“I started football really late, at about 15 or 16. I represented my county and my school at athletics and it was exciting but I wasn’t too sure which event I really liked. I was good at field events like long jump and triple jump and it was exciting times.
This (from the offal) is interesting to me. In recent times I’ve read two good books on the importance of practice: Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and (drawing on some of Gladwell’s work), Matthew Syed’s “Bounce”.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up some people were ‘good’ at football and others weren’t. The prevailing wisdom might be that if you practiced, or got opportunities, you might transcend your labelling (move from the B team to the A team perhaps), but you were more or less what you were.
As a child I read books about football skills but to me this meant learning how to do bicycle kicks, perfecting shots into the top corner, etc, etc. I didn’t worry too much about short passing or tackling because I could do that. I could trap the ball, more or less, and I could give it to someone else. That’s easy.
Until reading Gladwell and Syed, and until the current Barcelona team came into prominence, I hadn’t thought too much about all this. Now I’m annoyed: if only someone had told me that by spending 25,000 practicing I could be a pro, and if only someone had told me that the basics – relentless repetition of those basics – were important in their own right, well I’d be living in a mansion now and perhaps doing the odd bit of Sky work. You can bet your life I’d have found time to get those 25,000 hours in.
Would it have been enough?
Possibly not. Another branch of modern football is sports pyschology. There’s a man named Dan Abraham who tweets a lot about the psychology of football, and almost everything he says is important is the opposite of what I used to think. I didn’t play relaxed, I played petrified (an U10 coach had as much to do with this as anyone, and if I met him today I think I would say something and not let him leave until he’d explained how bullying 10 year olds helped them win football matches), and I played brilliantly in practices and then went missing in games, and then when I got into my teens I lost all self-belief and actively embraced the role of unused substitute, but THEN, when I was 15, and encouraged by friends who wanted me to play with them, I moved to the bottom of the league team, an extraordinary transformation for me… all in the mind, all in the mind. Like everything).
The point is that even if I’d put in those 25,000 hours I mightn’t have had what it takes. I doubt I’d have taken crowd barracking very well at all; I certainly wouldn’t have got on well with dressing room ‘banter’. No, the more I look at it, I’m fairly sure that even in 100,000 parallel universes, in very few of them does a young me become a professional footballer.
All of which is a very long-winded way of getting back to Dickson Etuhu, who simply can’t have got 25,000 hours of football practice in, but became a pro anyway.
A question here is whether this explains his lack of touch, game intelligence, and other shortcomings frequently pointed out by keyboard experts everywhere. I suspect it probably does, at least to a degree. I remember reading about Denis Bergkamp skipping school just to be with his football. Now *there’s* someone who got his hours in early, surely? And there’s someone who’s the footballing opposite of Dickson.
All of which makes Etuhu’s rise more remarkable. Football is not an uncompetitive field, and good players, some extremely talented, are ruthlessly weeded out at every step of the journey. Dickson Etuhu survived. He became a pro, wasn’t universally regarded, but kept on going and has forged a Premiership career. Now we can debate his merits all we want but in some ways it doesn’t really matter: Etuhu’s rise is in the books; he’s made it. He is a professional footballer, an international footballer. He’s played in big games, earned big money. He’s achieved what we all wanted to achieve back when we were kicking balls around and pretending to be Ian Rush.
Nick Hornby talks about this sort of thing well in Fever Pitch, explaining how the hapless Gus Caesar was, despite his awful high-profile performances for Arsenal, probably a better footballer than anyone in his school, anyone in his district, and so on. He was a fine footballer, but one who was found wanting at the final hurdle because he lacked something that separates the good enough from the not good enough, and because being a footballer *is really difficult*. Dickson Etuhu, despite not playing seriously until he was 15, has cleared that hurdle, all of these hurdles. That he was a schoolboy athlete is probably a telling clue – athleticism on the football pitch can make a big difference, especially in youth football, and especially in this country – but it isn’t that simple, is it?
Fair play to Dickson Etuhu. He isn’t Denis Bergkamp, but he’s not meant to be. He does his job pretty well, and if Fulham have got to a point where we’re aiming a little bit higher, well so be it. It’s not Etuhu’s fault, and there will be other Premiership clubs interested if Fulham aren’t. He’s arrived, and deserves all he has.