Dickson Etuhu: outlier

“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.

6 thoughts on “Dickson Etuhu: outlier

  1. Great stuff as always.

    Though I will add that Matthew Syed attributes a large portion of a footballers, table tennis-er, athlete et al success is to their youthful surroundings and outlet to quality instruction. For instance, Syed just so happened to have a world-class table tennis instructor living next door or something, right?

    Perhaps there was something afoot in Peckham for both Dickson and his brother Kelvin that we may never know of.

    1. Maybe, and good point! I guess I just wonder how this can have affected him if he didn’t even play the game until 15. Amazing.

      1. (maybe, for instance, he didn’t play formally, but they had a playground next door to where they lived, and played there 24/7 for their formative years?)

  2. Just going offline, so time only to acclaim this as one of the best pieces I have read on here, which is saying something. The Gus Caesar bit always struck me as among the best in Fever Pitch, likewise.

  3. As a young Irish kid, in London, I didn’t play any kind of ball game until I was about 7 or 8, I think. My Dad wasn’t interested or around very much. When I started playing in the playground, I was totally useless. Got called names. Was the last one picked when choosing sides. I played in the playground from then on, every break and lunchtime, with a tennis ball or a cheap plastic ball. Eventually, when I got to grammar (high) school, I was still playing every break and lunchtime, and weekends, and for the Boy Scouts. Suddenly, when I was about 14, I began dribbling with the ball, feinting, beating people, volleying crosses into the net, glancing corners in at the near post. I remember a class mate saying “what’s got into you Hopkins”. Nothing came of it of course. I was still too slow off the mark – you can’t learn speed. I was still too small – you can’t grow six inches. But I remember that feeling of elation, that at least, by playground standards, I was no longer the last one to be picked. Maybe Dickson was like that, except, unlike me, he was a big, strong, fast natural athlete.

  4. A nice contrast to Etuhu, a guy who only made it as far as he did because of his 25,000 hours, was NHL left winger Luc Robitaille. He was taken 171st overall in the 1984 draft by Los Angeles because, despite being more than a point-a-game player in his junior league (they have since named the team scoring trophy after him in that league, the QMJHL), because he was a slow skater. His reflections of his draft day experience give you a great sense of what a long shot scouts supposed he was:

    “I remember in 1984 when I got drafted, it started at 1:00 PM, and by the time I heard my name, it was 6:30 or 7:00. Everybody had left the Montreal Forum. The Forum was known for its great hot dogs, and I think I had five or six throughout the day. When I heard my name, I went down—everyone had left the building. The security guard says ‘you’re not allowed to go in.’”

    “I’m trying to speak my best English, Robitaille continued. ‘I got drafted, I got drafted!’ Pierre Lacroix, who was then an agent—he saw me and he had seen me in juniors. He said, ‘this kid just got drafted.’ So they let me go and I went to the Kings’ table.”

    “Alex Smart, the man who drafted me, was there, and John Wolf [former Kings Assistant to the General Manager], and that’s it. Everyone else was gone. Wolfie looked at me and asked ‘who are you?’”

    “I’m Luc Robitaille. You just drafted me.”

    “He looks at me, he looks in the box. ‘I don’t have anymore t-shirts, I don’t have anymore hats. But here.’ And he gave me his pin. I still have that pin at home somewhere. So that’s how it started.”

    Robitaille’s skating didn’t improve in the NHL, like Mike H’s experience with foot speed, skating ability is something that you’re not going to develop if you don’t have it already in your teenage years. Remarkably, however, he became the highest scoring left winger in league history, with 668 goals and 1394 points, and a consensus Hall of Famer.

    I remember watching him play in his prime when I was growing up in the early ’90s. At that time both he and Gretzky played on the Kings. Neither player was an imposing athlete, at least not in the “explosive” sense that seems to dominate North American conceptions of athleticism, but they each were absolute masters of those elusive yet undeniable skills – vision, timing, mental implacability. They were also both very accurate shooters. In the ’93 Conference Final against Toronto they showed these skills in abundance (I’ll never forget Gretzky banking in a goal from behind the net off of defenceman Dave Ellett’s skate, bless his heart).

    The stories of Gretzky putting in 25,000 hours and then some on the rink his dad flooded in their family’s backyard are legend but I can’t find any comparable stories for “lucky Luc”. From having watched him though, they must exist or there would scarce be an explanation for his success.

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