“Who needs God when we’ve got Todd!”
Those were the words of the fans of Fortuna Sittard during the brief loan spell Todd Cantwell had with them in 2018. With each passing week, it seems that they had an appreciation for the gifts of the boy from Dereham that some (including, it seems, Aidy Boothroyd) still struggle to fully grasp.
I’m not sure that this is entirely surprising. Todd Cantwell is an unusual footballer and that makes him more of a target to detractors than others. To my untrained eye, he seems like something of a footballing throwback.
Power and pace are buzzwords often attached to modern footballers, and they cannot really be attached to Todd. Instead, he is a slender, elegant player, with a decent though not frightening turn of pace. His work rate is excellent but really his gifts lie with a football at his feet, shifting it from one foot to the other and beating his man with a subtle shift in direction as he runs with the ball. He plays with his head up, searching for the angle to play the next pass, switching the play with unerring accuracy and drifting around the pitch to find space with almost ridiculous ease.
In short, he does not resemble what we have come to think of as a modern footballer. That extends to how he looks too. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the long blonde hair would not even have provoked a second look. In the 2020s things are different.
That is not, in itself, a bad thing except when his appearance is used as a weapon against him. There is an implied and sometimes not so implied sense that the long hair is a sign that he is not strong, tough, resilient or (yawn) a ‘real man’.
Without going too much into why this literally makes no sense, I will point out that he, along with Emi Buendia, has been particularly targeted for rough treatment this season, with almost zero protection from referees. Kicks to ankles hurt, kicks to shins hurt, dead legs hurt and for the most part he just carries on without too much fuss; refusing to allow physical strength and brutality to intimidate him.
The fact that Todd has, so far in his career, been a rather mercurial talent is another thing that seems to be held against him. Emi’s extraordinary consistency is hardly helpful in this regard. Todd is being held to a standard of consistency that is simply not normal for young creative players at Norwich City.
Two of the most obvious comparable examples of creative players at the club: Darren Huckerby and Wes Hoolahan both had the advantage of coming to Norwich as more fully formed players – aged 27 and 26 respectively – while Todd and Emi appeared with relatively little first team experience between them.
Even then, despite the nostalgia happily tinting our memories, Hucks and Wes were more than capable of having the occasional off day. At 24, Emi, like James Maddison, has maintained incredible standards over an almost ludicrous number of games and too often that is used as a criticism of Todd.
Increasingly though, we can see a massive upside to this. Todd’s performances in the last couple of months have been largely excellent and even in the odd game where he has not been at that level, he has usually still managed to impact the game positively, often in his movement without the ball, which is improving all the time.
There is a sense I get when watching him that he is trying to make himself into the kind of persistent, consistent influence that Emi is and it looks like that is exactly what is happening as the Championship season moves towards its endgame.
The last four or five games that they have started together have been particularly striking, with Todd, Emi and Teemu Pukki increasingly resembling an attacking ‘Holy Trinity’, such has been the effectiveness and influence of all three in combination. It is a joy to see Todd sharing in that and, as he continues to improve, it offers tantalizing glimpses at what he could become as a footballer.
I must admit that I have never really been onboard with the whole ‘Dereham Deco’ thing. While it works as alliteration, Todd doesn’t really resemble Deco other than in them both being creative players. I have always considered him to be closer in style to the great Zinedine Zidane, which is not to say that he can or will ever achieve anything like the amount Zidane did as a player because, well, most players don’t.
I just hope Todd settles for being his own man and continues to cultivate as much of the undoubted talent he has at his disposal that he can. If he does that then there is no doubt in my mind that even more of us will learn to appreciate how much of a joy he can be to watch.