The Monday Profile: Jonás Gutiérrez
Saturday’s trouncing by England’s conquerors Germany brought to an abrupt and embarrassing end Argentina’s involvement in the 2010 World Cup – and with it the exit of another player with Championship connections. In truth, though, Jonás Gutiérrez was never an integral part of the South Americans’ side, despite Maradona’s past insistence that our man’s always one of the first names on his teamsheet.
Sure, he was in the starting XI for the opening two group fixtures, against Nigeria and South Korea, but in an unfamiliar right-back position in which he was left exposed, particularly thanks to the Argentinians’ narrow midfield. Suspended for the final group game against Greece by virtue of collecting yellow cards in the first two matches, he then failed to regain his place in the side during the knock-out phase, instead having to look on as his replacement Nicolas Otamendi dazzled us all with his awfulness as Germany hammered home four goals without reply.
When Newcastle announced his signing from Real Mallorca for a fee in the region of £10m in July 2008, we didn’t know much about Gutiérrez. Our record of expensive recruits from La Liga was poor (Marcelino and Albert Luque being the two chief cases in point), though for every ropey South American we’d signed (Daniel Cordone, Cristian Bassedas, Diego Gavilan, Fumaca), another had gone on to prove his worth (Nobby Solano, Tino Asprilla and most famously George Robledo).
We learned a lot more on the opening day of the season, when we kicked off at Old Trafford of all places. Gutiérrez was an absolute revelation, not only attacking the reigning Premier League and European champions on the flanks with pace and purpose but showing a willingness to track back and dispossess players close to his own goal. We were used to a similar brilliance in possession from David Ginola, but any suggestion that he should do more when without the ball would have been met with a Gallic shrug.
The 1-1 draw was a cue for talk of “false dawns” amidst a cautious optimism – but a false dawn it certainly was, both for Gutiérrez and the team as a whole. Relegation from the Premier League ten months later was devastating, and while it would seem harsh to assign as much blame to Gutiérrez as to (for instance) Alan Smith, Kevin Nolan, Shola Ameobi, Fabricio Coloccini and others, the fact remained that for all his tireless running he functioned as little more than an occasional pressure release valve, his failure to supply either service or goals ultimately proving costly.
Thankfully, as with most of our underperforming alleged superstars, Gutierrez looked a different prospect altogether in the Championship. Suddenly not only did he seem consistently capable of beating his man, but he was also providing killer passes on which teammates could capitalise. Opposing full-backs were petrified, even when they had one or two reinforcements on hand, and if the suspicion persisted among some fans that he occasionally tended to go to ground too easily, his turfward tumbles were usually the result of frustrated and bewildered opponents forced to resort to illegal methods of stopping him play.
When his long-overdue first goal for the club finally came, on 7th November at home to Peterborough, it was an absolute beauty – a pacy slaloming run followed by an exquisite finish. Sadly the Spiderman mask we’d been waiting 15 months to see never materialised – no doubt because it had had to be thrown out after festering down his sock for so long. It was however donned when he next hit the back of the net, with another screamer in the thrashing of Barnsley. Two more goals followed, one to kickstart the vital comeback at Ashton Gate in March and the opener in the 4-1 demolition of eventual fellow promotees Blackpool in the first game since we’d sealed our own return to the top flight.
It wasn’t just on the pitch that Gutierrez made a significant contribution, either. The fans decided to pay tribute to him by wearing masks at the home game with Forest, with Magicbox, the main outlet for the masks in town, donating £1 of every sale to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
And what of the future? Those of us of a black and white persuasion are just hoping that he’s now found his feet in English football and that he’ll prove as much of a productive threat back in the Premier League as he did in the Championship. After all, you don’t become a fixture in the Argentina squad by being a bad player – even if that quarter-final defeat might suggest otherwise.