The Fan: It is the nature of football to acclaim the gifted young

In football, as in other forms of human life, people develop at different times, different speeds. They can also fall back or get injured. Successful novelists don’t have to worry about that, unless they fall off their wallet.

New Statesman
George Best celebrates a goal in 1970, while still a boy wonder. Image: Getty

As I walk through my house, from the front window looking on to a very quiet street to the rear room leading into our garden with its mature fruit trees – a walk that can take, oh, ages, as I am just so bloody smug – I think of those poor people surrounding me. That young wife with two babies and so little room. That middle-aged literary gent forced to live in a Hovel. That clever young woman who found a rat in her basement bed. All three born blessed, educated at a top university. What happened? Should I send soup?

I glance at our bookshelves, my eyes lighting on four Booker Prize winners – Keri Hulme, the winner in 1985, Ben Okri in 1991, Arundhati Roy in 1997, D B C Pierre in 2003 – and wonder about them. Acclaimed at such relatively young ages, did they fulfil their promise? And will this year’s 28-year-old winner, Eleanor Catton, go on to produce a solid body of work?

And so upstairs to my room and the Aston Villa-Spurs game and the man of the month, Andros Townsend, unknown a year ago, now England’s saviour. It is in the nature of football to acclaim the gifted young. A couple of good performances and they become the hope for us all.

There is a good batch at present, such as Ravel Morrison of West Ham, Luke Shaw of Southampton, Ross Barkley of Everton, Raheem Sterling of Liverpool and Wilfried Zaha and Adnan Januzaj of Man United. We are lucky at these times. But will they make it?

In football, as in other forms of human life, people develop at different times, different speeds. They can also fall back or get injured. Successful novelists don’t have to worry about that, unless they fall off their wallet. A succession of injuries not only weakens players but gets them labelled as injury-prone, which is tantamount to dying.

There are the temptations: drugs, booze, gambling, women, all the usual pleasures. It might go to their head, convincing them they have already made it, no need to knock yourself out.

In football, willpower can help you carve out a great career, making the most of what you have. I don’t remember either Kevin Keegan or Alan Shearer being acclaimed as boy wonders. They had to work at it.

Joe Cole was a boy wonder and has had a reasonable career but I’m sure nothing like he expected. Damien Duff, I thought he was terrific when I first saw him, then realised he didn’t always seem to know what he was doing, or where he was running, a common failing among wingers.

George Best, obviously. Everyone spotted him and drooled and he did produce, till he was 27 and got distracted. Straight after him as the prodigy in Man United came Brian Kidd – his surname sounding as apt as Best’s.

On his 19th birthday in 1968, Kidd scored against Benfica to win the Euro final. I had interviewed Best in his digs in 1965, aged 19, so rushed up to Manchester in 1968 to interview Kidd. And yes, I acclaimed both as boy wonders. That’s what we did, what we still do. Kidd, now the assistant manager at Man City, had a decent career but got only two England caps. Watching Peter Marinello in 1970 when he joined Arsenal from Hibs, I remember thinking: wow. Arsenal fans dubbed him the new Best. I bet most Gooners can’t remember him now.

Footballers rarely give up when in their stride, thinking this is boring, worthless, I would rather be doing other things – which can happen to novelists. The reason for Arundhati Roy’s sparse output since her Booker win appears to be her preoccupation with politics. The nearest in football is Cantona, deciding he would like to be an actor.

Townsend played well, got a lucky goal and was man of the match, but I am not putting much money on him. At 22, he is old for a boy wonder. There is something worrying about him – not just his gambling habit, but being on loan to nine different clubs indicates managers know something we don’t know.

Januzaj of Man United, the Belgian with a Kosovan-Albanian background, is only 18 and has more all-round natural skills. But will he keep progressing? God knows.

Which means Matt Le Tissier. Now he was a boy wonder. He stayed at Southampton all his career, suggesting lack of ambition. That is a handicap . . .