The Last Word: The Hunter proves cut above English beef

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is still in his prime and surely must be coveted by the Premier League’s big spenders

However pejoratively the name is intended by the French, the fact is that les Rosbifs themselves like to depict the English as a prime cut on the butcher's block of humanity. From John Bull to "Beefy" Botham, their icons evoke brawn. In fact, those who take this identity to dyslexic extremes might even discover some patriotic assonance in the word "sirloin" – it being a short step, in English estimation, from Sir to Lion.

Like beef, this bovine quality should not be overdone. Many Englishmen, in attempting to trap or pass a football, have evoked cattle rather too faithfully – whether ruminating stolidly in the rain, or scattering in some spongiform stampede. In one respect, however, English footballers remain unshakably convinced of their superiority. For whatever their deficiencies, they reckon a good roast will always surpass carpaccio when the time comes to fix bayonets.

Sure enough, both manager and captain at Wembley this week qualified as Men You Want In Your Trench. Stuart Pearce, admittedly, has never seemed genuine officer material – more of a sergeant major, bucking up the men at the foot of their ladders. With his retro coiffure, however, you can certainly picture Scott Parker leading the way across no man's land, at walking pace, armed only with a service revolver.

In his debut as captain, Parker put his body on the line in a comically literal sense, hurling himself at shots as though upon a grenade to save his men. In the process, he duly satisfied the bewildering, infantile obsession of English pundits with The Armband. How maddening, then, that he should be so graphically outdone – and not just by one of his own corporals, Chris Smalling, but also by a dashing enemy officer.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar even usurped the caricature to the extent that he treated the turf as pasture. After bravely heading the ball into the net, along with fragments of Smalling's cranium, Huntelaar ended up with enough grass between his teeth to host the 's-Hertogenbosch lawn tennis championships. But do not be deceived. Here was no herbivore. In fact, to those who have followed his career, it was the latest, gratifying evidence that "The Hunter" is one of the outstanding predators of his generation – and finally enjoying the fulfilment so perilously retarded by Real Madrid and Milan.

After just 13 starts at Madrid, Huntelaar was lobbed cruelly from frying pan to fire at San Siro. Once again, he spent so much time on the bench he might have been charged for a season ticket. One night, at Catania in November 2009, Leonardo introduced Huntelaar at 0-0 with six minutes to go. He had been an unused substitute in eight of the last nine matches. In the third minute of added time, he lashed home a left-footed drive; barely a minute later, twisting as the ball rolled away from the "D", he caressed a right-footed chip back over the keeper.

It was arguably goal of the season, in Serie A, but not enough to win over Leonardo. Sure enough, having played so little football, Huntelaar again found himself chained to the bench during the World Cup final. His form since moving to Schalke, however, is such that the Netherlands might just have let slip a prize their cynical performance that night scarcely merited.

Huntelaar has scored 33 goals in his last 35 matches. Of course, he did not start on Wednesday, either – his singular misfortune being that one of perhaps three goalscorers in equivalent form, in all Europe, happens to be Robin van Persie. On replacing him, however, Huntelaar required just 13 minutes to score a 31st international goal in 49 caps.

The lights promptly went out, and he has no recollection of arguing that he should play on. It is the second time this season he has broken his nose, having spent much of the winter in one of those face-masks that make most other players look as though surprised at one of Max Mosley's parties. Huntelaar, in contrast, resembles an executioner.

Having been so ill used by more glamorous clubs, he may yet choose to see out his career in Gelsenkirchen. But he is still in his prime, at 28, and must surely be coveted this summer by the Premier League's big spenders. He could hardly be intimidated by the standards required, unless concluding that Fraizer Campbell's advent on Wednesday was some hallucinatory effect of concussion.

Sometimes he has seemed too modest for his own good. Off the pitch, "The Hunter" apparently confines his predations to a fishing rod. When he moved from Ajax to Madrid, a television crew showed up in his home village and accosted a man tending some bedding plants. Did he know Klaas-Jan? Yes, indeed. They were all very proud of him in Hummelo. The gardener never did tell them they were talking to his father.

In his youth, at PSV, Huntelaar was discarded by Guus Hiddink, no less, apparently as lacking in physique and pace. Marco van Basten would take a similar view, as national coach, even as others began to see echoes of his own greatness in Huntelaar's movement and instinct, lethal with either foot as with his head. After Wednesday, however, surely nobody is persisting with the myth he needs to "bulk up" to cope with the Premier League.

Since leaving hospital, Huntelaar has complained: "When I cough, I feel my brain shaking." Well, folks, the clue's right there. For where so many players seem to value ventilation, Huntelaar houses unusual intelligence and mental strength. Anyone who still doubts his substance, despite spilling blood on English soil, has consumed too much of another cut of beef: tripe.

Comments