Sunday, 10 October 2010

Wrap Wilshere in cotton wool, but don't give him a makeover



Imagine, if you will, that England are a goal down to Montenegro with thirty minutes to play on Tuesday night. It’s not such a far-fetched proposition. The team from the tiny nation that borders the Adriatic have so far gained three straight single-goal victories and currently top Group G. Fabio Capello’s side might have enjoyed two comfortable wins themselves too at the beginning of their qualification campaign for Euro 2012, but a win at Wembley this week should not be taken for granted.

If England do find themselves trailing on Tuesday, the introduction of Jack Wilshere as a substitute will become a distinct possibility – if he does not start the game, that is. He might have only made his senior international debut in August, and still be short of 40 games at club level, but Wilshere’s coronation as the country’s brightest young talent will be complete should he emerge against Montenegro and help England to a positive result. Seeing as the player was asked to report for international duty with the senior squad even though the U21s have an important fixture of their own this week – they travel to Romania defending a 2-1 lead that Wilshere helped them achieve in Friday’s first leg of a European Championship play-off – it seems clear that Capello is prepared to throw the 18-year-old into the fray at Wembley.

Wilshere is a player whose reputation, like that of Joe Cole before him, was inflated by stories about his talent in the press long before he established himself in his club’s first team and had a chance to justify the praise. Whether the early hype was a symptom of England’s London-based media is open to debate, but at least any assertion that Wilshere should play on Tuesday – such as that by Kenny Dalglish, expressed on Saturday in his column for the Daily Mail – can now be backed up by the player’s performances for Arsenal. Even at Carrow Road on Friday night, when he was shackled for the most part by Romania’s U21s, there were glimpses of the close control and quick dribbling that mark the attacking midfielder out as something special.

Barney Ronay, however, writing for the Guardian on Saturday too, raised a note of caution about Wilshere’s rapid progress. The young Arsenal man has provoked genuine excitement in those who have seen him play, especially those who witnessed his back-heeled assist for Arsenal against Partizan Belgrade, but English football has a poor track record at nurturing promising talent. “How are we going to ruin him?” asked Ronay, with the resignation of a man who saw Joe Cole’s raw technical ability evolve into “a furiously hair-shirt style of play, puffing about the pitch, knees high, chest out, in a manner that can only be described as apologetic.” Cole failed to fully live up to the promise he showed as a teenager at West Ham, Ronay argued, because he was made to feel guilty of his natural ability and attempted to make it look like it was actually down to hard work. Perhaps that explains the current Liverpool player’s habitual arms-on-waist pose when short of breath too.

Ronay’s hypothesis about Joe Cole, and how it might affect the future of Jack Wilshere, ties in with an article in November’s FourFourTwo on the balance between natural ability and hard work in sporting achievement. Matthew Syed, winner of three Commonwealth gold medals for table-tennis, argues that the best exponents of any sport are never just born; a significant amount of moulding goes on too. A footballer might be identified as showing promise at a very early age and whisked off to the academy of a professional club, but whether or not he makes it to the senior team after that is always down to hard work and the quality of coaching on offer.

Wilshere, then, like Cole, has not got to where he is without making a lot of sacrifices, but English football fans tend to grow suspicious of players who are able to make the game look easy. Cole was made to feel guilty, and Ronay speculates that Glenn Hoddle was treated like an outsider during his playing career too (“a socks-down maverick in the play of some great cultural conspiracy”). Similarly, Matt Le Tissier was never trusted because people thought him lazy for choosing to remain at Southampton and spurn the advances of bigger clubs. He was a lazy player, but in the same way Rivaldo was, and Le Tissier’s decision to stay on the south coast eventually saw him discredited as an international footballer.

It could also be pointed out, however, that Cole, Hoddle and Le Tissier were all brought up in the south of England (in Le Tissier’s case, practically in France). As well as a proclivity for making scapegoats of talented footballers while venerating hardworking, “honest” players instead, then, there also seems to be a dichotomy at work in the way English football produces markedly different sorts of young stars in the north to those from the south – and treats them differently too. Aside from a desire not to play him too frequently, which David Moyes agreed with anyway, nobody ever thought Wayne Rooney needed to hide his ability, and certainly not by allying it with a strong work ethic. The man-boy from Croxteth emerged at 16 like the ultimate park footballer. He ran everywhere and, what’s more, he could take care of himself. If anything, it was his temper he needed to temper – it still is, along with his libido. Likewise, Paul Gascoigne’s curious tics and erratic behaviour – later explained as the result of long-standing mental health issues and learning difficulties – were accepted as part of the package when he was in his prime.

Jack Wilshere might just be England’s answer to Mesut Özil, our Xavi Hernández, if football fans in this country manage to curb their destructive instincts. If he figures at Wembley on Tuesday, England supporters need to resist any impulse to dismiss him as a luxury player at the first sight of a misplaced pass or failed dribble. If he's muscled off the ball, remember that physical development is easily achieved in the gym. Rather than looking for aspects of his game to change, Wilshere should be recognised as the sort of player that this country seldom produces, and allows to blossom even less often.

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