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The Entertainer - What is it that makes a player prefer the flamboyant to the efficient?

Try to pull this stunt in the playground and you’re getting smashed. Try to pull it off against a fellow professional in front of thousands of people inside a stadium and millions watching at home and, well, you’re getting smashed. Same skill, different environment, universal outcome. But that has never discouraged football’s showboats. Whether it’s on the streets of their hometown or the pristine pitches of the pro game, these showmen like to square up to their marker and flick the ball over their head, using the heel of one foot and the instep of the other. If you’re after visuals, Neymar and Lucas Paquetá are both masters of the rainbow flick.

Victims of this trick resemble the same suckers who fall foul to the classic water bucket over the door prank. There’s that split second of realisation where they open the door and see their tormentor perfectly poised to capture the moment on camera. They freeze, helpless to stop the humiliation, as they accept their fate before rushing towards the camera to smash the person responsible.

Is the rainbow flick essential? No, it’s too risky, and too technically challenging to be essential. Could they work an inch for a cross or a shot with a good old-fashioned drop of the shoulder? Yes, probably, but where’s the fun in that?

What’s going through a player’s mind as they weigh up their options? Mess the trick up and lose possession for your team and you will anger the manager, the fans, your teammates and the opposition. “That will teach you, you flash bastard,” will be the unified response. Pull it off and you had better brace yourself for impact. Or, finally, and this has happened to both Neymar and Paquetá in Ligue 1, invite a yellow card from the referee.

So, why do it? That’s showbiz, baby. Some players and managers aren’t just in this for the three points and the paycheque. They’re here to put on a show, for their own enjoyment, their legacy and, most importantly, to entertain the fans.

Watching Harry Maguire send a towering defensive header back into the opposition’s half is not on many fans’ football must-watch list. Nor is a YouTube compilation of the best sideways passes. For at least some fans, the reason they attend matches, stare at their screens and fill their wardrobes full of Stella McCartney x Aldi mash-up third kits for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is their love of the entertainers – the showboaters worthy of the admission fee.

These players might not finish their careers with a stacked trophy room or stats that stand the test of time, but they’re the ones that we recall with gushing romanticism.

Take the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Adel Taarabt, players best remembered for their spells at Bolton and QPR, clubs that, with all due respect, are unlikely destinations for otherworldly talent. In spite of that, you remember the time Okocha left Ray Parlour wandering bewildered around a corner of the Reebok Stadium after he casually trotted past him with a rainbow flick.

And you probably forgot that Taraabt started his English career at Tottenham, yet you’ve seen the clip of the young Moroccan snatching the soul of Derby’s Craig Fagan with the “filthiest nutmeg” at White Hart Lane. A clip that’s amassed 15.1 million views on Twitter alone.

When a fan witnesses one of these moments, it sets off a chemical reaction that stimulates their reward system. “A pathway in our brain is activated when we experience pleasure,” explained the neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of Emotional Ignorance. “A neurotransmitter, dopamine, starts firing off and that’s the purest, rawest abstraction of pleasure – like an intense sexual experience or eating a nice tangerine….”

Whether it’s a titillating piece of fruit or a titillating piece of skill, that sensation can trigger an involuntary noise or twitch. The sort of noise you didn’t know you were capable of making until you see a player, say, roll the ball across their shoulders during a match. That’s what the human highlight reel Lee Trundle did for Swansea City against Huddersfield Town at the Vetch in 2003. 

Trundle had already scored twice to put the Swans in a commanding position when he found himself with his back to goal just inside the Huddersfield half, tracking a looping header as it dropped out of the Welsh air. “I just thought, ‘I’m enjoying the game and there’s a chance to do it here’ so I did and then I played a forward pass,” Trundle recalls with a cheeky grin. “I don’t think the opposition were too happy either. Two of them got sent off for tackles on me, but that didn’t bother me.

“If you look at my build and the way I am as a player, I’m not one of those little tricky wingers who you can go and smash. I really enjoyed the contact side of the game. Some people say it was disrespectful for me to roll the ball across my shoulders during a game, but if I’m watching football I want to see something different. It was about me enjoying myself and entertaining the fans.”

