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11 November 2020

Hype, injury, excess… players can waste their potential for many reasons. Is niceness one of them?

We like our players to have inner steel, perhaps that's why Theo Walcott ended up on Everton's subs bench. 

By Hunter Davies

Have you seen where Theo Walcott is now? I had to blink when I saw him earlier this season on the subs bench at Everton, waiting patiently to come on. How did he get there, I wondered? Surely he plays for Arsenal, has done forever.

Then a week ago he came out for Southampton, his first club, with a grown-up beard, a top knot and arm tattoos, convincing himself he is now an adult, despite still being fresh-faced and smiley. He helped the Saints beat Newcastle and go top of the league, even if just for five minutes. I can still remember that amazing day, 24 August 1974, when Carlisle United went top of the first division. Alas, that lasted only five seconds. With Theo back and bouncing, Saints should end up in the top half of the Prem.

I can see him now aged 17, having recently joined Arsenal, when Sven-Göran Eriksson picked him for his 2006 England World Cup squad. What a waste, the back-page heavies said, taking a kid who won’t get a game. Eriksson smiled and said he was one for the future, you will see. At the time, I put the selection down to Eriksson’s passion for celebrities, with his glitzy girlfriends and love for glitzy players like Beckham. He saw Walcott as a world star, and some of the glitter would rub off on him. Walcott did do well, creating records for England while so young, and was loved at Arsenal, where kids wore shirts with his name on and shouted “THEO, THEO”.

[see also: I thought my football treasures would ease me into old age. But now I am tired of the clutter]

“You need a pistol to stop him,” said Pep Guardiola when he managed Barcelona. “One of the most dangerous players I have ever played against,” said Messi. He did have a good career, earning 47 England caps, and at 31 there is no shame in being back at Southampton.

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And yet, and yet… there is something sad about Theo, something lacking. He did not achieve world greatness, as we all thought he would. This happens a lot in football. Often it is down to injuries and bad luck. Sometimes it is psychological. John Stones has clearly had his confidence and self-esteem damaged. Some young players are over-hyped, convinced they have made it. Or they go wild and self-indulge; getting and spending, they lay waste their powers.

Who knows what the problem is with Mesut Özil of Arsenal. A World Cup winner, supposedly on £350,000 a week, yet not getting a game. How can he be paid so much to do nothing? Ah, that is the football system, top clubs have too much money and too little sense. Agents create fantastical contracts that clubs can’t get out of. Özil is now caught in a limbo world not really of his own making. Money cannot compensate for the ignominy and depression he must feel.

[see also: The international break recalls years of English mediocrity, and leaves me longing for the Prem]

So what does go wrong with players like Walcott and Özil? They have not been brought down by injuries or excesses in character or behaviour, as far as we know.

Is it because they are too nice? A nice player on the pitch pleases us all with his silky touches, his grace and flair, his apparently effortless skill and control, his good humour and sense of fair play – he’s not a clogger or a thug. We all want nice players to do well.

I used to love Darren Anderton at Spurs; now he was a nice player, if at times a bit too interested in flicking back his lovely hair when taking corners. And I loved David Ginola, even when he stood still, exasperated by lesser mortals. Eventually, I feared both were luxuries.

[see also: Why football is still the great escape, even without the fans]

We like them nice but also want them to get stuck in, do the nasty boring, defensive work. Especially these days. Nice players rarely make it through academies any more.

We like players to be hard-headed, not just hard-bodied, to have inner steel and make the most of what they have. Kevin Keegan made himself and so did Harry Kane, when young and loaned to Leicester, whose fans thought he was pretty useless. Steve McManaman was a very nice player, who did nicely for Liverpool and at Real Madrid. Now as a TV commentator, his favourite comment is “nice”. Nice pass, nice strike, nice corner, nice throw-in. He has gone through life being nice. Done him no harm… 

This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump