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United understands zero-sum game
Some years ago, I had a conversation with a young, aspiring, English professional footballer that made me want to locate the nearest wall in order to find an appropriate place against which to bang my head. It was obvious that the prime motivation for a career as a footballer had little to do with sporting aspirations. It was the opportunity for money, girls, and fast cars. The pursuit of a lifestyle, rather than the pursuit of sporting achievement, was what football meant to him.
Not all young footballers think this way. But such is the high intensity competitiveness around the most talented, with the global race amongst clubs to sign up the most gifted creating a buzz at an uncomfortably young age, it is not surprising that some kids get sidetracked somewhere along the way.
One of the challenges for clubs trying to nurture the stars of the future is that they are in an environment in which best young players spend their time being told how wonderful they are by agents and hangers-on. Because of social media, the opportunity for celebrity is there even for youth team players: imagine being 15 or 16 years old and being able to say you play for Manchester United. Then there is the money. Top salaries are on offer -- based on potential -- before they have even got anywhere near a first team game. On top of that, in the world of football you are not allowed to make teenaged mistakes. The obligation to be a role model means a one-off mistake could threaten your future.
Harnessing talent has never been so complicated. Sometimes, having tried everything, clubs can do no more to encourage a young player to get the best out of their ability.
That was certainly the case for Manchester United with Ravel Morrison, a player who in his teens was being talked about as the most talented boy to come through the system since Paul Scholes. In character and lifestyle, though, Morrison lived in a different world than Scholes, one of football’s most modest and down to earth men.
By the age of 18, Morrison had been involved in serious criminal behavior, and faced prosecution for intimidating a witness ahead of a mugging trial. That would not be the only time he got himself in trouble with the law. United were at a loss to know how to handle this problem kid, whose off-field behavior was clearly a worry. Within Old Trafford, he also showed precious little discipline and left coaches exasperated.
A year ago Jermaine Defoe, the England striker, told the cautionary tale of his old friend Kacey, a kid with spectacular promise whom Defoe reckoned would conquer the world, but who ended up behind bars for the best part of a decade. Defoe himself sports a tattoo that reads “Hard work + Dedication = Success".
It was very debatable whether Morrison would get the message, and Sir Alex Ferguson reached a point where his patience ran out. Morrison was sold to West Ham, telling manager Sam Allardyce about a brilliant footballer who “needs to get away from Manchester and start a new life.”
Even West Ham had their doubts, and Morrison was sent on loan to Birmingham, whose manager Lee Clark considered terminating the agreement because of Morrison’s attitude. It felt increasingly unlikely a corner could be turned.
Back at West Ham for this season, Allardyce was quietly hopeful. “He does seem to have matured,' he noticed at the start of the season. “He’s obviously taken a good look at himself and decided that, if he is going to make it as a professional footballer, he needed to be more disciplined in his day-to-day life.”
This weekend, Morrison was the toast of Upton Park as he excelled during West Ham’s 3-0 drubbing of Tottenham. His solo goal, which demonstrated all the technical aspects that made him such a hot prospect all those years ago, has generated considerable excitement. If this is genuinely a sign that the time has come for him to wise up and focus on football, they could be toasting him for a good while to come.
Allardyce used the word “genius” to describe him. "Ferguson said, 'I hope you can sort him out because, if you can, he'll be a genius. He's a brilliant footballer, he has top-class ability. Ferguson has let Ravel go for Ravel's benefit because he couldn't see it happening at Man United. It was: 'Get him down there and see if you can get the best out of him because you'll have a great player on your hands.'
"As we say in the football fraternity, the penny has dropped with him. It has dropped in lifestyle and attitude and his time-keeping, and all of a sudden, there is a belief that he doesn't want to do anything other than break into our first-team."
There was something poignant about seeing Morrison scoring one of the dazzling goals of the Premier League weekend just 24 hours after Adnan Januzaj made everyone gasp with his teenaged contribution to United.
The 18-year-old winger scored two peaches of goals, and played with that audacity that is so enthralling in a young player. The Belgian, born in Brussels to Kosovar-Albanian parents, had an explosive enough Premier League debut that his name, and his future, was suddenly a huge discussion point after his first 90 minutes in the league.
He has some important decisions ahead of him, not least which country he will choose to represent in international football. He is eligible for several, but has repeatedly turned down invitations from Belgian youth teams because he apparently would prefer to represent Albania. On the club front, his contract expires in May, and the pressure is now on United with the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid reportedly keen to prise him away.
As United were able to reflect over the weekend, when it comes to precocious, prodigious talent, you win some, you lose some. Januzaj looks like one they cannot afford to lose.
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