Players in the modern game are often labelled by sports writers, pundits and media outlets as being “heroes” or “legends” at the domestic clubs which they represent. They are terms and phrases that are now thrown around on a regular basis with relative imprecision and inaccuracy, often used to describe individuals who are good, but not truly deserving of such a prestigious title.
Genuine heroes and legends are something of a rarity. Yes, supporters have their ‘favourites’ or specific players that they enjoy watching every week, but how many of these are genuine legends that will be remembered and recorded forever in the annals of a club’s history?
However, every now and then a player does emerge who deserves the title of ‘hero’ or ‘legend’. A player that makes a significant difference to the team, that influences the very nature of the club, that provides that little bit of magic that gets supporters off their feet – these are the players that truely deserve such accolades and status.
It is debatable whether any single player has had such a significant impact and influence on Stoke City Football Club during the last decade or so than Ricardo Fuller. The Jamaican striker was universally loved by the locals at the Bet365 Stadium and his performances on the pitch coincided with the rise of The Potters from obscurity in The Championship, to promotion and stability in the Premier League, and appearances in the FA Cup Final and Europa League. You will be hard pressed to find any Stoke supporter who does not recognise Fuller as anything other than a genuine club legend.
However, the striker’s place in the hearts of the fan base was not initially guaranteed. He arrived in The Potteries in the summer of 2016 with a reputation of being temperamental, injury prone and having failed to have settled at any one club for a substantial length of time. Prior to joining Stoke from Southampton for a £500,000 fee he had experienced relatively short-lived spells with Crystal Palace, Hearts, Preston North End, Portsmouth and Ipswich. It is perhaps an indication of his nomadic existence in English football that prior to 2006 his longest spell with a team was two seasons.
It would be fair to say that Stoke supporters did not quite know what to expect, but the Jamaican soon became an instant hit.
At this time Tony Pulis was deploying a rigid, cautious 4-4-1-1 formation in which the team was characterised by direct balls forward and getting crosses into the box from wide areas. Fuller was handed an almost free reign as a striker to play wherever and however he saw fit. One moment he would be picking up the ball on the touchline, the next he would be looking to latch onto a through ball into the corner – the freedom of his movement was a rarity in a side that was naturally set up to be hard to be defensively solid first, and entertaining second.
However, it was Fuller’s astonishing natural ability with a football at his feet that truly set him apart from the rest. He possessed the perfect combination of pace, power and agility that enabled him to twist, turn and bound beyond defenders whilst his quick, skilful feet were allowed him to produce moments of magic. The Jamaican would dance around opponents with consummate ease by employing audacious pieces of skill with the ball and had the knack of being able to create a goal from absolutely nothing.
Any Stoke supporter who saw Fuller perform would attest to his brilliance and whenever the forward would pick up the ball there would be an almost expectant intake of breath from the crowd.
The striker’s ability is characterised by two defining moments. First, during Stoke’s successful promotion campaign in 2008 The Potters found themselves desperately clinging on to a 3-2 lead in an away fixture at Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers. In stoppage time, Fuller received the ball on the edge of his own box and raced forwards. He darted and weaved beyond countless defenders, travelling the full length on the pitch before drilling a low shot into the bottom corner of the net to conclude one of the most incredible solo goals that any football fan I likely to see.
Second, there were some that doubted whether Fuller would be able to replicate his magic in the Premier League following Stoke’s promotion but any such claims were soon ended in the club’s opening home fixture against Aston Villa. A ball was rolled into the Jamaican’s feet and there seemed nowhere for him to go with Villa defender Martin Laursen touch-tight behind him. However, Fuller instinctively flicked the ball around the defender, spinning his body in the opposition direction, and raced onto his own touch before smashing a low drive beyond the despairing goalkeeper.
Both were moments of incredible, audacious and breath taking pieces of individual skill, but they were certainly not a rarity. In fact part of the supporter’s fascination and admiration for Fuller derived from his ability to produce moments of brilliance on a weekly basis, often changing the course of a game single-handedly. Stoke fans will certainly have no lack of memories to recall.
However, genius rarely comes perfected and their were moments of madness from Fuller. In December 2008 the striker was shown a straight red card during a Premier League fixture at Upton Park after bizarrely striking team mate and club captain Andy Griffin in the face following an on-pitch argument. It was a reminder of his temperamental nature and the incident was swiftly swept under the carpet with both players helping The Potters to secure Premier League survival by the end of the campaign.
Ricardo Fuller scored a total of 50 goals for Stoke City during a six-year spell, the longest period of time that he has spent at any club throughout his career. In the summer of 2013 he was released by The Potters as the club began to purchase more expensive and extravagant signings in an attempt to ‘push on to the next level’. The twilight of the Jamaican’s career was very much a reflection of his youth as he filtered down the leagues representing a variety of different clubs.
But, if you ask them, Stoke City supporters will take great pleasure and pride in recalling the astonishing feats of Ricardo Fuller in a red and white shirt. The striker truly is a club legend.