On Saturday, Crystal Palace pulled off one of the surprises of the Premier League weekend, as they saw off high-flying West Ham to move ever closer to cementing their top-flight status for another season, and there was no doubting who stole the show.
Striker Glenn Murray -- a veteran of non-League football and American lower divisions -- netted two of the Eagles' three goals in the 3-1 victory. It was only his second start for the club in almost a year, and he even ended it in style by getting sent off with just a few minutes left on the clock.
It was a wonderfully nostalgic performance of a player in-keeping with the ultimate cliché of the outmoded English game: the "big man" whose primary responsibility is to get themselves on the end of the most crude of build-up techniques since passing was invented, the hoof. For the uninitiated, this is an ugly long ball aimed at the attackers, in the hope that it'll catch the opponent's defence off-guard.
In the modern age, football has developed to a position in which most big teams don't consider such a player and such a style particularly fruitful. Said hoof is far too easy to defend against, and technique has thus taken precedence over physicality. At the top level, players are endlessly drilled to internalise certain movements and skills specific to their team's tactical framework; physical stature is no longer the determining factor. That, of course, isn't to say that big players can't be masterful technicians, but rather that their over representation based purely on strength and size is on the wane.
But if you think the target man is dead, then Murray is emphatically proving you wrong. His was the kind of performance that former RAF Wing Commander Charles Reep (no, that isn't an imaginary monocled, tea-drinking caricature, but genuinely the man who pioneered the long ball) would have applauded. It wasn't one of technique and skill, but of good old fashioned blood and guts.
Murray's first goal was perhaps the most enjoyable, coming when his soft header was inadvertently sliced backwards by Hammers defender Aaron Cresswell, who paid for his overeagerness in the clearance by looping the ball over his own goalkeeper and into the back of the net. His second was scarcely any more polished, coming on another header as he threw himself fearlessly at a Jason Puncheon free-kick. In between his two goals, he spent most of the match making an nuisance of himself.
But it was not in spite of the scrappiness of Murray's performance that it was worthy of celebration, but precisely because of it. Here is a man who appeared to do nothing that the rest of us couldn't and ended up with a Premier League brace; a man who spent much of his career at small clubs in industrial northern towns like Barrow and Stockport; a man that is a little rougher around the edges than your average cyborg of a top flight footballer.
That Murray was sent off before the final whistle didn't mar the performance -- instead, it was oddly fitting. Much like Italo Calvino's Marcovaldo, in which a man from a peasant background is forced into living among the industrial smoke of Northern Italy and never quite manages to grasp the conventions of urban life (usually with rather slapstick outcomes), it was the most the most poetically perfect conclusion to Murray's afternoon. Ultimately, the demands of football at the top level means that Murray and his fellow 'big men' are never really going to fit in again.
But nevertheless, his performance against West Ham proved that the underdog can still triumph. And if that's not worth celebrating, then perhaps nothing is.