Blast from the Past 41: Ulises de la Cruz


Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…

Is there a more powerful, manly name than Ulysses? The Latin name for Odysseus, the revered Greek king who undertook a decade-long journey home after the Trojan War, it conjures an image of a warrior, a hero, a legend - literally.

But it’s also a name, if you’re an Ecuadorian footballer playing in England, that bears a deeply unfortunate lexical resemblance to another word.

That was the problem for “Useless” de la Cruz.

Dubbed the “Ecuadorian David Beckham” by Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor after signing from Hibernian for £1.5m following an impressive showing at the 2002 World Cup, De La Cruz made a deliciously exotic arrival in Birmingham.

“I remember him being presented to the fans at an Intertoto Cup game and he was wearing a white suit,” recalled a fan on the Heroes and Villains forum.

But a sense of style was about all UDLC had in common with Becks, as Taylor’s tag was quickly exposed to be misleading. Firstly because De La Cruz and Beckham played in different positions and secondly because the England captain was clearly quite a lot better at football.

Ambitiously described on his Wikipedia page as a “forward, attacking midfielder, defender”, Villa fans rarely got to see De La Cruz playing anywhere other than right-back, where he vied for the jersey with the very-often-injured Mark Delaney.

“The general feeling at the time was that he played far too many games for us,” was one fan’s summary.

“Mediocre to the point of infinity,” said another, while a fellow Villan labelled him “Aston Villa scapegoat: 2002-2006”.

But was Ulises really useless?

He scored two goals in his first couple of months at Villa Park, including a fine strike in a home win against Charlton. And although he would never score again, he actually improved in his next two seasons - becoming a regular starter under David O'Leary and being ranked by Opta as the best passer/crosser at the club at the end of the 2004/05 season.

“He was probably better than most of the full-backs we’ve had this decade, though I acknowledge that’s hardly awe-inspiring praise,” said one fan.

“I always liked him. He never pulled any trees up but he was a committed pro who was decent going forward and gave us a different option,” was another positive assessment.

But it couldn’t prevent that nickname being conceived, cultivated and unleashed. It was simply too obvious, too tempting, too perfect. The kind of insult an eight-year-old called Ulises would have endured from the other kids at school. A great many football fans do not progress beyond that mental age.

“I remember some bloke calling him "Useless” for the entire match. I wanted to punch him (the bloke not DLC),“ said one Villa Park regular.

"Didn’t deserve his nickname and those who used it were tediously unfunny,” agreed another.

“Would be remembered as a better player if his first name had been Bob or Brian and not one easily morphed into a demeaning nickname,” said a fellow supporter.

As such, the legend of “Useless” De La Cruz - a laughably inept South American who couldn’t defend - came to supersede the reality, which was that he was merely a thoroughly mediocre South American who was OK at defending sometimes.

Plus, people actually liked him because he seemed like a genuinely nice man.

“An excellent human being” was one Villa fan’s description, in reference De La Cruz’s tireless charity work on behalf of Ecuador’s poor, whose experiences he could relate to from his own impoverished upbringing.

Another supporter who “lived near” the footballer recalls "a nice chap who had an impromptu kickabout with some of the local kids on the village green one summer". Lovely.

“I would rather have a team of players with Ulises de la Cruz’s attitude to football and life than a single Micah Richards,” said another (they probably meant to say it the other way round, but you get the point).

O'Leary achieved a top-six finish in his first season in the Midlands but things soon went downhill, and De La Cruz fell out of favour in 2005/06 as Villa narrowly avoided relegation.

He was an ever-present for Ecuador at that summer’s World Cup - coming up against the “English De La Cruz” David Beckham in the last 16, when a match-winning Becks free-kick hopefully made Graham Taylor feel silly - but the following season incoming Villa boss Martin O'Neill quickly offloaded him to newly promoted Reading.

He was not a success for the Royals - playing only 15 league games in two seasons before suffering relegation and the termination of his contract.

A controversial switch to Villa’s bitter rivals Birmingham proved to be less exciting than it sounded, as UDLC managed just one appearance for the Blues before returning to Ecuador.

And that’s where the story really gets interesting.

After retiring in 2013, De La Cruz decided to devote his life to politics. Having already set up a foundation that helped fund projects including a water treatment plant and a health centre in Ecuador’s deprived Valle del Chota region, he became a member of the National Assembly in the province of Carchi.

While many ex-pros turn to punditry or the golf course, De La Cruz has a stated aim to make a difference in the world - a grand plan truly worthy of that manly, powerful name.

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