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15 July 2020

Lockdown has forced us all to change. For some young players it has been the chance of a lifetime

The prime example is Mason Greenwood of Man United, aged only 18, in his debut season. He has astonished us all, and probably himself. 

By Hunter Davies

When we got married in 1960 and moved into our Hampstead flat in the Vale of Health – ooh, posh – I had to decide which local team to support. It was too far to go to watch Carlisle United or Queen of the South, my boyhood teams. We were equidistant from Spurs and Arsenal. I picked Spurs for reasons of fashion and success. They were about to win the Double.

For the first year or so I managed to persuade my wife to accompany me to White Hart Lane. We had to arrive hours early as the queues were huge. Often we arrived and signs would say “ALL SEATS SOLD”. My wife would instantly turn for home. Don’t be daft pet, I would say, follow me, we will walk round the whole ground and check. And there often was a turnstile that still had tickets. There you are, my sweet, you have always to be optimistic.

When we came to “Road Ahead Closed”, I always drove straight on, reckoning it could be an old notice, so let’s see. And very often it was. She went potty of course when it turned out true, and we had to go back. 

I have been a bit like this during lockdown: seeing it as a challenge to get through. God, I have done so much work these past four months. I read 68 books for the Lakeland Book of the Year awards while working on my own book, about a year in the life of the Heath. When lockdown started, I thought the book was ruined, that everything would be out of date by the time it was published. Then I thought, heh up, I will write about the effects of lockdown on the Heath. It will be good material, social history – create a narrative for the book I never really had.

I know without knowing there will be professional footballers who have gained something from lockdown. Obviously, for those poor sods in the First and Second Divisions it has been a premature end to their season. Without any restart games, many clubs will fold.

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But for those Prem and Championship players who were injured when lockdown started, such as Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, it was something of a blessing. It gave them time to recover while not missing any games. How often does that happen? 

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But most of all, for many of the young, up and coming players fluttering on the Premier League’s fringes, this has proven to be their Big Chance for the Big Time. 

The change to five substitutes has given them more opportunities to get on the pitch. With so many games since the Restart, and with senior players getting tired or injured, managers have had to use all of their squads.

The prime example is Mason Greenwood of Man Utd, aged only 18, in his debut season. He has astonished us all, and probably himself. Up until 12 July, he had managed 16 goals in 42 appearances – 22 of them coming on as a sub.

His talent and potential were known, but he could not have hoped to establish himself so fast in a normal season, with so many players ahead of him and being at one of the big clubs, which are always quick to buy new players. 

I don’t think I have ever seen a young player who can finish so lethally with either foot. George Best was a genius, but he could mess around, showing off. Wayne Rooney was a phenomenon as a teenager, but in his excitement and hurry often sent the ball miles over the bar. Mason Greenwood is deadly, from any angle.

Man City’s Phil Foden is an old young player, now aged 20, tipped for greatness for the past three years. He must have been worried he would never establish himself in the first team, despite all the praise and promise. Now lockdown has opened up the door and he has become a regular. 

At Chelsea, young Billy Gilmour, who looks about 13 but is 19, pushed into the first team during the early part of lockdown, but is now injured.

Managers often don’t trust young players, knowing they can fade or get carried away, but lockdown has given them a proper chance to be tested and to flourish. In a way, lockdown has been lucky for them. But they had to grab the chance. 

This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine