Do you remember watching Edward Norton in Primal Fear? Me neither (I was eight back in 1996, when it came out), but by all accounts it was quite the spectacle. Norton, you see, had never appeared on screen before. He was 17, completely unknown to everyone taking their seat in the cinema. The film itself was nothing hugely special, but Norton’s performance, as an altar boy accused of a brutal murder, was very special indeed. It remains, by common consensus, one of the most exciting acting debuts of all time.
Just when the Norton Principle, in football if not in general, seemed like a thing of the past, a red-hot attacker appears in England's top flight with most peoples' prior knowledge of him falling somewhere close to zero. Which, at a time when footballers are superstars and information is everywhere, takes some doing.
We’re all know-it-alls now. Mystery, exoticism, the proverbial ‘unknown quantity’: call it what you want, but there’s no doubt that the chief casualty of football’s YouTube age has been the thrill of seeing a seriously good player in action for the first time. Now, long before you ever lay eyes on them in person you’ll have seen Vines, highlights reels, passing data, heat maps, and several dozen hastily compiled articles detailing precisely why he’d be the ideal inverted winger to open up the half-spaces in Pep Guardiola’s counter-pressing setup. Your imagination, before it’s had time to wander off and envisage the unknown, has been invaded by cold hard reality. What Might Be is nipped in the bud by What Actually Is.
Which is kind of a shame. “We don’t know a lot about him” was once a fair claim for pundits to make about a player arriving from some far-flung corner of the globe, for the simple fact that it was true – we didn’t. Now the same statement is – equally fairly – disparaged as lazy and parochial by a viewership who can drown themselves in the player’s stats and showreels at the click of a button.
The results aren’t all bad: pundits have had to up their game, for a start, which means our weekends have gotten a whole lot better. Alan Shearer once made the mistake of calling Hatem Ben Arfa “a player no one knows a great deal about”. Viewers were appalled, and he addressed the error. Now his appearances on the Match of the Day sofa are a masterclass in facts, insight and gruff Geordie eloquence. Over on Sky Sports, Neville and Carragher’s riveting Monday-night jam sessions are a direct product of our information age. Ignorance, for the large part, has become a thing of the past.
But there’s a thin line between ignorance and mystery. And while the former has, with honourable exceptions, been cleansed from the airwaves, the latter has become similarly scarce, and with less enjoyable results.
When Manchester United signed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer back in 1996, for instance, not even the most compulsive football obsessive had the slightest idea what to expect. By the time they signed Memphis Depay a decade and a half later, the endless video clips and reams of data, all stored in internet amber and there to be found at the touch of a button, will have let people know exactly what they were in for.
In the event, Solskjaer turned out be a great signing, Depay less so. But that’s besides the point, which is that the absolute unknown carries its own unique thrill, and so much of Solskjaer’s charm – just like that of Lucas Radebe or Sami Hyypia or Freddie Ljungberg – lay in the way he emerged Norton-like from total obscurity. Obscurity is now an alien concept to any footballer even vaguely close to the top level: if they don’t all live out their lives in public, they certainly play our their careers there.
Richarlison isn’t a complete exception to this (A quick YouTube search throws up the inevitable “RICHARLISON | Fluminense | Crazy Speed, Goals, Skills, Assists | 2017 (HD)”, uploaded before he signed for Watford) but he’s not far off. A young attacker who few had heard of, signed from Brazil, thrust straight into the team and playing with a distinctly non-British brand of carefree exuberance – he’s not quite Juninho at Boro, but these days he’s about as close as you’ll get.
Knowledge, for the most part, is a good thing. But in an age where everyone knows everything, Watford’s bandy-legged attacker is a simple reminder that not knowing can be fun, too.