The Cult: Joe Allen
Though he's now plying his trade in the heart of Brexitland, Joe Allen is very much a European – rather than British – footballer. As divine in his midfield performances as he is in appearance, the Welshman is a worthy inductee to The Cult.
Illustration by Dan Evans
As divine in his midfield performances as he is in appearance, Joe Allen is a worthy inductee to The Cult. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Y Meseia Tawel / The Quiet Messiah
Stoke. STOKE! sTokE?! S#t+oßk%e!!!! It doesn't matter how you dress it up – it's not particularly cool or in any way glamorous. I had a few good drunken nights out there in my early twenties so retain a fondness for the city, but perhaps the fact that it produced Britain's grimiest, wartiest rock 'n' roll star (Lemmy) and its greatest hardcore punk band (Discharge) is telling. It's that sort of place.
It is also – as has been pointed out a lot since the resignation of sitting MP Tristram Hunt, surely the only Tristram in history to set foot in the city – the Brexit capital of Britain, with nearly 70% of its residents voting to leave last June. There's an irony there, given that the likes of former Inter Milan forward Marco Arnautovic, ex-Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krkic, and Xherdan Shaqiri, once of Bayern Munich, have made the city's Premier League team considerably more entertaining and sophisticated in recent years. Maybe the locals now watching their football at the bet365 Stadium under manager Mark Hughes miss the Pulis-ipality of the Britannia? All those hit-and-hope high balls? The Rory Delap long throws? They do seem to delight in singing rugby songs (especially when Arsenal come to town). The team have played some lovely football on their way to finishing ninth for the past three seasons – nothing if not consistent – but it still feels as though the crowd there revels in playing the bad boy rather than the nice guy. It is perhaps for this reason that the sheer Stokey-ness of Stoke remains hard to shake. The 'can he do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night'-ness of the place.
I digress. Joe Allen's consistently excellent performances as Wales marched to a European Championship semi-final had the nation's fans excited about where he might end up. We knew he'd be leaving Liverpool. Klopp appeared to be a fan when asked about him, but wee Joe didn't fit the profile: not fast enough, not tall enough, not able to score enough. Nevertheless, his heroics in France would surely result in a comfortable landing spot. After all, Karel Poborsky put in a few eye-catching displays for the Czech Republic at Euro 96 and earned a move to Manchester United. Perhaps Allen's tenacious and intelligent showing for Chris Coleman's side would catch the eye of Europe's top clubs, too? Atletico Madrid or Sevilla, perhaps? Maybe Klopp would have a word with his old mates in Dortmund? That wonderful Christ-like beard/flowing locks combo looked so good in the French sunshine; the continent seemed his natural stage.
But it was not to be. All that TV money has skewed the Premier League picture somewhat, and so it came to pass that Joe Allen joined Stoke. That's right, Stoke. Stoke it is.
Point of Entry: In Wales, High / Outside Wales, Low
Here's the thing: Joe Allen is loved, adored, in his homeland. He was voted Wales player of the year for 2016 (Welsh football's greatest ever year, remember) by both the supporters and his fellow players. Gareth Bale got the main award, presumably because the sponsors fancied a photograph with the guy who plays for Real Madrid rather than the lad who turns out for Stoke City. I know there's a lot of love for him out there in social media-land, too – all those vines and memes and stuff – but that's all pretty jokey. Welsh football fans love Joe Allen with an almost American lack of irony. During the 3-0 demolition of Russia in Toulouse, my mate Andy turned to me and said: "Allen's playing like Luka Modric out there." He was, too: passing, probing, twisting, turning, always working. He's an intelligent player as well, rarely in the wrong position when his team doesn't have the ball and an excellent decision maker.
The cringeworthy and frankly stupid "Welsh Xavi" comment Brendan Rodgers made upon signing Allen for Liverpool has been used as a stick with which to beat him, but I do know exactly where his former manager was coming from. Unlike the average British midfielder, Allen plays football with his head up. He reads situations well, he doesn't give the ball away much, and his raison d'etre is the recycle. None of this would be unusual if he had grown up on the continent. Although now plying his trade in the beating heart of Brexitland, he's very much a European – rather than British – footballer.
His is not a rags-to-riches tale. Allen comes from a family of middle-class professionals; his father is a dentist, his grandfather was a vet. (Bizarrely, I was at a wedding in Surrey a few years ago that Allen's aunt also attended. She's a doctor). This wouldn't be in any way noteworthy if he was from, say, Germany: Thomas Müller is the son of a BMW engineer, Mario Götze's father is a professor at Dortmund University. But British football is somewhat suspicious of these educated types. Maybe, for that reason, Allen is a prime example of the 'otherness' of Welsh football. In Wales, the media's obsession with rugby union means football has traditionally been relegated to the status of a cult sport. Perhaps this creates room for a highly intelligent, multi-lingual (Allen attended Welsh medium schools and is also competent in French) footballer who relies on his brain much more than brawn. I honestly don't know if Joe Allen would be playing professional football today had he grown up in Portsmouth or Preston, rather than Pembrokeshire.
A few years ago on Match of the Day, Alan Shearer criticised Allen for not making enough forward passes (the irony of an English pundit bemoaning the lack of players who can keep the ball while their national team flops in tournament after tournament appeared completely lost on Big Al). Against Russia at the Euros, Allen produced the greatest forward pass in Welsh football history to assist Aaron Ramsey's opener. I sincerely hope our Geordie friend was watching, but, given that England were mis-firing towards a 0-0 draw with Slovakia at the time, that may be wishful thinking on my part.
The Moment: The No-Look Pass, vs. Stoke, January 2016
"Allen should score, but miskicks wildly," read the Guardian's live text. This is it. The assist for Jordan Ibe against Stoke in last season's League Cup semi-final was the moment that separated the heathens from the believers. The former included a surprising number of people whose job it is to watch a lot of football. The TV commentator: "Allen didn't get it." Co-commentator Alan Smith: "He's not trying to pass the ball, that's for certain." The then-reigning football journalist of the year, Daniel Taylor of the Guardian: "Though Joe Allen's shot was miscued, the ball spun conveniently for Ibe."
And yet, Wales fans had seen enough brilliance from Allen in recent times to know he meant it. It's obvious if you watch the replay – just look at Allen's eyes. Twice in the build up he glances to his left to check Ibe's position. After the pass his eyes follow the path of the ball. He's perfectly balanced, totally in control. If it was a 'wild miskick' then why isn't he looking at the goal? It's a no-look pass of the highest order, unmistakably a moment of Pirlo-esque genius. If you still think he was shooting then stop reading this now, for I have no desire to make your acquaintance.
A year on it still confuses me that, after producing such a sublime moment to get his team to the final, Allen was left on the bench as Liverpool lost to Manchester City at Wembley. Maybe Klopp thought it was a miscue, too.
"Everyone loves Joe. We have a WhatsApp messaging group and at least once a week we have a Joe Allen Appreciation Day. Great beard, great haircut, great guy, he's the main man in the squad. Class player." – Ashley Williams, Wales captain
"Joe Allen? Pob pas, pob symudiad, esthetaidd clasurol. Heb cwestiwn, y prif pensaer o'r canol cae." – Richard Owain Roberts, writer and Wales fan.