He waits. That’s what he does. Then he shuffles. That’s how he moves. Side-step, side-step, side-step, tracking the bogey, marshalling it, gently manoeuvring it into position. And then he strikes. There is a heavy thump of boot on ball and a roar from the frenzied crowd. Patrice Evra spins through the night sky, landing heavily, the air driven from his lungs on impact. Unruffled and uninterested in the acclaim, Tony Hibbert gets to his feet and shuffles back into position. That’s what he does. He is not a superstar, he is not a brand. He’s just a bloody bloke.
There are certain expectations of a 21st century full-back. They must be auxiliary wingers, scampering up and down the pitch, tracking their man, but providing their own pressure on the flanks. They must be whippets in boots, probing and penetrating like a well thrown javelin. Hibbert probes and penetrates like a sledgehammer swung through the side of a shed. He’ll get forward occasionally, he’s even been known to set up the odd goal, but he has never, ever shared a sentence with the word ‘cavalier.’
This isn’t to patronise or denigrate his achievements. Hibbert made his debut for Everton in 2001 and you don’t get to play more than 250 Premier League games over an 11 year period purely because you’re a hard worker. Hibbert is intelligent, he doesn’t desert his post, he rarely switches off and he always, always makes sure that the man he is marking knows that he’s been marked. You can see why David Moyes has never sought to replace him. While Marouane Fellaini was the star of Everton’s opening night 1-0 victory over Manchester United, Hibbert typified his team’s efforts. He is, in many ways, Everton personified. Changing circumstances could easily have brought him to his knees, but he refuses to yield, continuing to hold his own in increasingly glamorous times while others fall away around him.
Famously, he has never scored a goal in competitive football, prompting the least threatening football banner of all time, “If Hibbert Scores, We Riot.” Earlier this month, during his well-earned testimonial, he actually did put the ball in the back of the net and the Everton fans dutifully spilled onto the pitch. Fortunately, there is as much risk of this happening in the Premier League as there is of two separate asteroids landing in the centre circle at Goodison Park on the same day. Hibbert is Brian Clough’s idea of a full-back. Defend first, worry about all that other nonsense later.
That philosophy is extended off the pitch as well. Some footballers end up at the front end of the tabloids, others star in glossy magazine shoots. Where does Hibbert appear? The Angling Times, of course, kneeling on a lakeside in the Canaries, modestly clutching a 32lb carp. At a time when we find ourselves re-evaluating our idols, when we look to Olympians to replace footballers in our hearts, perhaps we’re at risk of forgetting our more prosaic heroes.
Hibbert is not a world-beater. For all the efforts of his disciples, he is unlikely to ever represent his country. He will not streak down the line, leaving opponents trailing on the floor behind him, and he will not push up the pitch and slam a 30 yarder into the top corner. What he will do is wait. He will wait and he will shuffle and he will sidestep and he will track and he will marshall and he will manoeuvre and he will strike. On a dark night, in driving rain and howling wind, even a ninja couldn’t sneak past Hibbert on the right flank.