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

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

European People's Party via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.