Joe Garner: The kamikaze cult hero

How do you become the object of adulation in one half of Glasgow without actually being a success on the pitch? A boy with a thorn in his side from Lancashire has the answer.

By Scott Fleming

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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Not only did Garner manage to score three goals in a single match, he bravely played on with a bad head injury AND somehow avoided being sent off for a quite outrageous ‘tackle’ on Accies midfielder Dougie Imrie.
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Speak to those in-the-know on the striker’s earlier career and they tell you that aggression and an ability to wind others up have always been part of his make-up.

You hardly needed a time machine last summer to know that one of the hottest talking points of the 2016-17 Scottish Premiership season would be the exploits of an English Rangers player named Joey.

The fact it wasn’t Joseph Anthony Barton, but a teammate, countryman and namesake of his that went on to, ahem, garner so many headlines was quite a turn-up, but it’s by no means the most remarkable aspect of the story. Because even during a campaign in which our national game outdid itself in terms of weird and wacky happenings – Mark McGhee Camera Phone-gate, Chris Martin’s unlikely salvation against Slovenia, those ‘only in Scottish football’ moments when you can’t decide whether to laugh, cry or cringe – the story of Joe Garner’s first season as a Rangers player stands out as perhaps the strangest of the lot.

The bare facts are these: Joseph Alan Garner, a 28-year-old striker, transfers from Preston North End to Rangers last August for a fee said to be around £1.8 million after add-ons, becomes a folk hero within a matter of months and enjoys the kind of adulation usually reserved for the likes of ‘Sir’ Walter Smith and Nacho ‘He Said No Thanks’ Novo down Edmiston Drive..

How had he achieved such a rapid rise? By smashing in 23 goals in his first ten Gers games, Marco Negri-style? Not quite.

Goals, it quickly became clear, were not Garner’s speciality. In fact, it was the case for a considerable chunk of the season that Celtic’s Moussa Dembele had scored more goals against Rangers than Garner had managed for Rangers – a stat that Celtic fans took great pleasure in pointing out. Yet, during that time, Glasgow’s social media feeds were overflowing with Garner memes and gifs, and there was scarcely anywhere you could go in the city without hearing his name being belted out to the tune of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over, a song Rangers fans pledged to make the Christmas No.1 in tribute to their beloved No.7. And so we had the bizarre juxtaposition of Garner plummeting further and further down the Scottish Premiership goal-scoring charts, yet climbing higher and higher up the UK Official Chart.

The who, what, when, where and whys of this phenomenon are what I would like to explore. I should confess that I’m not a Rangers fan, and that the following won’t be a paean or an ode. But it won’t be a hatchet job either. It will be as honest and fair an assessment as I can manage.

We begin at Celtic Park on Saturday, September 10, 2016, the day Celtic ran out 5-1 victors in the first derby of the season. Not only was the idea that Rangers were ‘going for 55’ on their promotion from the Championship brutally debunked that day, it was also, with hindsight, the beginning of the end for both Mark Warburton and Joey Barton at Ibrox. But bear with me, I promise I’m not trolling. That autumn afternoon bore witness to something else entirely, even if we didn’t realise it at the time. The birth of the Joey Garner mythology.

It was he, in just his second appearance for the club, that scored Rangers’ only goal, a close-range header from a Kenny Miller knockdown that made the scoreline 2-1 on the cusp of half-time. Quite aside from the goal, though, it was Garner’s spikiness and defiance that endeared him to the blue, white and red contingent occupying a corner of the Lisbon Lions stand. Wearing a black headband that made him look like a kamikaze pilot, Garner played like one too, charging around as if he was a ten-year-old whose mum has told him he can only play for five more minutes before coming in for his tea. In the space of two minutes early in the second half he threw his head in the way of a Nir Bitton high boot then wrestled with Erik Sviatchenko, leaping to his feet to tell referee Willie Collum that the Danish defender had stamped on him. Whether he was conscious of it or not, the freckled forward was scoring a lot of points in the game that goes on underneath the real game when Celtic and Rangers meet. Let’s call it the Wido Factor. Like it or not, the petty stuff – rough tackles, raised elbows, slanging matches – matters to the fans. It matters more than anything else bar the full-time result. Scott Brown has played a lot of games and won a lot of trophies in his time at Celtic, but ask the fans for the defining moment of their captain’s Parkhead career and the votes will surely be almost unanimous in favour of ‘The Broony’: when the Scotland midfielder issued a playground ‘mon then’ gesture to Rangers winger El-Hadji Diouf during an Old Firm derby in 2011. Players that don’t hail from Scotland yet throw themselves into the derby like method actors, playing it as if they were born and raised in Larkhall or the Calton, have always been appreciated by both sides of the Glasgow divide, and that’s exactly what Garner did.

