From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.34 :: Aug. 22, 2009

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FOOTBALL / FEATURE

Good enough and old enough

At the end of last season, Jack Wilshere, 17, destroyed the defence of Liverpool’s youth team, in the final of the FA Youth Cup, home and away. He scores goals and he creates them, writes Brian Glanville.

AP

Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger feels that Jack Wilshere (above) has improved physically through training with the first team but doubts whether a couple of good games should put him in line for the international team.

At last a shaft of light. Hot on the heels of two enthralling displays for Arsenal in the pre-season Emirates Cup by 17-year-old Jack Wilshere, Fabio Capello, who had been watching, publicly declared him a candidate for the next World Cup finals. This, though he hadn’t even been picked by the ever raucous Stuart Pearce, for the Under-21s to meet Holland. Something put right at the last moment when an injured player withdrew enabling the fatuous omission to be made good.

I had the delight to watch both Wilshere’s displays in the Emirates; half a game against Atletico Madrid in the first, a full, corsucating match in the second against a sadly pedestrian Rangers. Already, last season, I had admired Wilshere as a precocious 16-year-old; that absolute rarity, a player who, from childhood, had come through the ranks of the Arsenal youth scheme. The first since the current England left-back, Ashley Cole, who, you may remember, eventually and controversially left in an orgy of greed, incensed because he’d been offered “only” £55,000 a week. And moving, after deeply surreptitious goings on, later penalised by the Football Association, to Chelsea, where he remains.

Wilshere is relatively small but compact. After his pyrotechnics against Rangers, beautifully balanced, a master of flicks and tricks, quick in movement and thought, his manager, Arsene Wenger, told us he’d improved physically through training with the first team. Now, instead of going across the field, he could go straight forward. But Wenger doubted whether a couple of good games should put him in line for the international team.

There might, I suppose, be comparisons with what happened in 2006 to his precocious Arsenel colleague, Theo Walcott. Given a cap and put into the England World Cup squad, without having been given a single game for the Gunners. And taken to Germany, without even making an appearance there as a substitute, which meant, ludicrously that one place in that England squad was wholly wasted. Since then, of course, Walcott has splendidly matured. Who could forget his right-wing run against Liverpool at Anfield, in the European Cup, late last season, all of 80 yards, which ended with a goal?

But Wilshere, at this stage, looks a great deal more accomplished than was Walcott then, and probably far more confident. He cannot, clearly, be intimidated or discouraged. At any level. At the end of last season, he destroyed the defence of Liverpool’s youth team, in the final of the FA Youth Cup, home and away. He scores goals and he creates them. And if you want to look for an analogy in Arsenal’s history, forget Walcott; it’s Cliff Bastin.

Long ago, a 17-year-old myself, I had the privilege of ghosting Cliff’s autobiography. He signed for Arsenal in the summer of 1929 from his local club, Exeter City, reluctantly. More interested, he told me, in going out before it got dark to finish a tennis match than succumbing to the blandishments of Arsenal’s iconic Manager, Herbert Chapman.

When he arrived at Highbury for pre-season training, the commissionaire on the front entrance didn’t want to let him in though Cliff told him he’d come to train with Arsenal. One day, the commissionaire soothingly told him, he might be good enough. That season Bastin, converted from inside-left, always his favourite position, won a regular place on the wing and set up Alex James’ opening goal in the FA Cup final at Wembley. In swift succession, he won every honour available then in the game, scored 33 goals from the left-wing in a single first division season, excelled for England both at inside and outside-left, established an Arsenal goal-scoring record passed by Ian Wright, only in the 1980s.

Willy Meisl, ex-Austrian ’keeper and distinguished expatriate journalist, told us, when the Bastin book came out, of the conversation he had with this brother, Hugo, just before the finals of the 1934 World Cup in Italy. “We are too tired to have a chance,” said Hugo, Austria’s supremo, “but if I could have just one player, I could win the Cup.” That player? Bastin!

The case of such as the wonderfully precocious Pele shows that exceptional talent can make a mockery of age, or the lack of it. He made his debut for Brazil at 16 and astounded football in the finals of the 1958 World Cup’ with his power, technique, athleticism, all round abilities. Three goals against France in the semifinals, another two jewels in Stockholm against Sweden, in the final, in Stockholm, a 5-2 victory. The first, a small bold miracle of jugglery, the second a spectacular header which belied his relatively small height. All at aged 17.

Diego Maradona, at 17, should surely have figured in the 1978 finals of the World Cup, which, Argentina duly, if controversially, won. Surprisingly, Cesar Luis Menotti, the team manager and previously his mentor, decided he was too young and excluded him. As one who was there, I believe his presence could have improved the team’s displays. He had to wait till he was 21 to figure in a World Cup.

Certainly there have been a good many cases of players given their chance in their teams, but burnt out quickly. Each case though has to be taken on its own individual merits. What I’m emphasising is that extreme youth should never be a disqualification in itself. Gianni Rivera, of Italy, was already a star inside-forward at the age of 16. I remember first meeting him in the Olympic Village in Rome in 1960 and being astonished by his precocious maturity. That summer, he joined Milan from Alessandria, and stayed there for years to come, a supreme passer of the ball and a scorer of important goals. Ultimately, becoming a Senator.

Norman Whiteside, that rugged Northern Ireland international and Manchester United centre-forward, was himself 17 and even younger than the 1958 Pele, when he played for his country in the 1982 World Cup. I remember seeing how boldly he brushed off an attempt by an Austrian defender in Madrid to intimidate him. Himself knocked down, he promptly proceeded to knock down the defender!

Jimmy Mullen played for Wolves in the 1939 semifinal of the FA Cup, when Grimsby were annihilated. He was on England’s left-wing in the 1950 World Cup and remained a star turn with Wolves, fellow-raiding winger with Johnny Hancocks, well into the 1950s. And perhaps his header did cross the line in Belo Horizonte, in that notorious defeat of England by a ragtag and bobtail USA team! The goal, however, wasn’t given and that result will never be forgotten.



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