The Monday Profile - Paul Thirlwell
File him under journeyman if you will; Paul Thirlwell’s career hasn’t exactly hit stellar heights anywhere. Decent spells at his hometown club Sunderland, Sheffield United and Derby were flecked by seemingly the only consistency of his career – injury. Ask any fan of his current club Carlisle to define Thirlwell in a single word and the wags will chorus on cue – ‘injured’.
This is unquestionably fair – no player attracts a three month long calf strain hoodoo like the North East born schemer. A friend of this blog and of the club underlined the problem in a recent conversation. ‘What you’ve got to do with Thir, is just assume he’ll play no more than two thirds of the season, being fair on him is easier after that.’
The same correspondent went on to suggest that these mystery ailments (perhaps the result of a body which struggles to heal) have inhibited the career of a player who would have played more in the top flight in spite of them. This isn’t the prevailing view at Brunton Park.
To the thronged hordes who stomp Warwick Road on a Saturday afternoon, Thirlwell’s presence is a problem. He is one dimensional, careless in possession, slow and un-penetrative, the pal and favourite of an unpopular manager. The majority would prefer the club captain’s position be taken by the combative, former Chelsea tyro Tom Taiwo.
The issue is that whilst they both occupy a similar portion of the pitch – at the base of the middle third – they are very different players. Taiwo is all arms, legs, bone crunching tackles and verve. Thirlwell operates like a Poundland Xavi; marking space, covering his flying fullbacks and tapping a metronomic tone to his more forward looking colleagues.
I recently made the facile mistake of asking a comicbook obsessed friend of mine who he preferred between Batman and Wolverine. He replied contemptuously that as they were ‘totally different’ they couldn’t be compared. I’d assumed there both being ‘super heroes’ was quite enough. The same is true of Thirlwell and Taiwo.
It is at this point that I must confess a preference for the former. To my mind at least, Carlisle have been truly privileged to see the Mackem Makélélé in the twilight of his career.
His best quality is the aforementioned spatial awareness. It is an oft levelled criticism of the man that he never makes a tackle. The point is that he doesn’t need to – his is a game of balls stolen from toes and well timed interceptions.
The other doubts levelled are that he always passes sideways – a League One crab to rival Ray Wilkins. It isn’t true, but even if it were, so what? The virtue of football is surely in playing the right pass, not the showbiz one. Opta don’t do pass completion stats for League One but I’d wager a small fortune that Thirlwell’s are in the top 20.
His leadership is also questioned by those who feel the only right minded virtue in a captain is to bawl out his colleagues in the event of a mistake. Having seen Carlisle’s vice-captain Danny Livesey use this tactic with young, loanee naifs I hesitate to agree. To watch Thirlwell’s on pitch efforts over 90 minutes is to witness an advert for lung capacity – you see a consummate organiser, always chatting but never threatening. It’s little coincidence that a side who conceded 9 goals in the three games prior to Thirlwell’s return from injury have lost only one since his subsequent return. The man captained Sunderland at the age of 21. You don’t receive that honour by mistake.
Despite all this Thirlwell’s lack of popularity is understandable. His is a style beloved of a strand of football fan, prevalent in the blogging community, who purr at pass completion and find virtue in ‘unseen work’. The average English football fan will always prefer sweat, bluster and broken bones and with Taiwo you get this in spades.
‘Paul Thirlwell is our best player. Discuss.’ Will forever remain an academic treatise I’m happy to write. Sadly, amongst my peers, it is an argument I will never win.
Footnote: I wrote this piece a week ago as Thirlwell was again in the fixed gaze of the Brunton Park doubters. As if by magic he scored his annual goal against Colchester on Saturday, and quite a cracker it was. ‘Haters gonna hate’ as they say.