Just like Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker having to watch their loved ones being gunned down before becoming Batman and Spider-Man respectively, Garner had undergone a traumatic experience before becoming who he was destined to be. Plain old Joe Garner might have walked into the Parkhead cauldron that day, but it was his alter ego Joey that walked out.

October saw him score his first goal at Ibrox in a 1-1 draw with St Johnstone, and he notched another in the 3-0 win over Kilmarnock just three days later. But then the goals stopped. Not until the 2-1 defeat at Dundee in the New Year would Garner find the net again, a period encompassing three-and-a-half months, 15 official matches (four of which he missed due to injury, in fairness) and a change of management at the club.

Nonetheless, it was slap-bang in the middle of this lengthy drought that Garner Mania was at its peak. Dave Clark and Mike Smith’s original chorus had been substituted for the line “We’ve got Joey Garner” in the Ibrox stands, and suddenly that Christmas No.1 campaign began to gain traction. Rangers fans, more used to running battles with their Celtic counterparts on social media, suddenly found themselves embroiled in a highly amusing cyber set-to with fans of the English girl band Little Mix. Ultimately, their song would only climb as high as No.31, but in an era when people such as Ed Sheeran can have as many as 16 songs in the Top 20 at one time, it wasn’t a bad effort.

Perhaps, in order to fully understand Garner’s popularity, you have to understand the ‘Staunch’ subculture that exists among the Rangers support nowadays. Essentially, Staunchness is this era’s ‘no surrender’ or ‘we are the people’, devised and wielded by a more knowing, sarcastic generation of Gers fans. Anything that encapsulates the core personality of the club can be branded Staunch. Brown brogues with a sky blue shirt and red and yellow tie? Staunch. John ‘Bomber’ Brown shouting the odds on the steps outside Ibrox? Très staunch. Garner’s headband? As Staunch as Staunch can be.

It’s also true that, despite their reputations as somewhat harsh and unforgiving collectives, fans of both Rangers and Celtic have previous when it comes to ironic veneration of players that, well, aren’t all that good. Maddeningly inconsistent striker Georgios Samaras and no-frills fullback Sasa Papac are two of the foremost cult heroes of recent years, and that’s before we even mention the Celtic fans’ ‘Efe Ambrose Ballon d’Or’ chant.

As someone who’s always appreciated a good WWE heel [the villains of professional wrestling], Greg Corlett knew the moment he saw Garner literally perform a war cry in the act of tackling a St Johnstone defender that he was going to like him.

Corlett, a 30-year-old lifelong Rangers fan from Glasgow’s south side, is in something of a unique situation. This summer he will get married and move to California, at which point following his club will suddenly become a much more complicated business, entailing 3am rises to watch big games. His last full season as a loyal Bear on Scottish soil may not have been a glorious one in terms of results, but thanks in large part to Garner, it’s certainly kept him amused.

“If you look at another cult hero like [veteran defender] Clint Hill, his popularity came from subverting expectation, in that he actually became quite solid and reliable,” Corlett said. “Joe Garner’s different. It’s not because he’s been good in a striking sense, it’s because of his work-rate and aggression. He’s got that old-school British centre-forward thing – swashbuckling, flying into tackles. He’d run through brick walls to get on the end of a cross. Any 99% to 1% header that he’s on the 1% end of, he’s going to launch himself into it.”

Whilst far from wowed by Garner’s efforts in front of goal, Corlett believes at least part of the explanation lies in the pedestrian, unincisive football played under Warburton.

“He’s not shown me anything to think he’s going to be a natural poacher. Even the goals he has scored, they’re goals you’d expect a striker to score, he’s not created anything for himself. But I really think any striker would have struggled in that team, for the first half of the season anyway. Under Warburton we were trying to build the ball up so much, and the opposition would be camped in their box. If you look purely at the goal difference and goals scored stats when Pedro Caixinha took over, you see how much we’ve struggled in that department, and in that context it was almost impressive for Rangers to be third at that point.”

