Charm of late bloomers

"They're either too young or too old," was a popular American song during the Second World War. In football, it may seem somewhat appropriate at the moment. Recently, I read of a new initiative, if that be the word, in the fashionable London area of Kensington and Chelsea; an organisation was proposing to run football coaching sessions for infants between the ages of two and five. And guess what, they claimed to have the blessing of Chelsea FC who as we know are busily trying to gobble up every teenaged talent in view. But then I thought of something of satirical import I had written years back, when the ghastly Joao Havelange was alas the FIFA President, founding one international tournament after another for younger and younger players. I suggested that he would never rest content till he had organised a world championship for embryos!

But seriously, folks, as the comedians say, the sudden dazzling emergence of a 24-year-old inside left — I use the old term because I think it describes him best — in the shape of D. J. Campbell had shown so clearly that talent can still come through in its own time.

This exciting player, gifted with exceptional ball skills, with abundant pace and the spirit of adventure, suddenly electrified the English game with a superb FA Cup exhibition for modest Brentford, the so called `Championship' team from West London, at home to poor struggling Sunderland. And how they struggled that day against an irresistible Campbell, who humiliated their central defence, and the experienced Ireland centre back Gary Breen with two superbly taken solo goals, when he simply danced past the defence; in the second instance, coolly stepping wide of the goalkeeper as well.

We then read of this previously obscure player that he had been rejected in the past by Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers, where there had been "attitude problems." So to a protracted string of non-league clubs, the last of them being Yeading, and work in a warehouse.

Scarcely had the smoke cleared than Campbell was off to Birmingham City, the Premiership club paying an initial GBP 500,000 for him, manna from Heaven for cash-strapped Brentford, rising to a million on the basis of appearances. Campbell, in all modesty, expressed his heartfelt thanks for the move, and on his Birmingham debut against Arsenal, as a 70th minute substitute, seemed well attuned to the demands of the Premiership. But the catch was that Birmingham could well go down this season to the Championship, and what a waste of Campbell that would be.

As it is, he has, with his form, struck a blow against the present compulsive pursuit of younger and younger players. Why, even on the eve of that game at St. Andrews, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was bizarrely marvelling at the fact that Theo Walcott, the 16-year-old prodigy he had just signed for GBP12 million from Southampton, had started playing football only when he was 10!

League clubs now even have their eight and nine-year-old teams, which brings me to the wise words of Ted Bates, for decades associated with Southampton, first as player, later as manager and director: "They learn to win before they can play." How many of these promising kids, you wonder, have the zest and originality coached out of them in the so-called academies. What, as a gloomy example, has the Arsenal academy, elaborate and expensive, produced in the shape of English, even British, players? Until the recent promotion to the first team of the 18-year-old full back Gilbert, there has been no English player since the England left back Ashley Cole. The team that surprisingly won in Birmingham with a host of juvenile reserves did not, in fact, contain a single English player.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of the triumphant late developer has been Ian Wright. At the age of 20, he was still playing non-league football for Greenwich Borough. Then nearby Crystal Palace signed him and at once he was excitingly scoring goals. Never more so than in the FA Cup Final at Wembley against Manchester United when he came on as a substitute and scored two splendid goals. Wright, of course, went on to play prolifically for Arsenal and England.

Another centre forward to emerge as a 20-year-old from non-league football was Gary Birtles. "Even the Oxo (a meat drink) was better than Gary!" remarked Nottingham Forest's abrasive manager Brian Clough, but he signed him just the same and was amply rewarded. Birtles became a key figure in the club's remarkable conquest of two European Cups in succession and he too would play for England.

The Italians, though they too are in the business of snatching up young boys in the hope they will ultimately succeed, have a far better record than their English equivalents of giving players what you might call a second chance. And look how long it took the illustrious Gianfranco Zola, cheered to the echo when he recently attended Chelsea's home game with Liverpool, to find a major club. He spent years in the backwoods of minor football in his native Sardinia till at last Napoli were persuaded to sign him. Diego Maradona took him under his wing and a star was born.

The giant Fiorentina and Italy centre forward Luca Toni, the top scorer in this season's Serie `A', is further testimony to the potential success of players whom the big clubs have previously ignored.