Joe Allen has heard all the nicknames before. From “the Welsh Xavi” to “the Welsh Pirlo” and even “the Welsh Jesus”, the Liverpool midfielder has been burdened, complimented and seen as a saviour. Yet the message from the man himself is a simple one. “I’m just an Average Joe,” Allen says, smiling.
That was certainly how Allen came across when he appeared on the cover of Chicken & Egg magazine a few months ago, posing with one of his 14 pet hens in the publication’s spring edition. Every one of the chickens has a name, including the two cockerels, Bruce and Rodney, but there is not a Xavi or Pirlo among them.
Brendan Rodgers was responsible for christening Allen “the Welsh Xavi” in that infamous Being: Liverpooldocumentary and looking back, the moniker, whether serious or not, helped nobody. Allen, perhaps, could see what was coming – he declined the No6 shirt, which Xavi wore at Barcelona – and struggled to win over Liverpool fans in his first three seasons at the club.
In that sense it is not surprising Allen is reluctant to embrace “the Welsh Pirlo”, even if that sobriquet seems to be based on the beard and physical resemblance as much as anything the Welshman does with his boots. “It’s a dangerous one because I had ‘the Welsh Xavi’ tag for a while and that didn’t really do me too many favours,” Allen says. “So I’m trying to steer myself away from the new one too.”
The Pirlo line started to gather legs after Allen’s no-look pass set up Jordon Ibe for the opening goal against Stoke City in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg in January – “Yes, of course!” Allen says when asked whether the assist was deliberate – and the former Swansea player can see the amusement value in the parallels drawn with the Italian.
“That’s the way you have to take it,” he says. “I have got a sense of humour. There have been loads of things that are really funny. I’m hoping I have a big influence on everyone. I’ve seen a few more beards than normal. It’s the long hair next. I can’t say I have many of the lads copying me but there you go.”
Allen gives the impression that he is very much his own man and, at the age of 26, he has become something of cult figure without trying to court the spotlight in any way. His crucial contributions for Liverpool during the second half of the season, including his winning spot-kick in the semi-final second-leg victory against Stoke and impact as a substitute in the thrilling 4-3 comeback win over Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League quarter-final second leg, had major moments on social media. For some people, because of Allen’s appearance, in particular that beard and long hair, it was a case of divine intervention.
Allen breaks into laughter when asked about some of the internet clips and why he has become a viral hit. “The good the bad and the ugly – probably more bad and ugly than good!” he says, chuckling. “I have to say there’s been a few things sent my way that’s had me crying with laughter. The biblical references of recent times have been quite funny.”
The serious side to all of this is that Allen is a highly accomplished midfielder. His calming presence in the centre of the pitch, and ability to control the tempo of matches with his measured passing, has won over some of his sceptics on Merseyside, in particular since Jürgen Klopp took over as manager at Anfield.
“The second half of the season I was involved a lot more and my performance levels have increased,” Allen says. “Everyone’s seen Jürgen has had a good impact on the team, everyone has responded really well to him, we’ve gone to two cup finals and although they ended in disappointment, to take us that far in his first season shows the impact he’s had. There’s certainly things I’ve learned from him I’m using to help my game.”
With Wales there is no need to preach to the converted. Allen’s contribution has always been appreciated by staff, team-mates and supporters alike, and it is a huge lift to everyone within the Wales camp that he has overcome a knee problem to be fit for Saturday’s opening Euro 2016 game against Slovakia in Bordeaux.
The prospect of playing in France, Allen admits, has been on his mind for a while. “Anyone would be lying if they said there hasn’t been focus on this during the club season as well. It is such a huge occasion. We have been sick and tired of watching tournaments in previous summers. To be a part of it is what it’s all about as professional footballers. Representing your country on this stage is the stuff of dreams.”
The not-so-secret weapon in the Wales camp is Gareth Bale, and Allen sees the world’s most expensive footballer as someone whose mere presence will unnerve opponents. “That is something that is huge for us. Every nation in the tournament will be discussing us having the likes of Gareth with us. I think he is a real standout player in the tournament. We are hoping to strike as much fear into everyone as we can in terms of that.”
Allen is looking forward to coming up against a few familiar faces in the first two group games. Martin Skrtel, the Liverpool centre-back, is the Slovakia captain, and Nathaniel Clyne and Adam Lallana could both line up for England against Wales in Lens five days later in a game that they all saw coming.
“We were training when the draw was made so we were out on the pitches but we’d all called it,” Allen says. “We thought it would be typical for us to be drawn together. Of course we have had a laugh and joke throughout the season, talked about it a lot more as it’s drawn closer. They are trying their best to put the pressure on Wales but everyone knows they will have the weight of the world on their shoulders and we are the ones going in there with a fearless mentality. I have been trying to milk that as much as I can.”
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