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In defence of Liam Polworth



In the Spring of 2015, I was lucky enough to be on a city break in Barcelona right on time to take in the second leg of Barca's Champions League Quarter Final against Paris St. Germain. You may well remember the home side's opening goal; facing his own goal, midway inside his own half, Andres Iniesta took a pass into feet with a PSG player steaming in to close him down. The crowd collectively took a deep breath, only for Iniesta to spin 180 degrees and leave his opponent for dead. The 80,000 cheers that greeted the audacious skill were followed quickly by two louder ones as Iniesta then danced past two flailing tackles and over the halfway line. With everyone already on their feet, he then played Neymar clean through with the perfect pass, and the Brazilian went round the keeper to score. The actual celebrations for the goal were relatively short, the subsequent chants of "INIESTA! INIESTA!" that went round the ground went on far longer.

You may think it is a little bit of a stretch to segue from one of the greatest players of the last decade to Caley Thistle midfielder Liam Polworth, but bear with me. Against Dundee United on Saturday, Polworth played in Tom Walsh to open the scoring. It was an exquisite through ball into the inside-right channel, and was in fact identical to goals set up and scored by the same players in each of Caley Thistle's previous two games. In the second half there was a moment where Polworth was trapped by United's Billy King against his own corner flag, only to outrageously nutmeg him before galloping up the pitch.

That's not to say Polworth was especially outstanding in the match. He was as guilty as many teammates of giving the ball away cheaply, though his forwards too rarely got into space to receive the ball from him. But nor was he one of the poorest players. And what always makes him stand out in this Inverness side is that he always looks to get on the ball, though this may be a reflection on his teammates' timidity as much as anything.

And that makes the crowd's reaction to him all the more curious and, frankly, nauseating.

For what it's worth, Polworth's bit of skill near his own corner flag brought barely a murmur from the home support. But they did attract their attention, though, was a shanked cross. Polworth himself showed frustration at his error. However, he was quickly drawn to the loud catcalls and booing coming from the main stand. With as much subtlety as a brick, he turned towards them and shouted something which I suspect probably was a bit less polite than "sorry about that, I'll do better next time".

Now, a common criticism of Polworth in these parts is that he has 'lousy body language'. Of course, that is entirely objective. When an on-form or well-liked player gets frustrated at the mistakes of himself or others, it's because he cares, because he wants to win, because others aren't as switched on as he is. When an off-form or unfavoured player does so, it's because he's a whinger with lousy body language. Of course, if said player doesn't react at all, it's because he doesn't care. Isn't it great how you can prove that the player you don't like has the wrong attitude, whatever his actions are?

And it gets extrapolated. Social media and online forums are filled with complaints that Polworth doesn't get back into position, or goes missing, for no apparent reason other than that these traits would fit the ongoing narrative. I have urged other fans to actually watch him, not where the ball is, for 5 minutes at a time; then they would see a player constantly on the move both when Caley Thistle have the ball and when they don't, a guy who does a really impressive shift compared to some of his teammates. But they don't - either because the rest of the match is too distracting or, more likely because it's far easier and more reassuring to have a convenient scapegoat to blame for the fugue that has enveloped the club in the last couple of years.

Polworth got the same criticisms last season, a campaign which finished with him credited a whopping 25 assists, 15 of which were in the league. When the SPFL Twitter account declared that statistic, it was met with scepticism because the number was more than double that of the next best. Whatever you think of 'assist' as a stat, the bottom line is you must be a pretty decent player to set up that many goals.

And yet the consensus view then was much the same as it is now. After all, it's only four months since he was 'punished' with abusive chants about his family from the home end during a clash with Ayr United - all because he missed a penalty. Some so-called fans were banned as a result, but depressingly it seems the respite for the player was only temporary.

In the final moments of the Dundee United match, Polworth was announced as the sponsors' Man Of The Match. It was a slightly bemusing decision, given that Walsh and Mark Ridgers had clearly been Caley Thistle's best two players, but usually an odd MOTM pick is met with shrugged shoulders and a collective "you what?" In this case, it was met with more boos.

For what it's worth, the same fans who largely ignored Polworth's corner flag nutmeg, berated his lousy cross and booed the decision to make him MOTM reserved much of their applause and acclaim during the game for midfielders slide-tackling the ball out of play, or defenders heading the ball really hard. It is a peculiar thing, perhaps a British thing. That sort of stuff doesn't get a cheer at the Camp Nou. A nutmeg by your own corner flag might, though.

Ultimately, Polworth will have to leave Inverness to get the acclaim he deserves, and he will; his contract is up at the end of the season and it is common knowledge that it won't be renewed unless he takes a pay cut. One suspects he won't have to go as far as Spain to find someone who appreciates him though, as most coaches and scouts are surely more insightful than the football neanderthals that populate Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. As for said neanderthals, their views on his attitude and body language probably say a lot more about them than it does about him.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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