To earn the mantle of ‘Chippy Hero’, a strict set of criterion must be met.
That is, the player in question must have a suitably bizarre back-story, a taste for controversy and generally exhibit a certain je ne sais quoi that endears him to the Chippy faithful. Skill, ability and prowess are important but, ultimately, subsidiary factors.
Therefore, it is apt that our first Chippy hero is a Romanian wonder kid who found himself on the banks of the river Ness.
Arise Chippy Hero number one, Marius Niculae.
As with all good Chippy cult figures, before arriving on these shores Mr. Niculae had an impressive, if not prodigious, background.
Niculae made his first team debut for his boyhood club Dinamo Bucharest at 15– the third youngest player in Romanian top-flight history.
After amassing 44 goals in 100 games for Dinamo and being runner-up in the Romanian footballer of the year in 2001, he caught the attention of scouts across the continent. His size, power and direct playing style epitomised the No.9 role and had already earned him the nickname Săgeată (the ‘Arrow’ in Romanian).
Sporting Lisbon convinced the young Arrow to move to Western Europe for around €4.5million (which in 2001 was not a meagre charge). Although he had his moments at Sporting – most notably, winning a league title and playing in a UEFA cup final – his time in Lisbon was marred by injuries and stuttered to a stop.
After a season at Standard Liege and a disappointing spell at Mainz 05, where he scored 0 goals in 160 minutes of football for the Bundesliga outfit, the Arrow was teetering on the footballing abyss.
So, what next for the Romanian?
It was clear that the top clubs were simply not interested in him anymore – but he didn’t want his journey to end just yet, for he had fallen deeply in love with Western Europe.
His next move made complete sense then. Clearly, his appetite for fast-paced, passionate football and liberal democratic governance could only be satisfied in one place: the fastest growing city in Western Europe, Inverness.
In the summer of 2007, shock-waves reverberated from the Black Isle to Bucharest after it was announced Niculae had signed for Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Although Niculae moved on a free transfer, this was a huge signing for ICT. Never had Caley paid so much money for someone to play football – around £4000-a-week no less. Mass hysteria ensued and the Press and Journal was awash with the Romanian’s face.
Initially, Niculae’s work permit was rejected. However, riding on this wave of hysteria over the Romanian, a fan petition helped push the paperwork through and big Marius finally got the green light at the Tulloch.
After all the hype, speculation and administrative misnomers, could the man from Bucharest deliver in the Sneck?
Well, disappointingly, it took him until December to score in the league – fears over a Romanian dud started to emerge. But once the Arrow broke his duck, it didn’t rain but it poured.
Braces against Killie, Celtic and Hearts soon followed and under the guidance of the new manager, Craig Brewster, Niculae was simply bulldozing defences with his bruising power and textbook No.9 play – all of which earned him the December player of the month award.
Despite this flurry of goals, come Easter, the Romanian had dried up. Marius ended the season with 10 goals in all competitions – a decent return with some outstanding performances, but fell slightly short of the hype.
Safe to say, Niculae only showed flashes of the form that made him a hero in his native Romania.
This made it even more surprising that he had managed to bag himself a spot in the Romanian squad for Euro 2008. National team manager, Victor Pițurcă, obviously felt that Niculae’s 10 goals against the likes of Motherwell, Gretna and Falkirk was enough proof that he was the man to unpick the Dutch, Italian and French defences.
Tragically, just as the Caley Jags were catching feelings for the enigmatic Romanian, it became blindingly clear that the club simply could no longer afford Marius Niculae. His time at the highland capital was up after a single season.
Administrative and financial quandaries aside, the Arrow maybe didn’t have the lasting effect on Inverness as many had hoped.
Perhaps that is why he decided to leave his mark via legal action – taking the club to court over unpaid compensation in the region of £130,000. Caley Thistle won the case in the end but their relationship with Niculae was somewhat soured.
For the ICT fans, Marius Niculae was a bit of a whirlwind love affair. This was a tale of love, heartbreak and pride: their highest-earning hero firstly fired them to 9th in the league, then he took them to court and was then selected to play at the Euros – one of the few SPL players to do so.
Overall, the Arrow gave plenty of bang for those bucks.
After Euro 2008, where he made 2 appearances in Romania’s 3 games, Niculae ventured home. Met with a hero’s welcome, Marius re-joined Dinamo Bucharest for a healthy €500,000 – a record-breaking sale for Caley Thistle.
Despite interest from German club Kaiserslautern, the Arrow couldn’t resist the lure of home comforts and the loyal Dinamo fans he loves so dearly. About the move, Niculae said: “I have big emotions because I missed my dogs”, referring to Dinamo’s Red Dogs nickname.
Post-Caley, Niculae’s twilight years were fruitful – winning two more trophies with Dinamo, donning the armband for his country and taking brief sunny sabbaticals in Greece, Turkey and China. Finishing his career with a total of 48 international caps, 131 club goals and 7 trophies, many say ICT were lucky to have Niculae.
Despite the ill-spirited court cases and sometimes lacklustre performances, the Chippy believes that Scottish football was blessed to have the Romanian Arrow ply his trade on our shores.