The Cult: David Seaman
David Seaman was known as a rock between the sticks for club and country, but also for his powerful and career-spanning 'tash. More than mere facial hair, it served as a metaphor for the man himself.
Illustration by Dan Evans
Ahead of Euro 2016 we're ushering four international football stars into The Cult. Our second inductee is England goalkeeping legend David Seaman and his career-spannig 'tash. You can read previous editions here.
Cult Grade: The Tash
Footballers, being essentially in the entertainment business, can often be defined by their personality or look as much as playing style or skill. For every Fabio Cannavaro, known for being a centre-back of world-class ability, there is a Taribo West, known for being a centre-back with the world's weirdest hair. For every metronomic Paul Scholes, there is an erratic Paul Gascoigne. For every Premier League-winner Andy King – who in FIFA 16 may as well be the ref in terms of how generic he looks – there is a Marouane Fellaini, who has a hairstyle so distinctive you could turn a whole team in FIFA 16 into a Fellaini XI just by placing a giant afro on each player.
David Seaman is something of a mix. On the one glove, he was known for being an unspectacular but brilliant goalkeeper, the best and most consistent England had since Peter Shilton. You can picture the iconic image now: Big Dave at Wembley in his Fruit Pastel ice lolly Euro '96 kit, which looked like the '90s had thrown up on him after a particularly bad acid trip. Or in the granite grey kits of England's later years, looking and behaving like the footballing equivalent of an Easter Island statue.
But on the other glove, Seaman was also known for his look, for his powerful and career-spanning 'tash. It's the kind of 'tash that, when you look at it, compels you to start humming the theme to the Hovis advert. It's the kind of 'tash that defines a man: a solid, oak-coloured wedge, as wide and strong as the River Rother in Seaman's native Rotherham. It's the kind of 'tash that wore a flatcap, a Barbour jacket and indeed a 'tash before these became throwaway hipster trends.
And it's the kind of 'tash that was typical of George Graham – the manager who brought him to Arsenal for £1.3m in 1990 – in terms of make up. Unfashionable, perhaps even self-consciously so, but reliable, strong and ever-present. It's the kind of 'tash that was the bedrock of one of the greatest English club defences the country has ever seen, standing behind players like Adams, Bould, Keown, Winterburn and Dixon, week in, week out. It's the kind of 'tash that gave Arsenal fans the nerve to create the chant: 'One nil, to the Arsenal', goading other teams for their inability to score, and doing so with genuine belief.
It's hard to imagine these days, when the same chant is sung at the Emirates as more of an incantation for an 18-year-old nobody to score the best goal of their lives from 40 yards, but Arsenal once had a player and 'tash in David Seaman who kept a goal as close to impenetrable as you can get. What's more, he was glad to be the boring anti-hero stood in the middle of it.
Point of Entry: Low
The thing I remember most about Seaman from my childhood – aside from his 'tash – is the fact that he was always there, trunk like, gently swaying in the Highbury goalmouth. The very definition of a robust Northerner, he rarely got injured. In fact, in his first season under Graham he played in every single league game, conceding only 18 goals and winning the pre-Premier League top-flight title. Similarly, in Wenger's first full season, he repeated the feat bar one game, this time winning the Premier League and an FA Cup to boot.
But then that's the thing about a good 'tash: you can sometimes forget that it's even there. It becomes a part of the facial furniture. You take it for granted and assume that it's just always been like that and could never have been any different. This is what David Seaman was to Arsenal and England. He was so dependable, so unwavering and so steady that it was only when he was pruned from those teams in his later years that you looked at the goalmouths in shocked fascination. It was like seeing a freshly-shaven mug for the first time after years of hair: everything seemed largely the same, but something felt insidiously different.
When he left in 2003 Arsenal tumbled through a succession of unpredictable (read: bad) 'keepers – Richard Wright, Manuel Almunia, Jens Lehmann – while England could only muster sub-elite, chocolate-wristed stoppers like David James and Paul Robinson to fill what suddenly seemed like quite a large void.
And it was, literally, a large, physical void. But that's not to say that he was perfect. In his own time – although as a fan I always argued against this – he wasn't even the best 'keeper playing in England. In Manchester the more dramatic Peter Schmeichel leaped and frothed his way in front of Seaman as the bona fide number one goalie.
And, much like how facial hair is used by men to cover up scars, rolls of neck fat and many other insecurities, so too did Big Dave's bland reliability hide his sometimes glaring deficiencies, namely standing way off his fucking line at the most crucial moments in his career. For Arsenal, it was being lobbed in the Cup Winners' Cup Final by Nayim from 45 yards; for England, it was being lobbed in the World Cup quarter-final by Ronaldinho from 45 yards. Both times the scorers in question said they had spotted Seaman off his line all game and decided to have a go, although how much that can be put down to retrospective footballing bravado rather than vision is anyone's guess.
In these instances, Seaman's 'tash became analogous with the brittle ego of an average Englishman trying to save face, unmoved on the outside, proud and resolute, but underneath hiding a quivering upper-lip of despair.
But that's not to say he regularly crumbled under pressure like your average Scott Carson. No, Big Dave was never more comfortable than in the implosive heat of a penalty shoot-out. He was never more at ease than when taking the weight of a whole team's hopes upon his shoulders and dealing with the situation.
During Arsenal's ill-fated Cup Winners' Cup run he saved vital knockout semi-final penalties against Sampdoria, and made numerous penalty saves throughout his Premier League-winning years. For England, who could forget his save from Gary McAllister's spot-kick that led to Gazza's eternal Wembley goal against Scotland in Euro '96? In the same competition, where were you when Big Dave saved Miguel Angel Nadal's penalty to put England into their most recent semi-final to date?
I was right there in front of the telly, in my Fruit Pastel ice lolly replica Euro '96 goalkeeper shirt that looked like the '90s had thrown up on me after a particularly bad acid trip, jumping around and screaming for joy. And all because of solid, dependable David Seaman.
The Moment: 2003 FA Cup semi-final, vs. Sheffield United
For all my meandering chat about how trustworthy yet uninspiring Seaman was, the moment that defines him best is one of the most inspired pieces of goalkeeping you're ever likely to witness. His great rival and peer Schmeichel even said at the time it was "the best save I have ever seen."
In the 2003 FA Cup semi against Sheffield United, Arsenal were 1-0 up with only 10 minutes to go. A looping out-swinger of a corner was bounced back into the six-yard box by a similarly parabolic header, only for the ball to then quickly ping-pong off a volley, then the head of Paul Peschisolido with the whole goal agape in front of him. Seaman had to change direction not once but twice in the ping-pong, only to then react with a lightening fast leap backwards, impossibly clawing the ball away from the line. It was a massive response to the overwhelming criticism he had been facing for his loss of mobility, and it kept Arsenal in a competition that they went on to win. Fittingly, Seaman lifted the FA Cup, his last act as an Arsenal player and captain.
"When you arrive at the club and see that Seaman is in goal, you feel relieved and grateful."
Even someone as attack-minded as Arsene Wenger enjoyed the calming presence of having the greatest defensive 'tash in the game between the sticks.