The lingering glee of the Christmas No.1 campaign mixed in with some festive cheer and topped off with a 12.15 kick-off on Hogmanay: Celtic’s visit to Ibrox at the very end of 2016 seemed tailor-made for Garner to cement his new bond with the Rangers fans and possibly even begin the transition from cult hero to genuine, bona fide one. Unfortunately for the Lancashire lad though, he would be withdrawn after just 15 minutes’ play with a shoulder injury sustained in a clash with his nemesis Sviatchenko. Rangers, who had been leading 1-0 at the time courtesy of the obligatory Kenny Miller goal v Celtic, would go on to lose 2-1, and Garner’s misery would be compounded when pictures emerged of him still decked out in his full kit in A&E at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, allowing Celtic fans to gorge on the schadenfreude of it all like it was turkey with all the trimmings.

However, two months later would come the match that contained, regardless of whatever else happens during his time in Scottish football, surely THE defining Joe Garner performance. Sit the most fanatical Gers fan you can find down at a typewriter with a bottle of whisky and some LSD and they couldn’t come up with anything better. It was during the brief reign of caretaker Graeme Murty, before Warburton’s official successor Caixinha arrived, and the occasion was a 6-0 win over Hamilton Academical at Ibrox in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup.

Not only did Garner manage to score three goals in a single match, he bravely played on with a bad head injury AND somehow avoided being sent off for a quite outrageous ‘tackle’ on Accies midfielder Dougie Imrie.

“I actually got fucked off by the Imrie tackle because it was all everyone talked about afterwards,” Greg Corlett recalls. “It’s like, ‘Why isn’t anyone talking about the fact Rangers’ performance was quality today?’ It has the potential to overshadow things, this aura around Garner.”

Imrie’s teammate Georgios Sarris later remarked that the tackle was “two red cards, not one”. “If this guy kicks Dougie in the knee and breaks his knee, how does he sleep at night?” the Greek defender wondered. “It’s not normal to go and kick someone without a reason, and the one at Ibrox was without a reason.”

Watching back the incident and seeing the mischievous grin on Garner’s face as he makes a somewhat half-hearted apology to a writhing, screaming Imrie, the thought struck me that there was a reason, just not one Sarris would approve of. Garner had become aware of the image Rangers fans had of him, and was playing up to it. Suspicions arose months earlier when video footage emerged of Garner doing a comically exaggerated leaping tackle into a Christmas tree.

Speak to those in-the-know on the striker’s earlier career, however, and they tell you that aggression and an ability to wind others up have always been part of his make-up. The Lancashire Evening Post’s Dave Seddon is one such observer, having reported on Garner from 2013 to 2016, a period during which he scored a remarkable 51 goals in two seasons and pipped Dele Alli to the League One Player of the Year award.

“He plays on the edge, he always has,” said Seddon. “He got a couple of red cards at Preston, he has that side to his game and that’s how he had a lot of his success.”

Seddon described how Garner – a lifelong Preston fan despite growing up nearer Blackburn, in the village of Whalley – had fondly recalled travelling to Wembley aged just six to see North End lose the 1994 Third Division play-off final to Martin O’Neill’s Wycombe Wanderers, and how he’d been such a hit when he eventually signed for the Lilywhites nearly 20 years later – at least initially.

“He was leading goal-scorer for two seasons running, when we got to the play-off semi-final and again when we were promoted to the Championship the following season. But there’s a big difference between what he scored in League One and what he scored in the Championship. Part of the problem with North End in 2015/16 was, being new to the division, they wanted to play a very solid formation, and Joe often played up front as a single striker, without much support. He was a really popular lad, so there was a sadness when he left, but also an acceptance that he could do with a fresh challenge. As for Rangers, I don’t think any Preston fans expected him to go there and score 20-odd goals, but they maybe expected one or two more.”

Left isolated up front in a team that’s far from a compelling attacking force? Garner’s problems in his final term at Preston will certainly sound familiar to those of us north of the border. It does beg the question, though, of why Warburton and the Rangers board saw fit to spend such a large chunk of their strained transfer budget on a player who’d scored just six goals in the preceding season, two of them penalties.

Then again, from the ‘Staunch’ contingent of Rangers fans, to admirers of WWE heel behaviour in a Scottish fitba context, to Dave Clark himself as those royalty payments roll in, plenty of people out there are glad that they did. You might even describe them as glad all over…

Just don’t ask Little Mix, Dougie Imrie or that poor, defenceless Christmas tree. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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