Holding out for a local hero

The local lad who bleeds the team’s colours is becoming a rarity in the high-stakes Premier League.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘He’s one of our own’. You’ve no doubt heard the chant. Bellowed with gusto by the Yid Army to the ubiquitous melody of ‘Sloop John B’, it’s a celebration of Spurs’ new terrace idol, Harry Kane. But it’s also a song which speaks of a sport which is becoming increasingly alien to its traditional supporters.

In an era when England’s top flight is an exotic melting pot of overseas talent, Kane is something of a throwback. For a start, he’s got an old fashioned footballer’s name. It perfectly complements that Fifties-style slicked-back hair. He’s direct and good in the air, too; a traditional English centre forward. Kane is the club’s top scorer and he’s displaced Roberto Soldado, the £26million club-record signing, as first-choice striker. But, above all, he’s a local lad. Kane is a boyhood Spurs fan who grew up in Chingford, five miles from White Hart Lane; he’s a graduate of the Spurs youth system, albeit via a brief sojourn at Arsenal’s academy.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the special fondness supporters reserve for players who have come through the youth ranks. You only have to look at the adoration for John Terry or Steven Gerrard to understand the romantic attachment to local heroes. Cut them and they bleed the club colours. In one sense, the chant, ‘He’s one of our own’, expresses an age-old Roy of the Rovers story of the boyhood fan who goes on to play for his local team. But I think that, today, the chant also chimes with a profound sense of alienation among fans; a sense that their club is no longer recognisably ‘theirs’. It’s not a simple chauvinistic dualism whereby ‘one of our own’ implies that foreign imports don’t belong here. Spurs fans have a long track record of idolising foreign stars. Ossie Ardiles, Jürgen Klinsmann and David Ginola were all loved by the White Hart Lane faithful. What’s changed is that local heroes like Harry Kane are so much harder to unearth these days. This isn’t just an issue at Spurs; it’s a problem facing most Premier League clubs. John Terry is the last Chelsea academy graduate to establish himself in the first team – and he broke through in the 2000-2001 season.

It may have originated in north London, but ‘He’s one of our own’ is a refrain that’s catching on at other clubs. Crystal Palace fans have borrowed the chant to serenade Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon who both hail from Thornton Heath, which is a stone’s throw from Selhurst Park. Last Saturday, Palace fans were singing ‘Alan Pardew, he’s one of our own’. It’s a chant loaded with significance and, indeed, irony. The simplistic narrative is that Pardew was hated on Tyneside because he was a ‘cockney’ and loved in South London, and that explains why he’s traded down from a ‘big club’ to a smaller one. Palace is where he ‘belongs’. The reality is somewhat more complicated. Sure, Pardew is a South Londoner who played for Palace for four years. And he’ll always be fondly remembered for the goal that took Palace to Wembley in 1990. But he was never adored by Palace fans. Not in the way that Ian Wright or Geoff Thomas were loved. In fact, he was frequently a target for the Selhurst Park boo-boys. Speak to Palace fans of a certain age and they are more likely to wax lyrical about the mercurial but unfulfilled talent of Dave Madden than the workmanlike Pardew.

So why, if Pardew was never idolised as a player at Selhurst Park, would he choose to leave Newcastle? To say that Pardew was never properly appreciated on Tyneside is an understatement. He was the object of a sustained and vitriolic ‘Sack Pardew’ campaign. Although the boo-boys had been silenced by Newcastle’s pre-Christmas form, the anti-Pardew sentiment was still very evident and liable to flare up again at any time. Even during Newcastle’s winning run. you only had to peruse social media to find fans complaining about the style of football. By contrast, even though his hero status as a Palace player is somewhat retrospectively airbrushed, the fans were always going to give him a warm welcome. At Palace, he’ll be able to bring in the players he wants, whereas at Newcastle the transfer policy was out of his hands. The fact that Palace have reportedly doubled his salary might be a somewhat less romantic explanation for his decision to leave Tyneside.

So why was Pardew never accepted by the Newcastle fans? Is it because he wasn’t a Geordie? Look, I’ve been the first to tease the Tynesiders about the myth that Geordies are a nation apart. They might not talk proper and – whisper it – they also harbour delusions that Newcastle are still a ‘massive club’. But if you forget the ‘why aye-ing’ and ‘howay-ing’ – not to mention the horse punching – Newcastle fans are no different to the rest of us. They want heroes. They want glory. They want their footballers to play for the shirt. And they reserve a special love for local heroes like Alan Shearer or Peter Beardsley. The infamous ‘Cockney Mafia Out’ banner was aimed at owner Mike Ashley and his sidekicks, not at Londoners in general. It was a symptom of the growing alienation of fans from their club. Like supporters in any other town or city, if a player spills blood for the cause, the Newcastle fans will sing his name regardless of birthplace or nationality. Malcolm MacDonald, Tino Asprilla, Philippe Albert – none of these players were Geordies but all were idolised by the Toon Army. Even the Georgian Temuri Ketsbaia became a cult hero at St James Park because, well, he was passionate, mercurial and a little bit bonkers.

Football fans want everything and they want it now. They want the owners to be ambitious and spend money, but they also want to preserve the club’s traditions and character. They want success and top quality players, but they also want homegrown heroes coming through the ranks. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile all these conflicting demands. Alan Pardew wants to strengthen the Palace squad but, with the exception of Wilfried Zaha, that invariably means academy graduates like Jonny Williams getting pushed further down the pecking order or farmed out on loan. It’s a dilemma facing every club in the top flight. As the financial stakes get higher, it becomes more and more risky to blood homegrown players in the first team. It’s a vicious circle. Gary Neville has said that English football has reached a ‘tipping point’ whereby the short-term imperatives facing club chairmen make it impossible for homegrown players to break through. ‘I always felt the cream would rise to the top’, said Neville. ‘But I’m not quite so sure any more. I’m not sure that, if a player is good enough, they will actually have a chance of getting through because if everyone wants instant success then they haven’t got time to develop’. If Neville is right we should cherish the likes of Harry Kane while we can. The chant, ‘He’s one of our own’, may itself become a relic of history.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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