Youth will be served


Aaron Ramsey (middle, in pic), when he came on at Wembley, was remarkable for his qualities; technique, courage, awareness, initiative.

Not Manchester United! One thought when, so soon after his precocious display in the FA Cup Final, it was rumoured that Manchester United might try to acquire the 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff City. In which case there would be every dismal possibility that he’d disappear into United’s super abundance of stars, getting the odd game here and there, usually coming on as a substitute. And this remarkable young Welsh midfielder is surely worth so much more than that.

For me, he was the consolation of the Cup Final, contested between two unimpressive teams, in which Cardiff of the so-called Championship, alias the second division of old, hardly looked inferior to Portsmouth of the Premiership. Who prevailed only thanks to a horrible error by Cardiff”s Finnish goalkeeper, Peter Enckelman. Just as Pompey had squeezed through at Wembley 1-0 in the semi-final against another Championship team in West Bromwich Albion, invalidated by a clear handball.

Ramsey didn’t start the final. An hour had been played before he was brought on and when I praised him afterwards to his manager, David Jones, it was to get the response that Ramsey provided “fresh legs.” Though, like Ramsey’s Scottish team-mate, Gavin Rae, he generously praised the teenager and expressed the hope, alas surely a faint one, that Cardiff could keep him, by attaining the Premiership.

Ramsey, when he came on at Wembley, was remarkable for a rainbow of qualities; technique, courage, awareness, initiative. One remembers in particular a remarkable sequence, late in the game, when, in a crowded penalty box, he coolly sidestepped two looming defenders, and neatly played the ball off to his right. On another occasion, one has a vivid picture of him, having given an accurate pass, standing in central-attack, arms raised high in the air, so confidently demanding the ball back.

As Rae observed, had Cardiff won, Ramsey would have been the youngest player ever to win a medal; a victor’s rather than the runners-up which he collected. In fact he became the second youngest player ever to appear in an FA Cup Final, the youngest actually being a somewhat obscure Millwall youngster, sent on as substitute, in the Cardiff final against Manchester United in 2004. But Weston was not retained, the following season.

“Youth will be served” is an old boxing saying and current trends in global football suggest that it is increasingly valid. As for previous teenagers in Wembley Cup finals, several come to mind.

In 1930, Cliff Bastin, not far past his 18th birthday, nicknamed “Boy Bastin,” was outside-left in the Arsenal team which beat Huddersfield Town 2-0, and gave the quick return pass to his famous Scotland inside-left Alex James which enabled him to score the opening goal. Forward to the 1964 final when 17-year-old Howard Kendall was right-half in the Preston North End team which lost to West Ham. Later of course he would become a star turn with Everton, whom he would eventually manage. Six years later, West Ham, conquerors of Arsenal, deployed the 17-year-old Paul Allen at right-half. And there was an all too memorable moment in the second-half when, turning past the ponderous Scottish centre-half Willie Young with a clear route to goal, Young cynically brought him down. Alas, in those days there was no rule, to punish the so-called professional foul with a red card, so Arsenal escaped with a futile free-kick.

The day after Ramsey’s inspiring performance at Wembley, a 17-year-old Internazionale attacker materially helped his team beat Parma away, 2-0, and thus clinch their third successive Italian scudetto. It is much to the credit of Inter and their manager Roberto Mancini, however shaky his position seemed, that he gave Mario Barwuah Balotelli — his full name — his chance and a regular place, against the competition of so many much better known and more experienced players. Preferring him even to their most expensive signing of the 2007 close season, the Honduran striker, David Suazo.

Though of Ghanaian origin, Balotelli was actually born and raised in Palermo. He started the recently concluded season as a mere youth team, Primavera, player and since he will not turn 18 till August, Italy cannot even pick him for their Olympic team! Possessed like Ramsey of an impeccably cool temperament, and armed with a splendid right-foot, Mancini happily deputed him to take all right flank free-kicks and corners, which he duly did with aplomb. All these Euro billions poured out on star attackers, and here comes a new Inter star, in the American saying, out of left field!

Barcelona are another club who pay huge sums for star attackers yet are admirably ready to give youth its fling. Though sometimes they are gazumped by English clubs such as Arsenal who spirited away Cesc Fabregas as a teenager. Never mind. There is still young talent to spare at Nou Camp. The exhilarating Lionel Messi actually arrived from Argentina as a 13-year-old. Now there are those exuberant attackers Krkic Bojan, still only 17 and another cool customer, half-Serbian, half-Spanish, and Dos Santos Ramirez Giovani, 19, son of a great Brazilian World Cup star Zizinho, and a Mexican mother, scorer of a hat-trick in Barca’s last Liga game of the season.

These two are players of exuberant promise, while Messi, wholly a Barca product, is still only 20 years old, having made his debut for Barca at 17. Youth will indeed be served at Nou Camp.