Ian Grant likes Danny Graham. An awful lot.
While it may be that this fanzine has a burgeoning readership among today’s pop kids, I’m going to make an assumption and ask for your forgiveness if it’s wrong. The assumption is that you’ve probably given up on a professional football career by this point.
Me, I’ve had quite a while to get used to the disappointment. It became evident that I can’t see beyond the end of my nose without glasses while I was still in my early years at primary school, that I’m an utter flinchy no-stop-it-huuuurts coward not long after that, and that I’m absolutely bloody useless at football not long after that. That last one turned out to be a real deal-breaker and the dream got burnt long before my tenth birthday. I hope yours lasted a little bit longer.
But even if your own dream’s long gone, you can live it vicariously on a Saturday afternoon when you kick every ball from the stands (or the living room sofa). If you support anyone even half not-decent – and you do, evidently, if you’re reading this – a key part of being a fan is hope and hope is built upon imagination. Stories, daydreams. An improbable comeback from two-down at half-time. A late winner in front of the Rookery. The echoes of the career you never had in the exploits of your heroes.
For a select group of players, those stories extend beyond their time at Vicarage Road. A piece of that hope and imagination is smuggled over the border into enemy territory. A small investment in their careers, a little bit of you taken with them when they move on. The vestiges of arguments long since forgotten, the pride in singing their name from the Rookery. Perhaps the desire to be proved right, to be able to say that you’d spotted something special when others were writing them off. ‘I knew it. I said it, didn’t I?’ Maybe just delight in having had first sight of a soon-to-be household name. ‘He’s one of ours, you know.’
The list will be different for every person. You’ll have your own, I’m sure. I may well be the only Watford fan who periodically checks to see how Stephen McGinn’s getting on (currently at Hibs, looks oddly like a clean-shaven Daniel Radcliffe), but surely not the only one who glanced at the starting line-up and scoresheet of whichever club Heidar Helguson was playing for, hoping to see his name appear on both, or who followed Luther wherever he went. While Ray Lewington is in their employ, I find it impossible to wish the ill on Crystal Palace to which they’d otherwise surely be due; the same is true of John Eustace and QPR.
In recent years, I’ve checked most often on the progress, or sometimes regress, of Danny Graham. There’s a simple reason for that: as our seven-year-old would put it, he’s my favourite. We could end the article there, perhaps, for that’s it in a nutshell: of all the players who’ve worn the shirt over the last fifteen or twenty years, he’s my favourite. Having committed that last sentence to the keyboard, it feels almost sacrilegious, and I’m expecting to find that someone really bloody obvious has fallen into one of the bottomless mind-chasms which seem to open up after your fiftieth birthday, that I’’ll wake up in the middle of the night and shout ‘Jesus, I forgot about Dominic Blizzard!’ or something.
And no, I haven’t missed Troy. I love Troy, but he isn’t my favourite.
At his best, and we saw plenty of his best, Danny Graham was utterly irrepressible. Watching him play was...well, ‘lifeaffirming’ seems over the top, but it’s what I want, really. Many of us grew up watching a team with a particular ethos, an awareness of what paying punters want to see: fast, brave, joyous attacking football, always reaching for the next goal whatever the scoreline, whoever the opponent. Many of us still hold to those values even though that team is an increasingly distant memory. Danny Graham came as close as anyone has to recapturing that essence: every bit of his game was attuned to hurting the opposition in some way, every inch of it was gleeful attacking intent. He contributed to virtually everything positive that we did.
You can’t ignore the goals, of course, but you shouldn’t ignore everything else either, for it was everything else which ultimately turned him into a folk hero over those two seasons. As I wrote at the time: ‘Find me another striker with such technical accomplishment, then see whether they have Danny Graham’s genuine selflessness, his apparent love of doing it for the team and his relish for getting on with stuff that he could’ve left to others. Find someone with that uncanny vision, then see whether they can match his almost suicidal workrate, whether they’ll muck in and take the throw-ins too. Find a forward with goals against their name, then check whether they’re as dangerous as yer man when drifting out wide and firing in ferocious crosses, whether they can drop deep to get the ball if it isn’t coming to them. A complete footballer...”
