One of life’s great chicken and egg situations lies with young football players. Do the good players get games when they’re young because they’re good enough to play at a young age, or do the good players become good players because they played at a young age?
I suspect it must be a bit of both.
The England team, with senior games in their age 18,19,20 years:
Johnson 23, 19, 16
Jagielka 1, 15, 23
Lescott 1, 37, 44
Baines 6, 26, 41
Lampard 13, 31, 38
Gerrard 12, 29, 33
Milner 25, 28, 35
Cleverley 0, 15, 33
Defoe 30, 35, 38
All of them were playing regular football somewhere when they were young. This of course proves nothing at all, for reasons outlined above, but it seems reasonable to say that none of the current England team was a late starter.
But we’re still not getting at the big issue, are we?
Take three equal players at the age of 19 and let one play every week, one play selectively 15 times a year, and the other almost never, which do you think turns into the player? I’m inclined to go for player 1, but we really can’t tell, can we?
John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote this about the Williams sisters:
It’s more something that she doesn’t even know she’s doing, something having to do with the transfer of force, of mass, from the back of her body to the front, and the way that this transference is passed along into the shot, the way it enters her racket head at precisely the millisecond she hits the ball, resulting in a kind of popping sound, the distinctive pop in ball-striking that signals someone who can really play, the thing you simply cannot and will never learn to do if you are a hack or even a pretty good player who has hit that cruel ceiling, the limits of your own physical ability, beyond which you cannot progress, even after decades of lessons and work, but beyond which some 8-year-old girls can go and indeed beyond which they were born. It’s the tyranny of talent. Watching this little girl do it, watching her have it, that lays it bare, undeniably evident, extracted from the game like the Higgs boson from those protons.
Is football all about talent? The debate seems to go back and forth. Certainly when I was growing up this was the prevailing sentiment, the idea of improving wasn’t really offered: you were good or you weren’t. Then Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Syed started talking about the power of putting thousands of hours in, and now it was all about hard work. Then Ed Smith, sensibly, reminded us that this really can’t be universal: you can put all the hours in you want but you need the genes, the talent, too. If you have the talent and put in the work, then you become a star, which is what Sullivan was getting at with the Williams’s. It’s funny, we think, “well did Wayne Rooney work harder than anyone else growing up?” And the answer is that in some ways he probably did: he lived next door to a park and spent hours on end firing balls at bricks in a wall. A young Rooney found transcendence in the solitary and neverending wellying of a ball against a wall and, coupled with some kind of natural talent, this gave him all the boost he needed to become an elite player.
But these are the exceptions. What of players like Matthew Briggs and Alex Smith? Is Premier League survival so finely balanced that there’s no scope for giving young players like this an extended chance? Karagounis played 9 minutes the other day. In those 9 minutes he touched the ball once, was fouled once, and fouled a City player once. If Alex Smith had been on the pitch instead, what would have happened? I’m not saying that Alex Smith is as good as Karagounis – of course he isn’t – but football still has a conservatism that values (expensive) experience over youth. It’s one way that smart baseball teams used to have an advantage over silly ones, the latter being perfectly happy to pay big money for known mediocrities while their rivals paid peanuts for unproven players of similar or better players.
Fulham are getting to this point, it seems: they are playing Kacaniklic and Frei and I imagine we’ll see Smith again, but it still feels we’re not quite bold enough. The idea was that the club would get younger, by phasing out the old and bringing in the new, but other than Bryan Ruiz and Hugo Rodallega we haven’t actually acquired anyone who might be expected to be playing in 2015. This means that at some point another 10-15 players are going to have to be found, which is an expensive business. Some of them might come from the youth teams, but how many? Put another way, how many of our young players are on the cusp of missing out, of stalling in their progress because they’re not getting the senior games they’ll need?
Dan Burn is 20 and has just gone out on loan.
Alex Smith is 20 and got a cameo the other day in a game when we were well ahead.
Ronnie Minkwitz is 18
Richard Peniket is 19
Matthew Briggs is 21
Kerim Frei is 18
Kacaniklic is 21
Marcello Trotta is 20.
These players aren’t *that* young. Certainly at 21 Kacaniklic should be playing now if he’s going to be good enough. It’s not too late for them, but for Matthew Briggs in particular there’s a sense of “where did all the time go?”. Central defenders seem to mature later so Dan Burn’s age need not be an issue, but it’s certainly time for him to get some games under his belt at a lower level. Trotta showed promise in some loans but now isn’t the time to spend a season watching football is it?
Clearly there are more questions than answers in youth development and we don’t know what a realistic target for ‘home grown’ players is. In past years the answer was “more than we have now” but in the last handful of seasons Smalling, Frei and Kacaniklic have shown signs of life at the top level. Whether we have the scouting and then boldness to continue this initial progress remains to be seen: certainly it would help the club financially to do so.