For those City fans out there who happen to be a follower of Test match cricket, I’m sure the name Shivnarine Chanderpaul will require little introduction.
Chanderpaul, that brilliant yet unconventional accumulator of runs for the West Indies – 11,867 at an average of 51.37, to be precise – who had that endearing knack of scoring big runs no matter what the conditions nor the state of the match. When Chanderpaul strode to the crease, the fielding side knew they were in for a battle of attrition.
Yet Chanderpaul didn’t look like the sort of player who would ever score runs. His technique – easily accessible on YouTube, if you’re unfamiliar with it – represented the antithesis of what is taught on training fields around the world, a front-on; crab-like stance that was as unattractive as it was idiosyncratic.
He scored few of his runs in front of square, relying instead on a series of late flicks, glances and edges that would serve to infuriate opposition captains across the game in a remarkably consistent 21-year career.
In short, Chanderpaul’s style was ugly.
And there, the cricketing jargon will end, but a reference to a player like Chanderpaul is a useful point of comparison when addressing the many qualities of City’s Marco Stiepermann.
Like Chanderpaul, Stiepermann is unconventional. Like Chanderpaul, Stiepermann is not the sort of sportsman that posterity will remember as one who oozed attractiveness or aesthetic grace. And, like Chanderpaul, Stiepermann embraced his peculiarities to become a sensationally effective player.
As long as Teemu Pukki continues to score, as long as Tom Trybull continues to tackle, and as long as Christoph Zimmerman and Ben Godfrey continue to thwart attack after attack, Stiepermann will never be the centre of attention in this current City team. Yes, us fans who have followed City this season will be acutely aware of his importance, but as far as the national narrative is concerned, he remains a sideshow.
Stiepermann won’t care, however. The way he goes about his business in that number ten role is almost stealth-like, receiving possession on the half-turn with unerring ease and invariably galloping forward to release one of Pukki, Onel Hernandez or Emi Buendia.
When you watch City, Stiepermann is at the heart of everything we do. His degree of success this season has been nothing short of extraordinary and if I was to cast my vote – and, of course, there’s considerable time for this to change – for the Barry Butler Trophy at this moment in time, Stiepermann would be my pick.
Both on and off the ball, he represents the heartbeat of this current City side, demonstrating directness and penetration in possession and indefatigability off it. Without his vision and inherent desire to drive forward, the intelligent runs of Pukki in front of him would often come to nothing.
And that’s not to detract anything away from Pukki, a player with footballing peculiarities of his own but one who has already written his name indelibly into Norwich City folklore.
The Finn’s goals at the University of Bolton Stadium were both astonishingly clinical, but it remains important to remember he is equally profiting off our moustachioed midfielder’s brilliance.
When Stiepermann receives possession, you get the sense that something special may be about to happen. Contrary to last season – where he undertook his duties at left-back with an admirable sense of competence and professionalism – his instinct is to continually surge forward; a Germanic torpedo insistent on causing havoc among opposition defences. More often than not, Stiepermann succeeds.
If City are to maintain this sort of form, remain at the Championship summit and be remembered as one of the most magical sides those in Norfolk will have ever had the pleasure of witnessing, keeping Stiepermann fit is an absolute necessity.
His absence at The Hawthorns in January was as detrimental as it was conspicuous. Without Stiepermann, we can – sometimes – lack a bit of spark.
In a Sheffield pub, the evening before that magical night when City toppled Leeds United at Elland Road, a friend of mine made an interesting point. If you were to offer Daniel Farke the choice between Stiepermann or James Maddison in that number ten role, there’s a considerable chance that he would opt for the German.
Despite Maddison’s brilliance last season – without him and Angus Gunn, there’s a genuine chance that we may not have even been in this league this year – there is no doubt that Stiepermann’s style is more conducive to the football Farke wants to play; a philosophy based on a combination of pace and possession and one that continues to achieve phenomenal results.
So, all hail Marco, a player who more than makes up for his aesthetic limitations in what he provides this team in terms of execution and efficacy. Without him, the notion that City would be anywhere near the top of the table appears preposterous.
If Chanderpaul was a football fan, he’d be looking on with pride.