When Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott left the comparative backwaters of Southampton for the fierce rivalry of North London, the hype surrounding the two youngsters was immense, and with good reason.
At just 14, Nike had agreed a sponsorship deal with Walcott, and at the tender age of 16 years and 143 days he came on as a sub for the Saints against Wolves in a Championship match. Bale became the second youngest player to pull on a Southampton shirt when at the age of 16 years and 275 days he made his full debut.
Both quickly established themselves as favourites at the club, with Walcott’s mercurial pace and Bale’s Beckham-like free kicks and foraging overlaps inevitably attracting attention from the vultures at the top table.
Arsenal were the first to blink, signing Walcott to great fanfare (and a fair bit of gnashing from the likes of Spurs, Man United and Liverpool) The media predictably likened him to that bete noire of Tottenham back fours, Thierry Henry. Sven obviously bought the hype, inexplicably dragging him across the world in 2006 to take tourist pictures of Germany and the older, bigger boys in whose esteemed company he found himself (at the expense of our very own JD of course).
Bale meanwhile, fighting off stiff competition from the likes of um…well anybody with a Welsh grandparent really, made his full debut for Wales a whole month before Theo’s German jolly. In the following May, Daniel Comolli proved he wasn’t a complete con-artist by bringing the boy Bale to the Lane. The fees were almost identical. Their career trajectories were not.
After an impressive start to his Tottenham career including a wonder free kick against Woolwich, Bale sustained a season-ending injury at the hands of Fabrice Muamba (Modric, Bale, Eduardo of the Arse; just what is it about Birmingham?)
In his absence, Assou-Ekotto re-established himself as the number one, number three (if you know what I mean) and Bale was exiled to the bench. Worse still, on the rare occasions he did make it on to the pitch his performances were woeful, and he looked a pale imitation of the boy wonder that scored that goal against Arsenal in his first season.
And then there was the curse of Bale. Now I know that supporters and players are prone to weird pre-match rituals like biting the heads off battery-farmed chickens and smearing themselves in blood for luck, but I’ve never bought into all that mumbo jumbo. Well I didn’t until I started noticing, with growing trepidation, Bale’s name in the starting line-up. What effect it must have had on the players is anybody’s guess. ‘Oh shit! Bale’s playing’ ‘Might as well go home now then’. The term ‘loser’ has never been so apt.
Up the other end of the Seven Sisters, Walcott was blazing a glittering trail across the Premiership firmament, supplanting on-loan Barcelona midfielder Fabregas, as the youngest player ever to appear in the Champions League for the Gooners.
And in one of the most impressive performances by a tyro in a Three Lions shirt, since Owen waltzed past the Argentine defence in 1998, Walcott capped a scintillating display with a hat-trick in the demolition of Croatia’s World Cup aspirations. A star it seemed was born.
Fast forward to 2009/10 however and it seems the tide has turned full circle (yes I know I’m mixing my metaphors). With the monkey now firmly off his back (apologies for the simian reference Gareth mate) Bale is a man re-born, winning man of the match awards and more crucially, matches. Excellent going forward and adding much-needed width to our game, Bale has added hitherto unseen defensive qualities to his repertoire. Make no mistake; BAE faces a fight to get his place back.
Meantime, plagued by injuries, Walcott, like his spooky lookalike Lewis Hamilton, has never replicated that early promise, merely flattering to deceive on numerous occasions. Let’s face it, Thierry Henry he ain’t (thank God I hear you collectively mutter).
It was actually our very own gaffer who gave Walcott his head (so to speak) at St Mary’s and, when he signed for Arsenal, issued this prescient warning in a BBC interview:
“Henry is as fantastic a footballer as you’ll ever see and I hope this kid can go on and be a top player as well. But he is a million miles from Thierry Henry and if he ever gets anywhere near his standard he will be one of the best players we’ve ever seen in this country. He’s got a long way to go to get there but, please God, he becomes a top player which I’m sure he can do.”
Aside from the fact that Harry would I’m sure wish to retract the last sentence, this is a sober appraisal of the dangers inherent in building up precocious, young talent too early.
In his coruscating expose of the youth academy system in Britain, ‘Every Boy’s Dream’, Chris Green (no relation to this author) paints a heartbreaking picture of broken dreams and aspirations.
Approximately 10,000 boys are signed to the 92 academies. Of these, the Football League estimates that only 600 of the 18 and 19 year olds have been taken on in the past four years. This equates to roughly 2 players per team per season, with the overwhelming majority of those plying their trade in the lower leagues. Even then, many will fail to make the grade, with little education to fall back on.
The book also highlights perfectly legal, but morally dubious tactics employed by big clubs to snare the best talent. In setting up satellite centres close to major cities, clubs are able to craftily circumvent the legal travel restrictions placed on young kids. Southampton were able to capitalise on this loophole by signing Cardiff-based Bale simply because they had a centre in Bath – within one hour of his home – just. It’s the equivalent of wealthy families moving house to send their kids to the best schools.
It seems faintly ridiculous that eight and nine year olds are being snapped up by academies. How on earth can you tell at that age whether a kid is going to make the grade? You don’t of course, you just stop other clubs signing them just in case they do blossom, and then like dead flowers, discard them. It’s like throwing mud at a wall and seeing how much of it sticks. 10 year old kids on the scrapheap; it’s no wonder British children are the most unhappy in Europe.
Now I’m a decent footballer, having played representative football in my time, but it never occurred to me that I might one day pull on the white shirt. Why? Because being invited for a trial meant you were really good. I watch my son’s team play and there are kids being picked up by academies today who would just about have made it into my school team. Just look at England youth representative sides; how many of them make the grade?
I’ve no desire to destroy a young boy’s dreams. Go for it by all means, but retain a sense of perspective. Gareth Bale incidentally is only the second youngest player to pull on the red shirt of Wales, the youngest being Lewin Nyatanga…Nope, me neither.