Is football’s playing field too level?

Attempts at fusion can be deadly. But when it comes off, a great light is shone.

Is football’s playing field too level?

Individually, the luminaries at the Examiner Sport think-tank each bring us to a higher level of understanding. But combined, who knows the power of their insight?

So here goes. Lab coat on. Protective glasses.

In his column this week, Donal O’Grady diagnosed a lack of ‘goal awareness’ in the Galway attack and indeed in the makeup of many stellar inter-county hurlers.

He put this failure to appreciate space and the availability of colleagues down to a likelihood that many of these players have been stars from as young as six, encouraged to dominate matches through their own virtuosity.

Surrounded by lesser talents, a ‘take it on yourself’ policy is often observed.

Donal wrote: “These guys are so good that games were won on their individual brilliance, whereas coordinated combination is required in attack at inter-county level.”

When the pressure is greatest, these players often ‘revert to type’ and ‘put the head down’.

The following day, Ireland’s finest sporting minds continued to supply endless wisdom for a measly €2 and Liam Brady bemoaned the scarcity of outstanding individual players at Euro 2016.

“So far there hasn’t been an exceptional side nor have there been command performances from any of the so-called star players.

“There has also been a dearth of the kind of new talent which would make you feel you’re watching the emergence of a superstar of the future.”


In a flash, this cocktail of knowledge illuminated everything.

The problem with modern football’s ‘academy culture’ is not the perfect pitches or the gleaming facilities. It is not even the riches and rewards that pile up too soon.

It is not the cars or watches or diamond earrings or designer washbags or headphones.

It isn’t the demise of humiliating hazing rituals, the lack of young players being bundled naked into industrial washing machines.

It is not that the apprentice has stopped sweeping the dressing room floor or no longer builds his character scrubbing the senior pro’s boots.

It isn’t that the vital life lessons acquired via running to the bookies to get the senior pro’s stake on the 3.20 have often given way to spurious replacements such as higher education.

It is not the coaching, really. Or the tactics.

It is, rather, the death of the 150-goals-a-season kid. The lad who plays centre-half and centre-mid and centre-forward at the same time for the school team. Who runs and runs with the ball. Who runs the show. Who takes it on himself.

He is gone, swooped upon at six, or younger, and dropped onto a level playing field, where they would all be 150-goals-a-season kids, left to their own devices.

Sure, they will make him a better player. They will persuade him to lift his head, even if it is only to pick out another square pass. He will quickly master two-touch and start to angle his runs. He will learn the high press and the low block.

But there will always be somebody else as good, or nearly as good, who can get them out of jail. He has been denied those formative years when it should have been all down to him. He has never carried anyone.

Despite the growing concern over standards, football can’t, realistically, be the one sphere of human endeavour where performance is in decline, especially with the money being thrown around.

But individualism might well be dying. Roy of the Rovers is out of print and out of fashion. We seem to be running low on match-winners, the guys who win you matches, as Lawro explained.

We can easily recall when every nation had at least one maverick, a go-to guy who wasn’t necessarily a solid citizen. Your Stoichkovs, your Hagis, your Ronaldinhos.

Of course, the cult of the manager has hastened their disappearance.

“I like my team more than my players,” said Jose Mourinho last season, a man who never truly embraces a rival match-winner.

So maybe Cristiano Ronaldo is truly the last of his kind, the last of the men who see the game as an individual sport.

On Wednesday, there was great wonder when he came up against another man who can at least catch an eye in team. Gareth Bale has come through the academy system, but we must remember they once imprisoned him at left-back, as if they wanted to squeeze the individualism out of him.

“There are some academies refusing to look at eight-year-olds because they will have picked up bad habits,” wrote The Guardian’s Barney Ronay in January.

There is a great fear out there of the seven-year-old who has already realised that it’s all down to him.

“Robots,” Giggsy this week called the latest generation of academy graduates. “They’re told what to do, and there’s no problem-solving on the pitch.”

When the pressure comes on, there will soon be nobody left who reverts to type, puts the head down, and tries to solve things all by himself.

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