For better or worse, MailOnline is the most popular news website in the United Kingdom. At the time of writing – 12.33pm on Wednesday – the top headline on their football homepage is ‘Was that really Joe Allen? Liverpool’s £16m man finally shows why Rodgers called him the ‘Welsh Xavi’ with no-look assist for Ibe’. Catchy. The Sun’s website asked a similar question in faux-astonishment. ‘Is Joe Allen Liverpool’s Andrea Pirlo or Emile Heskey in disguise?’
I’ve double-checked, by the way, and it was Allen, not Pirlo, Xavi or Heskey. Not a doubt about that. Definitely Allen.
Now MailOnline might not be to your taste, but it’s obvious that they know their onions when it comes to maximising their audience. Sixteen hours after his assist, Joe Allen might not have been the biggest story in football, but he was certainly the one that would drive the most traffic.
There are very few players in the country who would prompt such a reaction. Mesut Ozil would run Allen close, but that story would focus solely on the German’s magnificence. With Allen, the reaction was one of disbelief.
To an outsider, it’s a farcical scenario. Allen is a fringe player in the Liverpool squad. He’s started 53 league games since arriving in August 2012, and one this season. On Tuesday he set up a goal for a teammate in a League Cup match. Allen had done his job, albeit with a degree of nonchalance.
For Allen, however, this is nothing new – everything he does is big news. If Mario Balotelli was Liverpool’s cause celebre off the field, Allen is his on-field equivalent. He is the subject of a million memes, possibly the most divisive player in the Premier League.
Brendan Rodgers has his own view. “Joe is a player who never gets the same credit as some of the others because he doesn’t score a great deal but that’s not his game,” he said in March. “But his courage and composure on the ball is phenomenal and I thought he was brilliant today.”
Yet Rodgers’ description is flawed, judging by the MailOnline homepage at least. Allen doesn’t just get the credit that others get, he gets far more. He also gets unfair abuse to offset that praise. Yin and yang.
Rodgers played his own crucial part in Allen’s divisive reputation. “This is the Welsh Xavi,” the then-Reds manager said in Liverpool’s tribute to The Office, Being: Liverpool. The first episode of that dickumentary contained almost half of the most cringeworthy moments in televisual history. It should be said that Rodgers’ description was not entirely serious but, unsurprisingly, it stuck.
Instantly, Allen became a hostage to fortune. The comparison – however jovial – with one of the world’s greatest midfielders has hung around his neck like an albatross – an albatross with an exceptional passing range far greater than Allen’s own.
“Some people maybe read too much into comments like that at times,” Allen says. “They heap pressure on you. It was just a comment about my style of play and nothing more, really.” The world’s response is to stick both fingers in its ears while shouting “Welsh Xavi” in an increasingly loud voice.
Allen is also a product of the modern football media. This is a world where Robbie Savage is somehow deemed king, where he who shouts loudest wins. The middle ground is home only to tumbleweeds. The only things better than controversy and opinions are controversial opinions. Ergo Adrian Durham is successful.
Yet this polarity rails entirely against Allen’s own style. He is a neat passer of the ball, a tidy player who is unlikely to grab a match by the scruff of its neck. He is a facilitator. As comedian Micky Flanagan once described himself in his youth: “I wasn’t the man to drive the van, that would have been dreaming. I was the man who carried the stuff to the van.”
But in this age of extremes, players are never allowed to just be. Andy Carroll scores two goals and is back on the plane to Euro 2016. Ross Barkley has exploded onto the scene, struggled to match the hype and then exploded once again. Every one of Allen’s performances is either a redemption or a regression.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Allen in particular. There is no doubt that he has underachieved at Liverpool, but his task is now close to impossible. Do something well and he is mocked. Do something badly and his reputation falls further. Grow some facial hair and it’s news.
All Allen wants to do is improve as a footballer. Instead, he’s become a parody. An ordinary player; an extraordinary fuss.