And yes, goals. Loads of them. They fell into three categories. There were loads of close-range goals, bundled in from the six-yard box, and while you can sometimes begrudge a striker the glory of prodding home from two yards out when others have done the hard work, he’d nearly always been involved in the hard work too. Otherwise, he could usually be found hanging on the shoulder of their last man, waiting for an opportunity to get behind the defence. He was quick but unhurried, mobile and direct; he could finish with either foot, rarely bothered with the fuss of rounding the keeper. He made it look incredibly easy, apart from the agonising spell in the middle of his first season when he didn’t.
And three, miscellaneous. In here, among other things, we find an exquisite near-post finish against Millwall, cutting across the ball to thread it under the keeper before he knows what’s happened. There’s an absurd poached goal at Scunthorpe where he appears to have watched a video of the game beforehand, such is the perfect anticipation of what’s about to happen. And the best of them: a ludicrous long-range half-volley against promotion-chasing West Brom, late in the game after we’d been reduced to ten men and were really hanging on for dear life. I can still picture him disappearing off towards the corner flag with his shirt whirling above his head in celebration as the Rookery exploded. Brings a smile to my face even now.
In that and so many other moments, he was the player you’d have wanted to be if those childhood daydreams had worked out. The player with the most goals, but with assists in double figures too. The player who gave it absolutely everything they had, then found a bit more from somewhere. The player who, when the goals dried up, made himself impossible to drop by adding so much other stuff to the team effort and eventually found form again. The player who always held their head in their hands when a chance didn’t go in, even when it wasn’t their chance. The player with a grin never far from their face. The player with a vest celebrating victory in the squad table tennis tournament. Get over it, lads. He was...ace. That’s the word. Ace. If you still had one, you’d have written his name on your pencil case alongside your favourite bands. Super Danny Graham.
That attachment hasn’t faded since his departure. If anything, the subsequent struggles in his career made it harder to let him go; nobody ever needed to worry about how Ashley Young or Tom Cleverley were getting on, but Danny Graham was a different matter. The accepted narrative is that he fell into that group of players who are more than good enough for the Championship and not quite good enough for the Premier League. I don’t entirely go along with that, although I’m aware that it’s partly because I so badly wanted it not to be true. His eighteen months at Swansea were a qualified success. They sold him for more than they’d paid, although I suppose we have to take into account the fact that Sunderland were spending money as if they’d struck oil under the Stadium of Light car park at the time.
A better move than to Sunderland and...well, we’ll never know. But some people – and footballers are people too, just with more tattoos, sillier hair and cars without moss growing on them – don’t thrive on having to prove others wrong. It always felt as if Danny Graham needed to feed off a warmth around him, that he needed not to be trying too hard or thinking too much; you can file it in the big box marked ‘confidence’ if you like, but there’s something more subtle and complicated than that. For all the graft he put in, he was an essentially instinctive player and instincts tend to evaporate under stress. None of it is a character flaw, really, until you sign for Sunderland as a loudly declared Newcastle fan and need to win everyone over. It doesn’t help if the manager who signs you gets sacked within a month and his successor is a lunatic. You’ll have gathered that I still refuse to accept that he wasn’t up to standard. Not having it.
The story has a happy ending, fortunately: redemption at Blackburn, where he struck up a partnership with Bradley Dack under Tony Mowbray, recovered his scoring touch in the kind of attacking side in which he thrived, and grew enough hair to have the appearance of a man peeking out of a hedge. At last, I stopped having to worry about him so much. You might say that he’d found his level again; you can shut up, though. This summer’s move back to Sunderland seemed, um, curious, in much the same way that revisiting a spot where you’ve been violently sick on a drunken night out in order to write your name around the puddle in pink chalk might be considered curious, and there was no further addition to his grand tally of one goal in let’s-not-be-cruel appearances for the Black Cats.
And so, as Danny Graham announces his retirement, I have one less thing to do on a matchday. I no longer care how Sunderland, Blackburn, Hull, Middlesbrough or Swansea are getting on. I can stop checking on him any time I like, easy as that. I’m not obsessed or anything. I mean, I literally don’t actually even know that he’s got a sportswear range inspired by vintage Italian football kits. He’s no concern of mine now. We can both get on with the rest of our lives. Until he goes into coaching, anyway...