EPL TALK: Every club loves a cartoon villain like Richarlison

·Contributor
·6-min read
Tottenham forward Richarlison juggles the ball (left) before being tackled by Nottingham Forest's Brennan Johnson. (PHOTOS: Reuters)
Tottenham forward Richarlison juggles the ball (left) before being tackled by Nottingham Forest's Brennan Johnson. (PHOTOS: Reuters)

THE outraged hand-wringing was guaranteed as soon as Richarlison finished his ball-juggling on the left wing. There’s no place for such unsporting antics in the modern game, they cried, in TV studios and online, lamenting the death of professionalism or respect or something.

The Tottenham Hotspur forward was admonished for his perceived crimes against Nottingham Forest, the Corinthian spirit and humanity itself.

Richarlison’s heinous act – it’s horrific, so mind your stomach here – was to juggle the ball three times to waste a few seconds, before flicking a nonchalant pass towards a team-mate. Just appalling. Reprehensible. Obscene.

The indignation was immediate as appalled viewers hit the radio phone lines, tweeted in droves and lamented the crime of, well, what exactly? Time-wasting? Killing time against dogged opponents? Juggling the ball too many times? Is one juggle acceptable, two excessive and three a hanging offence?

It must be the latter, judging by the response. Forest manager Steve Cooper was disgusted, insisting that “I wouldn’t want my players to do that, what Richarlison did,” as if the Spurs forward had broken into the Forest dressing room and peed on their jerseys.

In the commentary box, Jamie Carragher was equally unimpressed, saying, “He just winds people up, that lad, Richarlison. He winds me up. What do you expect Johnson to do?”

Carragher was referring to Brennan Johnson’s valiant attempt to cut Richarlison in two in a follow-up tackle, as the Forest forward slightly misread his Dostoevsky and dished out a punishment that did not quite fit the crime perhaps.

Richarlison should be careful not to bump into Carragher on the other side of a car window.

Is this really where we are now? Is the English Premier League’s always tenuous grip on reality slipped yet again? On the same weekend that Newcastle United wore a kit that essentially replicated Saudi colours – in the same week that Saudi Arabia imprisoned a university student to 34 years in prison for tweeting support for women's rights activists – it’s the Richarlison juggle that’s the hill we’re supposed to die on?

The EPL is so oblivious, so lacking in self-awareness that its fury must be directed towards a cheeky Brazilian for a few flick ups? Did Richarlison’s aesthetic time-wasting hurt the feelings of his opponents, AKA professional, wealthy athletes, AKA grown men?

Johnson’s decent effort to separate Richarlison from his legs was a fitting riposte to the juggling insult and should have provided a satisfactory conclusion to the brief pantomime. But in these strange, sanitised times, we must collectively don white shawls and bewail the death of something or other and fake our revulsion, forever outraged on someone else’s behalf, when the only instinctive, honest response came from Spurs supporters.

They loved Richarlison for it. They sang songs about him and went to town on Twitter. And the fan base of every other club responded as expected, in anger, because we all know that every other club wants a Richarlison of sorts, a master in the art of s**thousery.

Who originally coined that glorious term is unknown. Where it was first applied – or to whom – remains a mystery. Even a clear definition is difficult to pin down. Imagine a mongrel hybrid between Sergio Ramos and Marco Materazzi, give him a ball and tell him to tackle like David Batty, argue like Craig Bellamy, rage like Diego Costa, kick like Julian Dicks, head like Duncan Ferguson, retaliate like Roy Keane, showboat like Richarlison and just live like Eric Cantona and you might have the definitive s**thouse.

There are many to choose from. The name is new, but the dark art most certainly isn’t. One of the most guilt-free pleasures is watching YouTube highlights of Leeds United’s 7-0 destruction of Southampton in 1972.

Don Revie’s monsters perhaps offered the first masterclass of mean-spirited arrogance, mixed with a splash of utter indifference towards their opponents’ suffering. There are chips, flicks and ridiculous backheels on a boggy surface. Every pass earns a cheer from the crowd. Every party trick earns a chuckle from the commentator.

Was it cruel? Yes, but not in a “let’s saddle an EPL club with a £500-million debt and suck the soul from a proud institution” kind of way, just more of a “let’s take the piss for a bit and make the fans laugh” kind of way.

It’s cruelty served as pantomime. Half the crowd cheers the villain of the piece, the other half boos his outlandish behaviour, but there’s no real harm done, no lasting damage, just a few bruised egos and the odd shouty pundit to keep the farce moving along, because the next instalment comes next week.

There’s always a chance for revenge, for redemption, to send Richarlison over the advertising hoardings in the return fixture. And then cheers become boos, boos morph into cheers as the benign s**thousery continues (as opposed to the real villainy involving human rights abuses and the illegal invasion of sovereign nations. You know. Proper stuff.)

Of course there’s always a line in such a dark art, one that is hard to define precisely, beyond the more obvious examples. Vinnie Jones grabbing Gazza’s genitals and Eric Cantona launching himself at an unapologetic racist are just about on the right side of the line. Joey Barton stubbing a cigarette in a teammate’s eye most certainly isn’t.

But a little ball-juggling to protect a lead is not only fair game, it’s an essential characteristic of the game. Football is theatre and every club needs a Richarlison, a hero for one side of the gallery, an enemy for the other, a reason to love and hate, preferably at the same time, a cartoonish villain who will never apologise.

Because Richarlison has nothing to apologise for.

Football is theatre and every club needs a Richarlison, a hero for one side of the gallery, an enemy for the other, a reason to love and hate, preferably at the same time, a cartoonish villain who will never apologise.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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