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The Premier League's Swamp Monster Army Is Refusing to Die

A love letter to the Medieval throwbacks still tearing it up in the Barclays.

by Hydall Codeen
06 September 2019, 1:06pm

Illustration: Dan Evans 

It's struck me recently that it has become possible to walk the streets of London and point out the restaurants, pubs, shops and other businesses that will soon be kaput. Usually, you can tell by the dated signage; many of these doomed enterprises give the impression of not having been refurbished, redecorated or even cleaned since the late 1970s. That's how I knew the pet shop, the erotic manga shop and the place selling flat caps and trilbies weren't long for this world.

Sometimes, it's not how these spots look but who they're designed for which indicates imminent death. A capacious heavy rock bar in the north of the city is preparing to shut later this month after 16 years of service, to be converted into flats for wealthy international students – a depressing vote of no confidence in the recession-beating abilities of London’s Jäger-sniffing metalheads.

A few blocks away, you can buy vape fluid where once stood a pre-war pie and mash shop. With gentrification, the question is often asked: who is this new London for, exactly? No one seems to know the answer just yet, but if you're a jellied eel-loving Anaal Nathrakh fan on the way home from the milliner's to play with your Japanese rat snake, chances are you’re out of luck.

This isn't purely a London phenomenon; I imagine it's easy enough to stalk the streets looking for decay wherever you are in England. We live in a country where the past dies around us every day, sometimes quietly, sometimes at a volume that is impossible to escape, as the interminable Punch and Judy show rattling away in Parliament attests.

As the Premier League is prorogued into its first international break of the season, it's been heartening to note the staunch resistance of a particular archetype of English football that is welcome to stick around for as long as it deems fit, a subcategory of player blessed with the cruel, Medieval charisma that would've seen them captaining thousands when football was throwing a dead pig from one village to another back in the 12th century.

Where other players glide and amble, these barbarians romp, strut and punish. For Leicester City, Jamie Vardy has begun this season in wicked form, a blur of Middle Ages malevolence who only really seems to feel like himself when he's hurting people, and who seemed to be sparked into life by that moment recently when he was caught on camera spunking the ball past Dean Henderson into the Sheffield United net.

There's something about watching the goal back that feels illicit and smutty, another Vardy Party snuff masterpiece lit up by the forward's instinctive screech of pleasure, clearly audible before the pitch-side mics are swarmed with the noise of 30,000 Blades fans seething at Vardy for his connections to and love of their cross-city rivals.

If ever a statue is commissioned of Vardy, it's the pose struck in the immediate aftermath of this goal that should be captured for the ages. Stood just ten yards from the enraged mob, Vardy puffs out his chest, face contorted into that familiar, twisted hangman's grin, cupping his hands to his ears as he guides the vitriol into his body like a drug.

Against Bournemouth the next week he was even better, casually volley-lobbing the goal of the month over a stranded Aaron Ramsdale in a manner that made the 21-year-old 'keeper look like a dog lost on a beach. Such are the impulses that power him, you imagine Vardy was aware that Ramsdale was making only his second ever career start after graduating from the youth academy of – yes – Sheffield United.

Not that United need to feel too left out. It is they who are lucky enough to count among their ranks the latest warrior king to saunter on to the Barclays block. Born in Leeds, adopted by Scotland, rescued from Wales, Oli McBurnie seems like quite a softly spoken and considered guy off the pitch, yet plays as though propelled by the formative memory of watching his enemies being boiled alive in pots, a wiry and slightly manic 6'3" target man with a beard of flames and a highwayman's arsenal of deft flicks, round-the-corner passes and nutmegs, a player who will happily kill you with trickery or brute force, just as long as he's killing you.

Like Vardy, there is something out of time about McBurnie, a touch of the swamps most obvious in his toddlers' shin-pads and the socks he superstitiously hacks to shreds with scissors before each game.

"They're the smallest I can find," he told the Guardian. "We never wear shin pads in training, and then you go into a game and wear them, so that feels alien to me." Since joining from Swansea City for £17.5 million in August, McBurnie has become the totem of Sheffield United's marauding attack, a snug fit for a team whose new tactical patterns – those much discussed "overlapping centre backs" – still seem to be underpinned by a primal bloodlust for havoc and war.

In an age when you can squint and almost every player in the Premier League looks like the same 5'11" roomba trained solely to run, think and pass, it's comforting to know that the Medieval swamp monster is still a discernible and active figure in the English game, still out there bending fate to his will, exquisitely manipulating the feral invisible, angering the skies, killing for fun. It's not just Vardy and McBurnie; despite the sad banishment of this column's favourite moustachioed pagan freak to the Championship, there are plenty more through whom we can vicariously indulge the base impulses that run through our souls and this kingdom like dark veins of soot.

Remarkably, Glenn Murray is still with us after all these years, hauling himself through each of Brighton's games so far this season like a working men's club tribute act to the English number nine, while the past seems to live inside Ashley Barnes like a screaming ghost, his four goals in four games daring Gareth Southgate to reach for the ouija board and allow the Years of Hurt back in to sully his new national brand of frictionless, wipe-clean footballing futurism.

Think of this type of player and there too is Troy Deeney, a man whose entire adult life feels as though it's been powered by some ancient grudge. Think of this type of player and there in the mind's eye is always Andy Carroll, stood in front of the king, eating babies and refusing to die.

These players may exist at the fringes but they are thriving, not just up front but in midfield too. Messrs Shelvey, Grealish and McGinn are all prospering while flying the swamp monster flag, three British footballers possessing and possessed by the cruel charisma that sets their breed of on-pitch shaman apart. Taken as one, these players constitute the outline of a British folk devil, the cult footballer as cult leader, men from a vanishing land of truck stops, abattoir pints, smoking in supermarkets, racist comedians, punch-ups between hard men in flares and meat raffles, who treat the pitch like a flat-roofed pub and the ball like a shiv.

In febrile times, when parliamentary sessions are clipped for highlights then written up like match reports of lower league slugfests, perhaps it makes sense for the nation's wild, violent side to find expression once again in its football, for the likes of Vardy, Barnes, McBurnie and Deeney to rattle on in their own wicked way, offering us a glimpse of the British occult in the one arena where it really doesn't matter most.

@hydallcodeen / @Dan_Draws