Titus Bramble began his career looking every bit the future international star, but ended it with a lengthy reel of catastrophic defensive errors. Funny thing, top-level sport. You can read previous Cult entries here.
Cult Grade: Jesus Christ, Titus
Shay Given is a man of impressive fortitude. I can't tell you how happy it made me that he got to dip, however briefly, into Abu Dhabi's oil well. You know what his career would be summed up by otherwise? That dry, mournful look in his big Irish eyes that said, 'Jesus Christ, Titus.'
Having done one of the things that made Shay look like that – whether it was planting a bullet header into his own net, or egregiously fouling his own defensive partner as they chased after a striker – Titus would then pass through a variety of distinct facial settings.
First, like he was trying to rapidly swallow his tongue, as it sunk in that the last time this happened wasn't actually destined to be the final time. Then he would cast his eyes around the vicinity in the manner of a man, having recently discovered his wife is cheating on him, walking out into the Wetherspoons smoking area after a few drinks: i.e. 'I'll fight anyone here, I don't care.'
Then he resembled a four-year old caught with the house's entire supply of chocolate in his pockets. And then, once the dust had settled and Shay had given him another solemn pat on the shoulder, it was back to the regular dead-man-walking look that he carried through the various cathedrals of elite English football.
But do you realise how badly Titus Bramble would have messed you up – assuming you're anything but very, very good at football – if you'd come up against him? Think about it for a moment. You'd have got nowhere near him in the air. Trying to muscle him off the ball would have been like trying to land a jab on a bumper car.
And yet I wonder if you'd still have known? Would there still have been moments in the park when he went for an incoming cross on the left-foot volley and ended up giving the pitch what-for with the full force of his forehead – in a way that you imagine Rio Ferdinand or Paolo Maldini stopped doing when they were about seven – that put a seed of doubt in your mind?
Then, dump all those seeds out on fertile soil and look up to see Thierry Henry gliding towards you like a shark, playing a one-two with Dennis Bergkamp before you've even had a chance to think 'Wait, what's going on here?' You start to follow Bergkamp, then decide actually... nope. You've fallen over again.
Any idea what 50,000 people groaning at you in unison feels like? Is it a single sound, or can you hear the varied shades of derision that different people have for you? Do you hear it in the shower? In the coach on the long drive back up to the North East? At home that night?
Do you ever stop hearing it, Titus?
Point of Entry: Low
I love the couplet that begins the Newcastle United section on his Wikipedia page:
Sentence 1: Bramble joined Newcastle in 2002 for £6million, vowing at the time to make himself indispensible to manager Bobby Robson.
Sentence 2: At the end of the 2003-04 season, readers of the football e-mail newsletter The Fiver voted Bramble as the worst player of the year in the Premier League.
I'm sure he was better than I'm making out. He must have been more than solid for Ipswich to help them to a fifth-place finish in the Premier League and earn his big move, and I have clearer memories of later-life Titus being decent. Well, decentish. But of one thing I have no doubt: at his lowest moments he was the worst player not of 2003-04, but in the history of football. Titus' Cult attribute was being beyond bad, which is an unusual thing to bring to top-level sport.
Without wishing to get too techie, there is something more going on here. If you haven't read Fever Pitch (and if you're fond of football and your brain, you really must) there's a section therein where Nick Hornby writes about Gus Caesar, a guy I have no clue about apart from what Hornby says – that he came up strong through the Arsenal youth team in the eighties.
Now I look at it he actually has a similar name to Titus Bramble, and the book makes a similar reference as to Bramble in the park. Through so many levels of football, Caesar would have obliterated the competition. Then, having deservedly won a place in the first team at left-back, after getting toasted by a few wingers in succession, Caesar didn't just become incapable of playing for the Gunners – he became incapable of football. His career trajectory went from top-flight Arsenal to Fourth Division Cambridge United, to Colchester United, to random stints around China. Here's a moment Titus would appreciate: 'In the 1988 League Cup Final, Arsenal were 2-1 up with seven minutes left when Caesar miskicked a clearance from his own penalty area, allowing Luton's Danny Wilson to bundle the ball home in the ensuing chaos.' Luton won 3-2.
(Skip to 1m19 for Gus' moment of ignominy – it really is Titus Grade)
That's the thing about elite-level sport; that's why you love it. Because unlike so much of this sad, faux-inclusive 21st century, it cannot help but take no prisoners. It's a place where if you do you're a legend, a real History of Planet Earth legend; and if you don't, if you really don't, you get emotionally destroyed by the thing you love the most. Asamoah Gyan, post-World Cup: one season at Sunderland, then off to the deserts of the Gulf to get paid a shitload and try not to think too much.
The Moment – In My Mate's Flat, circa 2007
I was playing Pro-Evo (naturally) in a mate's room; he was a Newcastle fan and so picked them. I played a long through-pass to whoever, and Pro-Evo Titus went to field it, all alone, with the ball bouncing up. My mate accidentally changed player, then hurriedly switched back to Titus to try to position him. Titus goes Titus. Literally, a lovingly-rendered cross-legged faceplant. I score, obviously. Then we laughed for about two minutes.