England beware: the harsh lessons of celebrating emerging stars too early
It was the summer of 2011 and England were making good progress through the U17 World Cup in Mexico. They would eventually fall 3-2 to Germany in their quarter-final, but this has been a successful first peak above the parapet for some of manager John Peacock’s players.
Raheem Sterling would, within four years, move to Manchester City for an astronomical fee, Nathaniel Chalobah progressed through the age-groups to become a regular in Chelsea’s matchday squad, and Jordan Pickford improves to become the most exciting English goalkeeping prospect of his generation.
Then there's Blair Turgott. The Bromley-born winger enjoyed an excellent tournament, jinking and accelerating down the right wing, leaving a succession of full-backs in his wake. In the last-16 game against Argentina, which England would eventually win on penalties, Turgott gave another strong performance before being replaced late in the second-half by Nathan Redmond.
From West Ham’s academy through brief spells with Bradford, Leyton Orient, and Coventry, Turgott finds himself a non-league player. Worse, he faces a conviction for money laundering and fraud
It wasn’t a symbolic substitution, but it certainly looks like one now. In 2017, Redmond is an established Premier League player and on the fringes of the senior international squad. Sadly, after a slide down the divisions, from West Ham’s academy through brief spells with Bradford, Leyton Orient, and Coventry, Turgott finds himself a non-league player. Worse, he faces a conviction for money laundering and fraud.
Turgott glistened in 2011. Sterling may have been the one heading for the stars, but he wasn’t far behind. To watch him beat his man and attack the touchline was to see a player who unquestionably had a future in the professional game. How could he not? He was quick, skilful and understood his role in the team: tick, tick, tick. But here lies one of the difficulties in assessing developing talent: ability, even when it’s that apparent, just doesn’t matter as much as it should.
Youthful English promise
The latest round of youth tournaments are already underway. England finished as runners-up in the U17 European Championship at the end of May, have just won the U20 World Cup and the Toulon Tournament, while their U21 side are in Poland and immersed in this summer's European Championship.
Each competition brings with it a fresh batch of talent and a global context in which to stand out. By their end, anybody who has taken a passing interest will be able to present a range of players capable of dominating the next generation. Last year it was Brahim Diaz, Jose Gomes and Atakan Akkaynak. This year who knows? The YouTube compilations will go up and the projections of imminent stardom will begin.
The biggest difference is also the most obvious and the most frequently overlooked: these young players are people, all with different strengths, mindsets and vulnerabilities
In Michael Calvin’s recent book, No Hunger In Paradise, one of the continual themes the author encounters in his detailed trawl through football’s preparatory networks is the importance of emotional durability. It becomes apparent that almost all of the players mentioned are extremely talented and that, all things remaining equal, they would each move on to become professionals.
The trouble, invariably, is that all things are not equal. Yes, academy facilities fluctuate between clubs, different coaches vary in their ability to catalyse development, and certain athletic or tactical prejudices unwittingly damage the prospects of certain players. However, the biggest difference is the most obvious and the most frequently overlooked: these young players are people, all with different strengths, mindsets and vulnerabilities.
A more general theme concerning these embryonic players is the ratcheting pressure to which they are exposed as they advance through the system. The effect is hard to anticipate given the many variables and, obviously, the range of different threats. A young footballer’s likelihood of “making it” certainly depends largely on their technical and athletic ability, but also upon the durability of the character within which those attributes are encased.
Clearly that involves mundane challenges like responding well to injury or not being selected, but also to the kind of adversity which the public rarely considers. What kind of family life and support network does the prospect have access to, for instance, or what additional stresses are being placed upon him from outside the sports world?
Invariably, the trouble with youth tournaments is that they give the illusion of permanence. Put an international shirt on a 16- or 17-year-old, place him within official-looking surroundings and he would seem to exist in a stable environment. An artificially incubated world in which his ability alone will determine his progress.
Should that player actually stand out at such a level, the temptation to draw neat conclusions is even greater; talent which shines brightly must surely translate to the adult game. Right?