On paper Trundle’s fame had no right to travel beyond the borders of Wales. The Liverpool-born striker played his entire career in the lower leagues and never surpassed the Championship. Everything about his build suggested he was nothing more than a one-dimensional target man. And yet, such was his popularity he became the first player outside the top flight to sign an image rights deal while playing in League One for Swansea City. 

Trundle earned his rewards with box-office skills. A flash of his silver boots usually signalled the end for his opponent’s ankles and his link play was garnished with delicious tricks and flicks. It wasn’t all style over substance, though. He scored goals. Lots of them. An impressive 91 in 194 games for Swansea City were racked up during two spells in a little over four years. 

This is all the more impressive when you learn he turned professional aged 24 and joined the Swans three years later. Not so much a late developer, more of a late arriver. “My attitude was a bit of a problem when I was younger, I just wanted to play 5-a-side with my mates and enjoy myself,” he said with a rueful smile. “I never really saw football as a viable profession.”

But once he started to play in front of big crowds, their reaction to his grandstanding sparked a love affair. “The crowd excited me,” he said. “When you’d beat someone with a bit of skill the fans cheered or when you scored a goal there would be that instant roar and that gave me the biggest buzz. Supporters should be coming out of the game having enjoyed themselves, talking about bits of skill they’ve seen. “

Even his marker would act like a dumbfounded fan asking a magician how they pulled a rabbit out of a

hat. “My teammates knew what I was capable of, but sometimes a defender would come up to me and say, ‘What did you do just then?’ after I’d beat them and I loved it.”  

Before social media became the pulpit for celebrity sermons, Trundle monopolised Sky Sports’ magazine show Soccer AM and its showboat segment, a feature dedicated to the best skills of the week. 

This turned ‘Magic Daps’, as he was known amongst Swansea City fans, into a cult hero. With his flash haircuts and unmistakable Scouse swagger, Trundle lapped up the attention.

The same extrovert tendencies can be identified in many of today’s most flamboyant stars. Performing at St James’ Park, Newcastle United’s Allan Saint-Maximin willingly sucks defenders towards him as they scramble to contain the runaway winger. Shifting through his arsenal of speed, power and stepovers he makes bruising defenders look like hapless children chasing a balloon in the wind. 

The show continues off the field with a social media feed curating a life full

of dance, flash clothes, fast cars and bold displays of wealth, punctuated by acts of philanthropy. Every post grabs your attention. From in-person cheers to online likes, this is how Trundle and Saint-Maximin bond with fans.

A study in the Journal of Research in Personality found that extroverts find it energising to connect with and relate to others. Attention pumps the brain full of dopamine and like anything that makes us feel good, we develop an insatiable thirst for it. 

“The human brain is incredibly social, that’s how we have evolved and in order to form connections with other humans we often seek their approval,” explained Burnett. “When we get that reward, we experience genuine pleasure. The more people approve of us, the more rewarding our brain finds it.

“A player that goes out to entertain might think, ‘When I perform this skill, thousands of people tell me they like it and that makes me feel good and I want more of it.’ It’s cliche to say it’s like a drug, but there’s a certain element of that. It’s intoxicating.” 

Getting high on your own self-importance jars with teammates unless you’re producing match-winning performances, as Trundle did time and time again. He opened the scoring in the 2006 Football League Trophy final against Carlisle with an exquisite goal that first required deft chest control, followed by a rasping left-foot volley from a tight angle that flew past Keiren Westwood and into the bottom left-hand corner. 

Swansea went on to win the game 2-1 and lifted the trophy at the Millennium Stadium. “My teammates accepted that I wouldn’t do a lot of work defensively, but then I’d go and win us the game,” said Trundle. 

The other highly valuable dressing room currency - banter - was also something he had in abundance. “It wasn’t that I didn’t run and made out like I was different to the rest of the team, I was also one of the jokers in there and helped bring the lads together,” he explained. “We appreciated what we did for one another.” 

This desire to entertain people either with his audacious skills or sense of humour is something he felt since he was a child. “When I was a kid, if we were at a family party or a panto and my mum said, ‘Get up and do a song or a dance’, I’d just get up on stage and do it,” Trundle said. “I’ve always wanted the people around me to enjoy themselves.”

