In the final seconds of injury time at the Liberty Stadium on Monday night, Virgil van Dijk floated a cross towards Roberto Firmino at the back-post. Swansea City had defended their single-goal lead well enough throughout the second-half and at no point did Liverpool really look like equalising.
But then, finally, there it was: the perfect delivery, Firmino closing in and everyone in the stadium knowing exactly what was about to happen. Those are strange moments inside a football stadium. Noise, of course, is a constant during a game and whether one set of fans is joyously taunting another, or pockets of supporters are baracking a referee, there is always sound of some kind.
Not then, though. Everyone seemed to hold their breath at exactly the same time. Three quarters of the stadium were getting ready to absord the crushing gut-punch of the equaliser and the others, coiled in excitement, were ready to burst with relief and joy. But the net didn’t ripple. Firmino steered his header back across Lukasz Fabianski but against the post and, when the ball dropped to Adam Lallana – unmarked, surely destined to score – the ball was somehow deflected away.
Up jumped Alfie Mawson, punching the air and celebrating. That was Liverpool’s final chance of the game and the points were safe.
Mawson is fascinating to watch. He’s a good player without being a truly exceptional one and is not without flaw, but he’s a centre-back who supporters presumably find it easy to love. In person, he’s humble and sincere, and not pre-programmed to talk in perma-cliche. On the pitch, that comes across too: in this holographic age, Mawson is very human.
Back in the summer, he travelled with England’s u21s to the European Championship in Poland. He had a good tournament: Aidy Boothroyd’s team were overmatched talent-wise and eventually that told in their semi-final with Germany, but they put together a nice run.
Eight months has now passed since then and some of the memories have faded, but Mawson’s part in it has not. He would start each game in the same way, belting out the national anthem with tuneless determination, and then he would spend the next 90 minutes hurling his forehead at whatever came into the England penalty-box. As Callum Chambers said to the press on a rare rest day during the competition, Mawson “just loves heading footballs”.
There were comical moments, too. England were based in Kielce for the duration of their group and the small stadium wasn’t always full. Most who were there for the Sweden game will remember his loud, expletive-laden dispute of a linesman’s decision which reverberated around the ground and drew giggling mirth from almost an entire stand. But Mawson isn’t a clown. His style of defending can sometimes seem as if it would be more at home in a different era, but that’s only a relative situation. He moves well enough, he’s competent with his feet, and he’s a huge presence in both penalty areas.
The chief difference lies in struggle, though. Modern footballers generally look like athletes and, in spite of the physical challenge, often make the game look deceptively easy. When Virgil van Dijk left the pitch on Monday night, his hair was as perfect at it had been when he emerged from the tunnel and he didn’t look as if he’d broken sweat. By contrast Mawson, with his pale skin, was flushed and exhausted, showing visible signs of wear and tear after an evening of charging around the pitch.
Charging around the pitch…with that slightly uneven stance, his hips and shoulders not quite aligned in the normal way. Premier League players a perfectly formed now and precisely proportioned, most of them actually look as if they’ve been chiselled for the specific demands of their position. It’s a world of waxed chests and hair transplants, Ken dolls everywhere you look.
He looks like he really enjoys being a footballer. Not just the wealth and material possessions which come with it, but the joy of running out into a stadium full of people, feeding off the energy, and stretching himself to the extremities of his potential.
Alongside the physical tendencies and quirky traits which separate him from the porcelain, Mawson possesses another increasingly rare quality: he looks like he really enjoys being a footballer. Not just the wealth and material possessions which come with it, but the joy of running out into a stadium full of people, feeding off the energy, and stretching himself to the extremities of his potential.
Prior to the game with Brighton earlier in the season, a couple of members of his family stood by me in the Liberty Stadium pressbox waving to him as he passed by underneath. They cheered wildly when his name was read out over the tannoy – and, yes, that is what it should look like when someone you know or love is doing well in front of the watching world. No cool indifference, no superstar’s bride lost in a brand new iPhone with a jewel-encrusted cover.
The whole image, both the one he presents on the pitch and which surrounds him, is very likeable. It’s devoid of airs and graces, no entitlement in sight.
“Throwback” is a lazy term and, over time, it’s come to mean anything which isn’t jarringly contemporary. For Mawson, though, it’s entirely apt: whether because of his infectious spirit or the idiosyncracies of his style, he’s someone who any fan would be quick to embrace and who, because of the absence of otherworldly gleam, actually has a discernible texture.