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

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 . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.