The pressure to perform in front of an audience brings the average person out in a cold sweat. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity to succeed, the human brain tells us we need to exit stage left, sharpish, before we become a meme.  

The fear of failure drained the enjoyment out of Jamie Carragher’s trophy-laden career who says he “endured” his time at the top. And this is the difference between an entertainer and the rest: They aim to thrive, rather than survive. The sports psychologist Steven Sylvester has worked with players from non-league all the way up to the Premier League and can spot a showman a mile off.

“You can see in their body language and how they warm up,” he said. “What choices are they making? Do they put the ball at risk or do they play a safe pass? Are they loud? When someone has fun it’s an indication they’re not thinking about the limits of their athleticism or technical ability, they just want to express themselves and that’s a hard head space to get into. 

“A lot of players wrestle with the inner conflict of how they’re feeling and what they want to show others. Most players overthink their performance, worrying what the manager and coaches are saying, listening to the negative voices in the crowd and that has a detrimental effect on the way they play. When you start to think, you slow down your flow. Entertainers get out of the way of themselves.” 

So when they find themselves standing over a crucial penalty and visions of the future include burning effigies they are able to dismiss the fear. Instead, they choose to risk it all with a Panenka. “The frontal lobe deals with this process because it’s quite complex cognitively - it’s tied with the emotion and reward systems,” Burnett explained. “It’s basically your brain’s risk assessment system. The brain will ask, ‘Is it worth it?’

“If someone has the experience of pulling something off and receiving adulation, their brain stores this feeling and says,

‘This is worth the risk – it outranks the feeling of failure.’ 

“They have a high-risk, high-reward mindset. It’s a bit like a gambling addiction.”

When it comes off, reward is felt by both the paying customer and the main protagonist. It’s this shared experience that binds us. On the surface, showboating

is self-indulgent fun, performed with the purpose of attracting attention. Scratch beneath the ‘sexy football’ surface and you realise it’s innately human, with essential social connections formed through the expression of skill and the appreciation of that trickery.

Specialised neurons, called mirror neurons, respond to actions that we observe in others. The interesting part is that mirror neurons fire in the same way when we actually recreate that action ourselves. So, when we see someone slip the ball through an opponent’s legs and ping it into the top corner, our brains, to some degree, experience that sensation.

The complexity of this neurobiology wasn’t something Arsène Wenger spent too much time trying to understand, but he viewed the need to entertain as a responsibility. Winning was par for the course. To send the fans home in awe of what they’d just witnessed came from a higher calling. 

“You need the ambition to give more,” said Wenger in his documentary, Invincible. “To go deeper into what the game can give to people. To get something more than just the individual expression of a player, but the collective expression of the team to transform it into art.

“You can say it’s naive but you need to give something special to people

to get out of their hard daily life. I just wanted them to sit in that seat and think, ‘Unbelievable.’ You need to have the desire to give something more.”

The three-time Premier League winner understood that as manager of Arsenal he became a leader and how his team performed had a direct impact on the lives of the people within that community “Wenger realised the importance of performing and entertaining for the crowd, for his tribe, and the community,” said Sylvester. “When you’re the manager of a big club with a huge fanbase you have to understand that lots of people love this game and your club. It’s your responsibility to honour this social contract.

“They have been entrusted to do the job and have to ensure that the people who come to support the team are rewarded. He had the mindset: ‘I’m not here just for me, but I’m here to satisfy my members.’”

And that’s what Trundle has tried to do every time he has stepped out on the pitch for the past 27 years. Even now, at the age of 46, he’s showcasing his ball mastery in the second tier of Welsh football. 

Such is his pull, nine years after leaving the English Football League, that YouTuber Location Football travelled 400 miles to watch the ‘Showboat King’ play for Ammanford AFC and Trundle didn’t let them down. He set up the winner in a seven-goal thriller with a cheeky backheel. “It’s about bringing the community together,” he said post-match, glistening with sweat and grinning with joy. 

And he’s not ready to let go of this feeling. “Even playing non-league now, I still get the same buzz when I score a goal, set someone up or do a trick,” he said. “Obviously the noise is different, but the feeling inside is still the same and that’s what keeps me going. I don’t ever want to lose it.”


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