snide at times but could play as well, while being one of the most tactically switched-on players I’ve seen grace Anfield in recent years. From a personal point of view, his performance against Chelsea in 2007 in the second leg of the semi-final of the Champions League will always stand out. He was a machine that night and rightly lived up the billing that Rafa Benitez gave him during his time at Liverpool, describing him as a “monster of a player.” He went on to deliver monster performance after monster performance for the Reds, oozing bastard behaviour along the way.
Jürgen will no doubt bring in a number of new faces this summer in his bid to improve this Liverpool squad and I for one hope that a snide is quite high on that list. The Reds could certainly do with one.