Throughout a 16-year career that took in 526 professional games and nine clubs Darren Huckerby befuddled defenders and got supporters off their seats.
With a playing style that was one part modern footballer, another part a throwback to the days when attackers twisted opponents in knots for the sheer heck of it the Nottingham-born talent was a fan favourite wherever he played, an achievement that clearly means a lot to him.
As he told 888Sport: “Whoever I played for, the fans keep me in high regard and as a player that’s all you can really ask for. Because that’s what you’re there for: to make the fans happier; to entertain.”
Here the former striker looks back on his life in the game and the clubs that formed him, starting with a city presently brought to its knees by a deeply unpopular owner.
The mood around Newcastle could not contrast more sharply to Huckerby’s brief time there in the mid-nineties. Then a Keegan-led revolution was underway, with audacious football on tap and a fan-base loving every minute of it.
Now due to chronic under-investment St James’ Park is in the doldrums, with much of the blame aimed at the club’s divisive owner Mike Ashley. Huckerby’s thoughts lie squarely with the public.
“Newcastle fans just want something to believe in. They might win a few games and things might look rosy but after a couple of defeats all attention will be on the owner again.
Yet one reason to be cheerful can be found in this week’s £40m purchase of forward Joelinton from Hoffenheim, a rare example of expenditure from a board not exactly known for its free-spending.
Following the recent departure of Rafa Benitez however it is a signing viewed only with suspicion.
“You wonder why this money wasn’t spent three years ago when they had Rafa and things were on the up.
"If you want to give one of the best managers in the Premier League something to work with then you do it three years ago. It seems like they’re doing it now to get the fans back onside.”
With Ferdinand, Shearer, Beardsley, Asprilla and Kitson all ahead of him in the pecking order it’s perhaps little surprise that the teenage Huckerby struggled to make any impact in the north-east during his spell there. Even so, his memories are only fond ones.
“It was amazing. I’d signed from the bottom club in the third division straight to the top of the Premier League and fighting with Man United.
"The vibe around the city was incredible and two or three thousand people used to turn up to training. That was more than we used to get at Lincoln watching first team football. It was a big culture shock for me.”
Blue Moon Rising
Undoubtedly the highlight of Huckerby’s three years spent at Manchester City was the 2001/02 campaign that saw the Blues promoted back into the big time as champions.
Here he was once again reunited with Kevin Keegan and it will come as a shock to precisely no-one to learn that the football served up was expressive and attack-at-all-costs. For a player of Huckerby’s attributes it was manna from heaven.
“It was 100% enjoyable. Look at the attacking players we had. I remember first seeing Benarbia: I thought he was a taxi driver who had turned up to training.
"Then I saw him with a ball and thought ‘wow, this guy can play’. If he’d come over at his peak he would have been an absolute superstar, up there with Zola. That’s how good he was.”
“We had Berkovic, Shaun Wright-Phillips and the Goat and once we got going we just blew the Championship away. It was an actual joy and even with all the great things the club has gone on to achieve the fans still love that season. It was pure entertainment.”
Having secured top flight status City went out and bought Nicolas Anelka and Jon Macken to further strengthen their forward ranks and if this shows ambition by the Blues it additionally broke up a formidable goal-scoring partnership.
“What disappointed me is that there are not many Championship teams who have two strikers who score 70 goals between them. Then we didn’t play together once when we went up.
"Obviously the club wants to progress and don’t get me wrong Anelka was a brilliant player who proved that at every club he played for.
"But after scoring 70 goals between us you do think ‘I deserve the right to have a go in the Premier League’. Yet me and Goats didn’t play one game together.”
Canaries Flying High
So it was off to Norwich and it was here in East Anglia that Huckerby experienced possibly his purpliest of patches, immediately establishing himself as a terrace idol while finding a consistency that had thus far eluded him.
“(At Norwich) I changed my role a bit up front. I played left of a three and I was very, very consistent in my game for five years. A big part of that too was how the fans were with me.
"The Norwich fans loved me and appreciated what I did and took to me straight away. If you’ve got twenty thousand fans week in, week out urging you to do well that’s a big thing.”
Such was his devastating form that the traditionally bigger clubs inevitably took note. Interest from Liverpool was rebuffed by the player while Celtic were politely declined too, leading to their manager taking serious umbrage.
“Gordon Strachan was the manager and he wouldn’t talk to me for about three years after I said no. He was saying ‘You want to stay at Norwich and not play Champions League football?’”
Switching to the present-day, Huckerby still resides in Norfolk so he has witnessed close-at-hand the impressive work undertaken at Carrow Road that has resulted in an unexpected promotion and return to the Premier League.
“The last season was amazing, it really was. It’s not just what is happening on the pitch: they have revamped the old training ground; they have brought the community together.
"They’ve made a conscious effect to bring the fans back and Daniel Farke has done an amazing job bringing two or three excellent young players through. Plus he’s bought a few very good players on the cheap too.”
Surreal Era At Leeds
Before Manchester City and Norwich there was Leeds, and a £6m move to a club with genuine title-winning aspirations while huge debt amassed behind the scenes.
It was the strangest of times for the Elland Road outfit, not least for Huckerby who had so recently ripped the league apart with Coventry. Now he found himself demoted to the role of bench-warmer to obvious frustration that persists to this day.
The 43-year-old’s take on what ultimately led to the club’s downfall is both revealing and damning.
“I believe the reason why it all went pear-shaped was because the club kept buying player after player that they didn’t really need. If you just keep buying players for the sake of it…you could see what was going to happen.
"It seemed like they were trying to buy every good young player in the country and hope for the best. You can’t do that and in the end it financially crippled the club.”
Crisis At Coventry
If the situation at Newcastle is thoroughly dispiriting courtesy of an apathetic owner that is nothing to the dire circumstances in the Midlands that has spiralled a club that once thrived down through the divisions and without a ground to call a home.
At Coventry, Huckerby was a prodigal son, scoring dramatic late winners against Manchester United and linking up with Dion Dublin to forge one of the most famous double-acts in modern times.
Now, due to the toxic decision-making of their hedge-fund owners SISU the club face a season ground-sharing at their neighbour’s Birmingham with little hope in sight.
“None of the Coventry fans want to be at Birmingham, not when they have their own thirty-thousand seater stadium sitting there doing nothing. The problem is that every game is an away game for them and that’s not giving yourself much of a chance.”
“It’s bordering on the ridiculous actually that it’s been allowed to get to this stage. Those that are in charge should hang their heads in shame because it’s only the fans that suffer. It’s not the players because the players come and go.
"It’s not the management because the management come and go. The owners come and go. But the fans who are there week in and week out, who have seen the good times and the bad times, they’re the ones who are going to suffer.”