Late starters

Published : Sep 01, 2001 00:00 IST

THERE'S hope in the old game yet. As demonstrated by the sensational goal scored for Queens Park Rangers against Chelsea at Shepherds Bush by Leroy Griffiths. Leroy Who? you may well ask. I'll come to that, but first let me say something about his goal. QPR were playing their far wealthier and more successful London neighbours, Chelsea, in a pre season friendly game. Where Chelsea were riding high and spending endless millions of pounds, QPR were struggling to stay alive, a bankrupt club, taken into what they call administration, forbidden to buy new players, condemned to sell the best they had, relegated this season to the equivalent of the Third Division of our League.

Chelsea had duly gone ahead with a simple enough goal, and seemed likely to cruise on to an equally easy victory against a QPR team desperately patched up with non League or free transfer players. Suddenly, out on the left, the ball came to Leroy Griffiths. A 24 year old nonentity, you might say, at least in soccer terms, just signed from an obscure little non League club called Hampton and Richmond of the Ryman League. A striker who had once in his teenaged years been with Charlton Athletic, who hadn't kept him.

Griffiths, however, was in no way daunted - indeed he afterwards said he was inspired - by the fact that his way was barred by one of the most famous defenders in the world, none other than Marcel Desailly, winner with France of both the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Heading the ball past Desailly and leaving him flat-footed, Griffiths pursued it at great pace then struck it perfectly, left footed, into the opposite corner of the Chelsea net, past another international in the shape of the towering Dutch goalkeeper, Ed De Goey.

Afterwards, praising Griffiths and his goal, the Bristolian manager of QPR, Ian Holloway, admitted that he'd had to pay an illicit 40,000 for Griffiths and hoped that there would be no repercussions. But the goal had been a moment to treasure, a reassurance that in soccer, money still isn't everything, and that a footballer need never give up hope.

This is an extremely important thing to note in an age of football academies, coaching schemes, on which vast amounts of money can be spent, and a truly ruthless campaign by clubs in every leading football country to track down boy footballers and sign them up, sometimes Heaven help us when they are as young as 10 years old.

Many are called but few are chosen and those who are not chosen, who may well have neglected their school work and been pushed hard by greedy parents, avid to share in the colossal sums good players can now earn, can all too easily fall by the wayside. Having, to vary the metaphor, been encouraged to put all their eggs in one basket. Griffiths has plainly had the resilience to battle against disappointment and survive. One hopes he will continue to flourish and score such goals.

Ian Wright was another such case. Crystal Palace, Arsenal and England centre-forward, till quite recently one of the most feared and incisive strikers in the English game, he grew up in South East London, and till the relatively advanced age of 21, was playing minor League football - for a local club called Greenwich Borough. Crystal Palace signed him, and remarkably, it took him no time at all to adjust to the greater demands of League football. His pace, dynamism and initiative were never more evident than when he took Palace to an FA Cup Final against Liverpool. Arsenal paid 1 million for him and never regretted it. He has since his retirement gone on to make a lucrative career in television. Could he ever have envisaged such riches and success in his teens?

I find it interesting that Steve Heighway should be in charge of the hugely ambitious Liverpool football academy which indeed has produced a string of fine young players for the club - Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, Carragher. But in his own impressive playing days, Heighway, a graduate of Warwick University, was the very emblem of the successful late starter. Liverpool in fact picked him up when he was playing as an amateur for the little Skelmersdale club. Again he was able to move into 1st Division football almost without effort. Fast, intelligent, elusive, he gave Liverpool splendid service on the wing and scored their goal in the FA Cup Final of 1971 against Arsenal, when he shot against a confused Bob Wilson, between him and the post.

When that very season, his first, I asked Heighway whether he had found it hard to make the adjustment, especially in terms of fitness, he was plainly surprised, replying that you could only attain a certain level of fitness, no matter at what level you might play.

The somewhat embarrassing truth is, I feel, that professional club coaching can harm rather than help a young player. Of truly talented youth coaches there are relatively few, and there is a tendency towards orthodoxy, which means coaching talent out of rather than into a young hopeful. Too often he can be discouraged by such coaches from doing the unorthodox, original thing. Whereas the youngster who comes up through part-time non-League football can develop as he pleases.

Italy have an outstanding example of the late developer in the Perugia midfielder, Fabio Livarani, Roman born, the first black player ever to be capped for Italy, which he successfully was, last season. Lazio and Roma didn't want him, and he found his way to Cagliari, in Sicily, but never got a game. So he drifted into the Italian 3rd division with four seasons at little Viterbese, the first three of them in C2, the lower echelon, the last in C1. Then Perugia were smart enough to enroll him, he was an instant success and now, at 25, fully established.

My mind goes back to Gary Birtles, the centre forward who excelled in the Nottingham Forest team which won the European Cup twice in succession. Birtles too was in non-League football in his early 20s. When the flamboyant Forest manager Brian Clough came to watch him, he observed that even the half-time tea was better than Birtles! But he took a chance with him and how handsomely it paid off. Birtles went on to play for England though he had a frustrating time of it at Manchester United, where the goals dried up.

The moral of it all surely is that for any footballer, hope springs eternal. Not to be called too early can indeed be a positive advantage as a talent is allowed to flourish and grow unimpeded by the wrong kind of coaching.

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