Thursday, 11 September 2008

Man of Steel

There are some things you don't grow out of; for me, hero worship is one of them. No matter how much I try to pretend I'm a grown-up, present me with one of the Wrexham players I adored as a kid, whose autograph I waited for in the pouring rain after games, who made it into my Great Britain XI which won three consecutive World Cups in the 1980s on my Subuteo pitch, and I'm thirteen again.

That's why I've spent weeks quaking about next Friday. It's the Hall of Fame evening which the Supporters Association put on annually, and obviously an occasion for me to go weak at the knees and dust off my “I LOVE LES CARTWRIGHT” banner. Every year there's a variety of players from different eras present. I can cope with the players from before I watched football and communicate with the likes of Alan Fox on a human level. I might know their names and achievements, but to me they're just nice men who enjoy a good chat about football. Likewise, players like Phil Hardy from a more recent era are more easy to relate to as I knew them when I was older and my relationship with the side had changed; I've got to know some of them through post-match interviews too, which helps. However, usher me into the presence of a player from the time when Arfon Griffiths was manager and it's a different matter!

There's a particular reason why next Friday fills me with that particular mixture of dread and excitement. My favourite player will be there, and I'm making the presentation to him. Jim Steel. I worshipped that guy, and I think he influenced the way I watch Wrexham. Despite the fact that I am a fan of considered, passing football, I am hard-wired to hanker after a big man up front who will put the wind up the opposing centre backs.

That's exactly what Steel was. To me, no target man of the past fifteen years or so has quite captured that raw-boned aggression which was Steel's hallmark. No-one intimidates defenders like he did, or has such a mastery in the air. Perhaps it's because the game has changed; perhaps it's because the nature of being a fan robs you of perspective. I don't know and I don't care. Jim Steel is God.

Funnily enough, there are few moments of his which are clear in my mind. I recall a spectacular diving header he scored, but have no recollection of where it was or against whom he scored. Also, I remember thinking how appropriate it was that a rugged character like him should score the winner in a grim, poorly-attended midweek game against Hartlepool in freezing conditions. I'd never been in a crowd of under a thousand before, and felt proud that I was one of the loyal few who turned up, and that Steel had repaid me with a certain inevitability; some softies couldn't hack it on or off the pitch, but Our Jim was made of pure Scottish granite and a bit of hypothermia would never distract him.

I imagined him retiring and getting a job on oil rigs, shinning out of the murky North Sea like King Kong to pull rivets out of the rig's legs with his teeth. (I have no idea why there would be a call for that profession, but give me a break-I was a kid! I thought I was set for a career as an executive taster in an ice cream factory!)

My clearest memory of Steel was his greatest moment. For me, nothing will quite match the sheer wonder of Steel's winning goal against Porto. It had everything. Obviously it was a great moment in the club's history, but more than that, the sheer simplicity of the goal was beautiful. Steel takes it on his chest in the centre circle, back to goal, and volleys the dropping ball to John Muldoon on the right wing. Muldoon bombs down the wing and swings the ball into the penalty area. And Steel is there, rising imperiously to plant a powerful header past Petar Borota. I still I close my eyes and see that goal sometimes.

So I get to finally meet the man next week and present him with a well-deserved accolade. I hope I don't embarrass myself. And I hope no-one tells him I wrote this!

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