We all love a good ‘cult hero’ in football, someone who breaks the mould, a player who shows unbridled passion, a character that can remind us that what we’re watching is actually supposed to be enjoyable.
Leeds United have a rich history of these so-called cult heroes, Mel Sterland, Andy Hughes, Vinnie Jones, Tony Yeboah, to name but a few. All completely different players, who all came to Leeds at different points of their careers but all made a huge impact at the club and with the fans.
It’s impossible to nail down a single trait that all cult heroes share, which makes them so popular. Andy Hughes and Vinnie Jones were loved for their spirit and the obvious pleasure they took from wearing the white shirt. Tony Yeboah, captured the hearts of the fans with his pure footballing skill. Being able to volley a ball into the top corner of the net, so hard that it ripped a hole in the fabric of our reality and released a demon that haunted David James for his entire career.
Not much links these players other than the fact that their influence and popularity wasn’t really predicted. They came to the club with a limited expectation from the fans. The collective consensus being that the player could probably ‘do a job’ or fill a gap until better players could be brought in. This was exactly the case with Leeds United’s latest candidate for the cult hero honour, one Pontus Jansson.
The six foot, five-inch Swedish international arrived in a blaze of obscurity and blank stares at the end of August. Leeds had started the 16/17 season poorly, the dis-organisation and gaps in their defence could be seen from the moon. They needed an experienced, reliable centre-back to sort things out at the back what we got was Pontus Jansson.
A defender, who had made a mere 16 appearances for his former club Torino, brought in on a season-long loan, fans had little to put their faith in other than Jansson, who has the face and haircut of a Mad Max villain and once beat the piss out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a friendly for Malmo. On paper, at least, he was not the answer to their prayers.
He made his debut against Luton Town in EFL Cup, it was a calm and collected performance and his protection of the young Tyler Denton at left-back was praised by the fans who saw the game. This assured start immediately raised question along the lines of “if he’s any good, why didn’t he play more at Torino?” and “if he is decent, why the f*ck has he come to this circus?” The answer to these questions would be revealed over next few games, and the answer was a simple one. Pontus Jansson is a bit of mad bastard.
During the weeks that followed, Jansson captivated the fans with his massive hits, aggressive attitude and an astute ability to read the game that forced many an opposition forward to watch on helplessly as cross, after cross bounced off his head. So far, Jansson definitely seems the real deal, averaging over nine clearances a game, making more interceptions and out-tackling the rest of his defensive partners. He’s displaying a level of performance that Leeds United haven’t seen from a centre-back in years. On top of all this, he also has a remarkable ability to channel his inner psychopath, which has really struck a chord with the fans.
He’s displaying a level of performance that Leeds United haven’t seen from a centre-back in years. On top of all this, he also has a remarkable ability to channel his inner psychopath, which has really struck a chord with the fans.
During one of his numerous man-of-the-match performances to date, Jansson wiped out Ipswich striker Brett Pitman. Jansson won the ball cleanly during the challenge but left Pitman in a crumpled heap by the touch line. The natural reaction would be to check if Pitman was unharmed and offer an apology. However, Jansson simply got to his feet, turned to the Elland Road crowd, threw his arms in the arm and screamed with all the fury of Hades “Jansson 3:16 says I just whupped your ass!” He then climbed the advertising hoardings, downed two cans off lager and wrapped a steel chair around the lineman’s head. I might be mis-remembering some of that, but it was bloody good fun all the same.
However, Jansson simply got to his feet, turned to the Elland Road crowd, threw his arms in the arm and screamed with all the fury of Hades “Jansson 3:16 says I just whupped your ass!” He then climbed the advertising hoardings, downed two cans off lager and wrapped a steel chair around the lineman’s head. I might be mis-remembering some of that, but it was bloody good fun all the same.
Jansson, like Andy Hughes, Tony Yeboah or Vinnie Jones before him, understands what football is really about. That the fans are the most important part of the sport and a footballer’s job is to entertain them. Jansson said in a recent interview “Football is a show, not only a business.” Jansson feels the sport has become too commercialised and money driven, so it’s more important than ever “to go out on the pitch and have fun. You have to show people that you have fun.”
This kind of message shows Jansson’s passion for the game and it’s that passion that fans can identify with. It sets him apart from most footballers in the modern age, where wealth and greed are apparently all consuming. It’s a trait most cult heroes share and one of the main reasons we like them so much because they’re not stars or prima donnas.
They are brought into the football club to do a job but along the way, the fans realise, it’s not just a job to that player. There’s a moment when the passion shines through and crowd collectively agree “Ok, this guy is different. He can be our hero.”
The only problem with heroes is that they don’t last, their form deserts them, they retire or are sold off at their peak . There are exceptions of course and I hope Jansson will be one of them, that his ability can take him further. I hope the club recognise his worth and allow him to continue to play and develop at Leeds United. That he can build on the beginning of this season and join the likes of Batty, Bremner, Gray and Radebe as a true legend at the club.
For now, though, Leeds United fans just want to enjoy watching Jansson play his heart out for their team. Because he’s the player the fans deserve and the one they need right now. So they’ll cheer him and put their expectations on him because he can take it. Because he’s not a star. He’s a defensive guardian. A watchful enforcer. A cult hero.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Fabian Kruuse