Rolling stones

Unlike Italian football, the leading English clubs seem curiously and self-defeatingly reluctant to look at talent in the lower divisions.

The stone that the builder rejected, says the Bible, has become the head of the corner. Which brings me to the intriguing case of Freddy Eastwood of Southend United. Recently the 23-year-old centre forward, who joined the little Essex club from non-league Grays Athletic, scored a devastating free goal which put Manchester United for all their pomp and circumstance out of the League Cup. In his next match he so nearly gave Southend another home win against the far more fancied Preston North End Championship club when his forceful shot hit the woodwork. Yet, as a teenager, he was shown the door by West Ham United.

There were apparently what you might call attitude problems. Which say Grays and Southend were never experienced by them. Eastwood is that rarity, a pro footballer who is a gypsy, living in a caravan. Though I wager that come January when the transfer market opens again he will soon be driving a Ferrari or a Porsche rather than going up the side of a major road with his horse — as he did at Grays. The big clubs are watching him keenly.

For me, the case of Eastwood has a special significance. It surely emphasises the fact that unlike Italian football, the leading English clubs seem curiously and self-defeatingly reluctant to look at talent in the lower divisions. They mostly, if they are of any size and status, have their so-called academies and you tend to wonder how much good these are, how healthy or even productive it is to run teams of nine and 10-year-old boys. Reminding me of the cogent words of the late Ted Bates, once a Southampton player, manager and director, "They learn to win before they can play."

The Italians by contrast are also looking in the lower regions for talent. Look for a splendid and meaningful example at one of the stars of the recent World Cup, Fabio Grosso, a left-back whose overlapping and finishing were essential to the success of the azzurri. Born in Rome, he was overlooked by both Roma and Lazio, spending four seasons with a tiny amateur club, before at last being picked up by Chieti of the C2 division. He was 23 and had been there up on a hilltop for three seasons before Perugia brought him into major football. Thence to Palermo, the Sicilian club which has been the revelation of recent seasons, who made a hefty profit when after the World Cup they sold him to Internazionale.

Go back in time and you find the significant case of Beppe Signori, a World Cup international outside-left himself, beloved by the Lazio fans, who demonstrated in the streets of Rome when the club decided to sell him. And they surely had a point, for he would go on playing and scoring goals for Bologna into his middle 30s.

Yet, though he was born within shouting distance of the famous Atalanta Club of Bergamo, they ignored him, causing him to play his way in for several seasons with the little non-League Leffe Club. In due course he would find his way to Rome, Lazio and spectacular success. Torricelli, the Juventus and Italy defender or midfielder, was another who came, so to speak, through the ranks.

As did prolific centre-forward Ian Wright who was playing non-league football for South East London's Greenwich Borough when at last in his 23rd year he was signed by Crystal Palace. Hard indeed to forget his dynamic performance in the FA Cup final of 1990 at Wembley when he came on as a substitute, scored two fine goals, and terrorised the Manchester United defence. Thence across London to Arsenal where he eventually broke the long-standing pre-World War II scoring record of Cliff Bastin. And won many England caps.

Go back to 1977 and you find two highly effective players who came out of non-league football. Cyrille Regis was working in a building site as an electrician and scoring non-league goals for Hayes when West Bromwich Albion acquired him with instant success and a flurry of goals. Powerfully built, fast, incisive, he could have gone to a London club in West Ham, but John Lyall, then their manager, when asked about it, replied rather vaguely that Hammers at the time had a plenitude of players. By 1977, however, they badly needed a striker.

To their credit, however, they signed at that time the fast, technically adroit left-winger Alan Devonshire from another suburban non-League club in Southall and he would adapt and impress as fast as did Cyrille Regis.

Interestingly enough, one of the academies which has indeed produced a number of excellent players is Liverpool's, run by their former Irish international left-winger, Steve Heighway. And where did Heighway come from some 35 years ago? Why, from a little non-League club called Skelmersdale! He, again, had no trouble adapting to First Division football. As he once said to me at the time, you can only get fit up to a certain maximum level.

Before World War II, there was Frankie Broome. I have a cigarette card as testimony. "Too small and light said the London clubs when they saw Broome playing in the Spartain (Amateur) League for his local club Berhamsted, but Aston Villa decided to take a chance."

And how it paid! Broome's goals from right-wing and centre largely got them back into Division One, and he played for England in every forward role but inside-left. Not least when England thrashed Germany 6-3 in Berlin in 1938. Captain and left-back Eddie Hapgood had joined Arsenal, himself, from non-league Kettering Town!