Last weekend I saw football played just about as well as it can be - the best individual performance I think I have ever witnessed, and it came in the guise of the Liverpool and England midfielder Steven Gerrard. If you read the tabloids you will be all too aware that Gerrard is just about the hottest property in the transfer rumour sections, the man that Roman Abramovich is poised to break the bank for during the winter window.
|Steven Gerrard and Nolberto Solano|
As a gnarled football reporter of ten years standing it is easy to become immune to the charms and qualities of top flight football, focussing on the job rather than drawing inspiration from what's going on in front of you - but on Saturday I just found myself catching my breath at the quality of Gerrard's vision, movement and technical ability. I wasn't alone in that either - talking to some Villa fans on my way down to the tunnel after the final whistle they were waxing lyrical about the Merseysider's performance, and that doesn't happen too often in the one-eyed, blinkered world of modern football.
Gerrard is "Box Office" - increasingly so after assuming more a free role under the tactically astute Rafa Benitez. He's one of those players that can drag you out of the house on a freezing, damp December day just to see him take centre stage. In the tunnel the likes of John Motson and Trevor Francis were bandying around the phrase "world class" with uncharacteristic abandon.
When I was a kid my dad would be drawn to football matches by the prospect of watching the talented visitors. Glenn Hoddle was a particular favourite of his - if Tottenham were in the West Midlands, he would make the effort to be there. He became a regular at St Andrews while Frank Worthington was bringing a whole new level of entertainment to Blues of the late seventies. More recently on holidays I've taken him to see Samuel Eto'o showing his unbelievable pace and potential playing for Real Mallorca - now Eto'o has banged in 14 goals already this season for Barcelona and dad takes great pleasure in having seen him as a young colt.
So just who are the footballers you would pay to watch? Are there actually any playing for our local sides? Two seasons ago Christophe Dugarry may have been worth a bit of the old hard-earned cash. David Dunn on a good day? Nolberto Solano's current trend for scoring truly spectacular goals, four in the last four home matches, makes him an attractive prospect - but he hardly dominates games the way a Gerrard or Hoddle does. Zoltan Gera is probably the Baggies best bet - but does he flog tickets? Maybe Paul Merson at League One level is a bums-on-seats factor wherever Walsall go, and he does deliver on the whole even if his supporting cast aren't quite up to it.
Two seasons ago a senior member of the Baggies board admitted one of the highlights of the club's first Premiership season was the possibility of shaking David Beckham's hand after the Manchester United home game. Some players still have that certain something.
Here is my list of the five Premiership players I would part with cash to watch - see how they tally with your star turns……..
1. Steven Gerrard - do you get the feeling I'm a fan of his? Forget all the Beckham hype, this guy is the great English midfielder of his generation. If he can just stay clear of injuries….
2. Frank Lampard - didn't used to reckon Lampard when he first moved to Chelsea. Now I'm dying to see him play again - Euro 2004 made me a convert. Makes the game look simple and has a great eye for goal.
3. Thierry Henry - okay, so this is a no-brainer. Class, smooth acceleration, great temperament and an outstanding example to youngsters in a team of somewhat dubious characters.
4. Robbie Keane - a bit more personal this, having seen his earliest games at Wolves it's fascinating to see how the young Irishman has developed. There's still more to come from Robbie, but he may need to move from Spurs to show us his best.
5. Thomas Gravesen - am I serious? Would I really pay money to watch the Dane? Oh yes - no modern Premiership played better combines the old fashioned sleeves rolled up, no quarter given style with genuine quality and ability. A deluxe version of Robbie Savage.