David PruttonCult heroes. Every football fan has them but they’re such a mismatched bunch of oddities, it’s hard to isolate characteristics every cult hero shares – the defining traits that make them a cult hero.

I put this question to fans on Twitter and the response was predictably mixed. ‘Limited yet hard-working’ was a common theme, with examples such as Andy Hughes and David “Jesus” Prutton given as examples.

It’s certainly a trait many cult heroes share, but not one that’s entirely universal. Take Dominic Matteo for example, a man who continues to draw admiration from fans long after his retirement, one of the most popular cult heroes we’ve ever had. Sure, he was no Patrick Viera, but to call him “limited” would be to do him a huge disservice. Playing alongside and against some exceptionally talented footballers, Dom Matteo never looked out-of-place.

Hard-working seemed to cover everyone until Eric Cantona’s name was dropped, another player you couldn’t describe as “limited”. The Frenchman wasn’t lazy, but he was so naturally gifted, football looked almost effortless to him. Cantona was the 90’s answer to Lionel Messi, he performed feats of footballing genius without breaking a sweat.

One thing a lot of our cult heroes seem to have in common is that they didn’t spend the majority of their career at Elland Road. Ian Baird, Chris Kamara, Vinnie Jones, the other names listed so far and a few more besides, all had relatively short spells at Elland Road that belies the level of hero-worship they still receive.

Chris Kamara, the ultimate football journeyman, played only 20 games for Leeds yet still remains popular. Howard Wilkinson lost the plot and shipped Eric Cantona off to Manchester United after less than a year at the club, Vinnie Jones lasted only a season and half, Andy Hughes and David Prutton spent just three years at Elland Road while Ian Baird and Dom Matteo had four years each.

Duration of spell may be one of the things that separates cult hero from outright hero, but it can’t be the only factor or Leeds United fans would have a hundred cult heroes from the last two decades alone. It has to be combined with something else, the thing that makes fans remember these figures more fondly than other players.

The best response I received from anyone on Twitter was personality. Whether they’re a slightly unhinged madman like Vinnie Jones, a bit of a joker like David Prutton and Chris Kamara or the fans just find them easy to relate to like Dom Matteo and Andy Hughes, all cult heroes have very distinctive personalities which make them stand-out from the crowd.

For one reason or another, all cult heroes are likeable. We hated seeing Eric Cantona propel Manchester United to a new era of dominance, but no one ever blamed the Frenchman for that. We were grateful for the short spell he had in White, for the awe-inspiring performances he put in. Leeds fans loved Eric Cantona.

I’ve had this conversation with other Leeds fans many times, and everyone seems to remember where they were when his sale was announced. For me, it was halfway to the Yorkshire Dales en route to my Aunt’s house when news broke over the radio. The world seemed to stop for a minute as my Uncle stared blankly at the radio, perhaps waiting for the presenter to retract the statement. I was very young at the time and didn’t really understand what was happening, but a player who made only 28 appearances for Leeds had reduced my Uncle to silence, too devastated for words.

It was my Uncle’s reaction that makes the moment so memorable. I’d only just started attending games at Elland Road around that time and had never experienced the raw emotions the sale of a popular player can produce. I’d go on to experience it many times of course, Alan Smith’s sale is one example, but Cantona’s sale came at a time when we were Champions. It didn’t make sense.

Maybe then, the mark of a cult hero is the emotions they make us feel and the stories they leave behind. Dom Matteo’s San Siro goal, David Prutton’s farewell letter, Andy Hughes’ dancing, the two goals Ian Baird scored against promotion rivals Newcastle United AFTER we’d sold him, every cult hero made their mark, leaving behind memories which stir emotions of great joy, celebration and sadness, memories we still discuss many years after the player departs.

Separated from outright heroes like Lucas Radebe and Billy Bremner by ability, success and/or duration of stay, cult heroes still have a special place in the hearts of every Leeds United fan, but who was your favourite? Those featured above have been added to our poll, but feel free to share your own personal cult heroes and thoughts on what makes a cult hero in the comments below.

Cult heroes - Who was your favourite?

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