Why Liverpool's Jon Flanagan is one of my favourite Premier League players


I know I sound like a granddad, but in my day defenders screwed long metal studs into their unfussy black boots. They’d tuck their shirt in, wear short sleeves, and shudder at the thought of donning gloves or a fancy haircut.

There would be no smiles, no ‘bantz’, no shirt swapping at half-time. How good they were going to look would never have crossed their mind.

A defender’s first objective was simple. With a steely look and a snarl, they’d eye up the nearest forward and tell themselves: “Today, that flash b*****d isn’t getting past me.”

Usually, a good old-fashioned reducer would shortly follow.

Nowadays the game has gone soft of course - for good and bad reasons - and so too inevitably have the players; defenders included.

What a joy then, to witness the exciting rise of a genuine throwback at Anfield this season. Jon Flanagan, come here and give me a hug.

He wouldn’t of course. That would be right up there with glove wearing in his eyes I’m sure. For Liverpool’s hungry 21-year-old (with his basic barbers haircut and sticky out ears) may look like a sixth-former, but he’s a proper old school footballing man.

And, for that reason he’s fast becoming one of my favourite Premier League players.

In a world where clubs have the wherewithal to import technically gifted young footballers from all corners of the planet, it’s refreshing to see a local lad given the chance to shine.

And boy is he local. Brought up just 200 yards from the stadium on Utting Avenue, he’s the son of a former Liverpool apprentice who cleaned Kenny Dalglish’s boots back in the 1980s. Flanagan is a proper Red.

The Red Cafu according to some fans. So quickly has his new nickname stuck, that the Brazilian legend himself has begun to follow the young Scouser’s progress – praising his performance against Spurs to his 64,500 Twitter followers on Sunday afternoon.

It’s not Flanagan’s attacking play that’s caught my eye though. It’s his stout, unapologetic aggression.

Thrust into the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park in November, out of position at left-back, and at a time when he felt his chance to become a regular first team had passed, Flanagan puffed out his chest, crunched into tackle after tackle, and produced what Steven Gerrard remarked as, “one of the best derby performances I’ve seen for many years. Our star man by a country mile.”

Since then he hasn’t looked back. Or changed either.

Game after game he’s displaying no fear, or respect for his opponents. Watching, stalking, shuffling, and then biting into a collection of fair but incredibly firm challenges, young Flanagan has left most of his markers with grass stains on their backsides this term. He’s been the unsung star of a wonderful season.

I once spent a week with the England Under-18 squad at Lilleshall, and it was the first time I’d ever encountered Gary Neville.

I’d been used to a certain type of aggression in the chaotic cut and thrust of the notorious South East Counties League with Arsenal’s youth team, but even so, in training I’d never experienced anyone as determined, focused and intent on showing that he was the stronger man than Gary. Crikey, he’d crunch hard into the 50-50s. No quarter was ever given. 

I’m told Flanagan is made of the same kind of substance. Whether it’s a five-a-side, a friendly or a Premier League humdinger, his attitude never seems to veer off course.

He might be playing in the world’s most glamorous division, with millions watching him around the world, but this is a guy who really couldn’t give a damn what he looks like. He’s there’s to win. He’s there to defend.

I was beginning to lose faith that English football was no longer capable of producing characters like Neville or Flanagan anymore.

Who knows, rough tough defenders like them might even come back into fashion soon.

I hope so. 

 

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