The 2000s was perhaps the last great decade for cult heroes in elite-level football – and we celebrate some of our favourites in the latest episode of The Broken Metatarsal podcast.
It can be difficult to define what makes a player a cult hero. They certainly can’t be the best player at the club, but they might be funny and relatable, they might shine brightly but briefly, they might graft their bollocks off for the badge on the shirt, or they might just be a bit endearingly shit.
We know we’re never going to be Lionel Messi so, in short, perhaps the best definition of a cult hero is a player we all like to imagine ourselves becoming if we didn’t eat Greggs so much. Listen to the full episode of our 2000s cult heroes special to hear our full list, but in the meantime, raise a glass to these lads that brought us joy.
If the criteria of being a cult hero is either a limited workhorse or a flash-in-the-pan success, then Benjani is a unique case of a player who can justifiably claim to be both.
Arriving at Portsmouth in a classic January transfer window splurge by Harry Redknapp – four players arrived from Tottenham, and then Andres D’Alessandro rocked up on deadline day – Benjani joined a club seemingly destined for relegation.
He failed to score in his first 14 games but endeared himself to supporters thanks to his work-rate as Pompey mounted a great escape, saving his maiden goal for the 2-1 win at Wigan that confirmed the club’s safety.
After scoring seven goals in his first 50 appearances for the club, the former Zimbabwe international suddenly became brilliant, bagging 12 goals across the first half of 2007-08 to earn a move to Manchester City.
Even that transfer wasn’t without its endearing calamity, as Benjani missed two flights to Manchester after taking a nap in the airport, and his transfer had to be subsequently ratified by the Premier League after the window had closed.
His career quickly fizzled out with spells at Sunderland, Blackburn and a return to Portsmouth as well as two years in South Africa, but having scored the winner in a Manchester derby at Old Trafford on his City debut, it feels churlish to criticise.
Was he good or was he shit? Or was he a madman that enjoyed walking a tightrope between the two?
His trophy cabinet suggests he wasn’t just good but absolutely brilliant. That clip of him trying to play some kind of Derren Brown mind-trick on Paolo Di Canio would suggest otherwise.
He smoked, he liked having his head kissed, he popped up on the wing in pre-season, he embarked on a career in motorsport after retiring. What’s not to like?
Toure owes his Arsenal career to nearly crocking both Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Arsene Wenger in training while looking to impress on trial, he claimed to have owned a dog for seven years without ever touching it, he expressed his love for Whitney Houston after being asked to name his favourite terrace chant.
Oh, and he was really, really good – not to mention the key ingredient of having a catchy song in your honour.
Invincible as a player. Invincible as a cult hero.
Another larger than life character whose personality somewhat overshadows his achievements on the field, Windass made over 700 appearances and scored over 200 goals as a professional footballer.
The 2000s featured Windass’ fairytale volley to fire his hometown club Hull City into the Premier League for the first time, only a year after returning to the club on loan from League One Bradford City to score the goals that kept the Tigers in the Championship in the first place.
To this day, Windass’ daily Twitter videos, which he uses to promote mental health awareness, are a treat. Oh, and there was that time he received three red cards in one match…
There was always going to be a Leeds player in here otherwise our editor would have spat his dummy out again, and while it was tempting to revisit the run to the Champions League semi-finals, cult heroes are more often than not born out of hardship rather than success.
Hughes joined Leeds on the day they were docked 15 points ahead of their first ever season in England’s third tier. A couple of days later, he played in a last-minute victory at Tranmere Rovers as fans and players came together with one aim: “15 points, who gives a fuck? We’re Super Leeds and we’re going up.”
But Leeds didn’t go up, they lost in a play-off final and then again in the semi-finals the following season. By the time of Hughes’ last full season at Elland Road, he was a right-footed central-midfielder filling in at left-back – and being bloody brilliant at it.
If you need a good cry, read our oral history on the day Leeds finally secured promotion out of League One to see just how much it meant to Hughes, not to mention the bizarre way he tried to celebrate at the final whistle.
The hair, the adverts, the celebrations, Bullard treated football with the seriousness it deserves, which is all too rare in the modern era.
He’s the Poundland Gazza, and we love him.
Listen to the full episode of our 2000s cult heroes special on The Broken Metatarsal podcast, featuring a dedicated cult heroes quiz, fact or fiction and lots of chat about why smoking is cool.