They might not have been the best but they gave their best and for that, Andrew Brookes is thankful. words: Andrew Brookes
Not all heroes are superstars. While Ian Storey-Moore, John Robertson and Stuart Pearce might command our adulation through supreme talent, there’s another type of hero that captures the imagination in a different way. Cult heroes are players that might not trouble the judges when it comes to the reckoning for the ‘best XI’ but, nevertheless, they still hold a dear place in our affections and deserve to be celebrated.
What makes a cult hero? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘a writer, musician, artist, or other public figure who is greatly admired by a relatively small audience or is influential despite limited commercial success’. We could adapt this to say that a Forest cult hero must be ‘a player who is greatly admired by us – in a way that fans of other clubs won’t understand – despite limited success on the pitch’.
Don’t get me wrong, cult heroes have to have a bit of talent. Without that they’re just figures of fun or, worse, scapegoats for the boo boys. But, fundamentally, these are players that we ‘like’. Players that at least look like they enjoy donning the Garibaldi. Players who show a bit of passion. Players who we can identify with. Players who make life that bit less dull.
So who fits the bill? Three men come to my mind, all of whom are worthy of the moniker of cult hero and deserve to be celebrated in their own small way alongside the more illustrious names covered in this publication.
Marlon Harewood is a player that I can’t help but smile about. He’s exactly the sort of player that opposition fans might ridicule but one who earned the respect and affection of us Forest fans, causing us to bellow ‘Marlon, Marlon, Marlon’ every time we caught sight of him.
Marlon was capable of veering from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes in the same attack. Yet, while he might have been frustrating at times, he could also be devastating when he was on song – no more so than when firing four goals past Tony Pulis’ Stoke in one half in February 2003. His deft touchline flick, turn, run and finish against Crystal Palace in that same month displayed a skill that he wasn’t given the credit for.
Perhaps the moment that best summed up Marlon, however, came on the opening day of the 2001/02 season. Leading the line for a young Paul Hart side, Marlon was clearly pumped up for the visit of Sheffield United. So much so that when he fired home the first goal of the campaign he wheeled away in celebration and proceeded to pole axe a linesman that he been too overjoyed to notice.
Clumsy, energetic, excitable, explosive, funny – that was our Marlon.
When it came to ‘cult hero’ strikers at the City Ground, Marlon was following in the footsteps of Jason Lee. The thing that stood out most about our Jase was his superb attitude. Well, OK, maybe that wasn’t the thing that stood out most visibly. That was, of course, the infamous pineapple mop that earned him ridicule at the hands of Fantasy Football’s Frank Skinner and David Baddiel.
But still, we loved the fact he put absolutely everything into his performances, gave defenders a tough time, didn’t let criticism get to him and actually came up with a few goals too. Outsiders might have compared him unfavourably with Stan Collymore, the last striker we’d plundered from Southend, but we largely appreciated him for what he was. We also actually loved the haircut too (well I did). When we sung ‘he’s got a pineapple on his head’ it was with genuine affection, just as ‘he’s got no hair and we don’t care’ was for Steve Stone. Such quirks can be part of the make-up of a cult hero.
It’s also worth noting that Lee did extract revenge for the ribbing he took on the telly. As he told the BBC in 2007: “I went to Chelsea the season after it all happened, with Forest, got some stick but scored our equaliser and I knew Baddiel was in the stands so that was a great day. I milked it for all it was worth.” His goal cancelled out a Gianluca Vialli strike. Not a bad thing to be able to say either.
Marlon and Jason might both have been wholehearted performers but even their passion to perform was outweighed by that of Julian Bennett.
The Meadows born defender rightfully earned the player of the year crown for his dynamic displays in the 2007/08 season, with a tough-tackling, no-nonsense spirit that briefly filled the Stuart Pearce shaped left back hole that we’ve long-struggled to address. He ensured Colin Calderwood’s side weren’t bullied in the tough environment of League One – even if that sometimes got him into trouble - and played his part in a side that earned 24 clean sheets.
If Marlon’s linesman bashing antics and Lee’s Baddiel baiting sum up their respective characters, Bennett’s lasting legacy is summed up by a goal that will always be among my favourites.
The strike in question was the first in a 3-2 win over Yeovil on the last day of the 07/08 season. The goal came after Bennett himself emphatically won a tackle so thundering that it deserved its own storm name. He then jumped up, stepped around the prone body of his victim and, with the outside of his left foot no less, hammered the ball into the corner of the net from 25 yards out. It was a magnificent moment and all the sweeter coming from a home town boy who really relished pulling on the shirt. It was just a shame that injury robbed him of the chance to try to kick on and flourish at a higher level.
These aren’t the only three cult heroes to grace the City Ground. Others may point to the short-but-sweet loan stints of George ‘he’ll eat you alive’ Elokobi and Gary ‘Twitter fan’ Gardner or maybe the Derby-defying penalty heroics of Lee Camp. I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Big’ Jon Olav Hjelde (although I’m not sure how widely that is shared).
Yet Harewood, Lee and Bennett are the three best examples of what it takes to be a cult hero. Each has the perfect mix of talent and character and, through that, has forged a long-lasting connection and affection with fans that lasts to this day.
So, cult heroes, we salute you. You might not have been the best, but you gave us your best and we love you for it.