With the season barely a week old, Spurs full-back Benoit Assou Ekotto has already touched the stars and plumbed the depths. I trust the motion sickness will have worn off by kick-off tomorrow.
It all began with so much promise. A fine performance against Manchester City on Saturday not only kept us tight and cosy at the back, a number of long-range curling passes turned defence into attack. His tackle on SWP saved the game, and if Hart had not been wearing those new jet-pack boots, his first half shot, bound for the top corner, could have won it for us. He would have been pleased to see his name on the team sheet in the first place, given Bale’s rip-roaring form. That was quite a compliment, but not quite matching the ultimate accolade – the Tottenham On My Mind MOM…
But there’s more. In town on Monday, you know those people who read your paper over your shoulder or out of the corner of their eye, the ones that if you make eye contact, they pretend to be looking just past you, engaged in an intense study of ceiling rivet techniques or the patterning and durability of the seat covers, comparing modern fabric with the classic London Transport check of 40 years ago, well, I am that voyeur. It’s a compulsion – I do it even if the paper is free and I have said paper in my hand at the time.
On the Northern Line I spotted on the top left of the Evening Standard page, ‘Spurs star who takes the..’ and the rest was obscured. I later picked up a copy with a sinking heart: bound to be either two metre Peter’s latest drunken philandering or, worse, it’s a Spurs man who has the super-injunction. In fact, footballer in good news story shock horror drama probe. The Standard, always on the look out for any passing bandwagon, has leapt aboard the Big Society as it careers through state and local authority provision. Benny is a major contributor to ‘the Dispossessed Fund’ which has gathered £1m to help support London’s poor.
It’s a genuine good news story. Benny loves London and travels everywhere from his Canary Wharf flat (thought they all had to live close to Chigwell and the training ground?) by public transport.
“I love London and consider myself to be a Londoner. I take the Tube. It allows me to feel like a normal person,” he said. “I’ve always got my Oyster card with me. I live an anti-football life. I want to live like a normal person.
“It’s strange to walk around the city and see people sleeping in the streets. You shouldn’t be able to see something like that and then just go home and carry on with your life as normal. You have to do something about it.”
He owes this refreshing humility, rare amongst professional footballers, to his upbringing:
“My mother didn’t teach me to live like a star. I know how difficult it is to make money….I’m a footballer and I earn a lot of money, but when I go back to Cameroon I see the real problems that people are facing. It made me re-evaluate my life.”
In contrast, on the back pages of the same edition, Ashley Cole is being given a PR makeover to improve his image. The clue is in that sentence, Ash – it’s about what you do and how you behave, especially towards your fellow human beings, not about image is. He’ll never learn, bless him.
Spurs have joined in the campaign too, the first Premier League team to do so.
Benny is different, we know that. Last season he pulled off the staggering feat of saying that all footballers are in it for the money, but in a nice way. He’s a professional and will give his all, but in the end it’s a job and he’ll walk away. He plays football because he can but would much rather do something in music. Badge-kissing and fist-pumping is so much nonsense – see players for what they are and enjoy it, he seems to be saying, but don’t make them something they are not.
He greets all this with the same expression, slightly bemused and disconnected but not unhappy. My son has seen the team board the coach post-match at a few away games. Benny will stroll towards the bus, headphones on, in a world of his own, whereas the others will mostly sign a few books and pose for photos. Somehow he does it in a manner that does not offend. It’s just the way he is. The only clue to his feelings is the merest twitch of the face, the most expressive raised eyebrow since Roger Moore’s puppet on Spitting Image.
I swear he’s the same in games. Whether striding forward, hammering back or hurling himself bodily into the tackle, maybe just the slightest furrowed brow is the only change you can discern.
On Wednesday, he was fairly blank, albeit with eyes downcast, as he suffered the ignominy of being hauled off after 36 minutes. It could be that he was sacrificed for tactical reasons as Hud came on, but Harry did not look at all happy. Benny had been drifting wide and out of position, stranded when he saw the Young Boys forward move up for the third goal. From hero to villain in 4 short days.
I’ve grown fond of our full-backs over the years. I sit on the lower Shelf in the centre and see a lot of them as they toil up and down, the fear in their eyes as they face a quick winger or Bale’s astonishing physicality as he steams up the field.
I like Benny. He’s a good player, quick, alert and neat, good on the ball and sharp in the tackle. If he didn’t care, he would not have improved so much in the last two years, he’d just hang around and pick up his cheque. Sometimes he has off days but you can’t tell until it’s too late, until he wanders or he has those mad days. He reminds me of my dog – even and consistent the vast majority of the time but occasionally for no reason, she flies in and out of the house at top speed for five minutes or so, then stops, again for no apparent reason. Benny goes mad too, usually going walkabout and fouling desperately before being substituted.
Let’s hope he picks himself up for Saturday. Certainly a week of ups and downs, but still, knowing him, he’s probably not noticed and even if he has, you wouldn’t notice the difference.
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