HIS current hit-rate puts Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Supermac in the shade, but the only number ice-cool Demba Ba cares about is his current goal tally.
A second hat-trick in just his seventh Premier League start at Stoke means Ba deserves to be mentioned in such revered company. Shearer, by contrast, took a positively pedestrian total of 14 top-flight starts to hit the goal mark that the Senegal striker has already passed.
But if Newcastle United striker Ba is happy to be linked to such legends, he has little interest in taking the shirt off their back. Little interest, indeed, in playing the numbers game full stop.
With Alan Pardew opting to start this season without a number nine, a decision was taken not to offer their biggest summer signing one of English football’s most famous shirts.
Even if the opportunity had been presented to the laid-back Senegalese, he would not have taken it. He said after signing that he was happy to stick with his lucky number 19, but in truth, the 26-year-old places little stock in the digit that adorns the back of his jersey.
So even if his hot streak continues and the offer comes next summer, Ba is adamant he will likely offer a polite refusal to a chance that some strikers wait their entire career for.
“It is just a number,” he told The Journal. “Just because you have the number nine shirt doesn’t mean you will score goals. I had number 29 and then nine at Hoffenheim. At West Ham 21. But the number does not score goals.
“When you look at the number nine it is the striker and number one is the keeper. Number five is the central defender, but it is not because you wear number nine or 19 that you can score some goals. That is all down to you and your feet. I am quite happy with the number I have got now. Maybe it would mean something to the supporters, but you can have the number nine shirt and never score a goal. I am certainly not going to take it off someone else.”
We should not take Ba’s forthright assessment of the famous number nine as an insult.
The African (pictured left) is not one for living in the past – a brief re-telling of his trawl around the lower leagues looking for a professional contract is hardly enthusiastically trotted out – but prefers to concentrate on the here and now. Relaxed but confident, he is exactly the sort of character that Newcastle United need right now.
And somewhat surprisingly for a man with a goalscoring record that suggests a slavish devotion to the selfish act of striking the back of the net, he is refreshingly free of ego.
Asked whether it irks him that he is rarely spoken of in the same terms as Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney despite having a similar record in front of goal and the look in his eye is one of incredulity. “It doesn’t bother me that they get more recognition than me at all. Not at all,” he said.
“I don’t play football to be recognised by people in the country. I do it because I love it. I don’t do it because I want to be famous. I have always been like that. I just hope to continue what I am doing right now and work hard on and off the pitch at becoming a better striker.”
It is something he is managing to achieve at Newcastle, having been given a slightly different role in the starting line-up of late. Asked to fulfil the traditional number nine role of a finisher at West Ham, Pardew has decided there is more to his game than a simple scorer of goals and has deployed him deeper in what football fans would recognise as more of a ‘number ten’ position. It has worked.
While his goalscoring feats have not been dented, his all-round game has blossomed. Take Monday night, for example, when Ba was back in his own penalty box in the final minutes throwing himself in front of a Stoke attack. The score, in case you needed reminding, was 3-1 to the rampant visitors.
Nonchalantly, he replies: “That is something I have always tried to do, to defend for my team until the last minute of every game.”
He might not smile that much, but Ba is enjoying playing under Pardew. A rocky first couple of weeks – United’s boss reckoned fasting for Ramadan might have had an effect – did not shift the faith of his manager, and the dividends have been rolling in ever since. Ba says that has played a part in his fine form.
“I remember a couple of weeks ago when I was on the bench that I would get my chance very soon. He gave it to me and I took it. He has made me understand that he is not going to lose confidence in me,” he said.
“The players like him.”
While Pardew and United were prepared to take the plunge, others were not so keen.
Tony Pulis’ famous reflection that his knee is a “time bomb waiting to explode” ended up blowing up in his face on Monday, but others have not been so keen to invest in Ba’s talent.
Barnsley and Watford passed up on a younger version of the Senegal striker, but he bears no grudge. In fact he sees it as an exercise in building character.
“I went for a lot of trials when I was younger because I wanted it, to be a footballer. That is what I love doing,” he said.
“When I was young, I always said if I was not a footballer, I would still be a footballer. That is all I wanted to be.”
It is a journey that has given him perspective. He takes nothing for granted and has inner self-belief that has helped him hit the ground running at a club where other good strikers have simply failed.
And whether the unbeaten record falls this week or not, Ba will keep a cool head while others around him lose theirs. Asked whether anything has ever cause him anxiety, he pauses for a second. “I’m not really worried about anything,” he replies. “I am not really a worrying person.”