Young H was the pick of the crop in no.1 son’s cohort of starter footballers (aged 5). He ran with the fluency of an older boy when most of his peers still had some infant malcoordination. And he was skilful on the ball and brave in the tackle. H was the player all the boys wanted on their team. On occasions, he was traded up a year to stiffen one of our club’s older teams.
When H was aged 6, a scout from a local premiership club approached the coach, who chatted to H’s Dad. Burying his animosity towards the premiership club – rivals to the team he and H supported – his Dad excitedly accepted the opportunity to train with the pro club’s academy. For seven or eight months, H attended this extra coaching and his game progressed.
One Saturday morning, H’s Dad confided that, although the affiliation with the pro club was going well, he feared it would soon end. H was a very quiet lad, without any of the bravado of many as talented as he. The club had told the parents that in the New Year they would select the boys they would continue to coach. The decision would not be based upon talent, as that was a given, but on attitude. H’s Dad was right, as his son’s diffidence told against him and he was cut.
Parenting other people’s children is (hypothetically) easy – it’s your own that are problematic. H’s Dad made the decision not to tell his son outright what had happened, but let him come to understand by no longer going to training on Friday nights.
H came to understand and the effect was upsetting. Not only was his confidence burst, but any joy he had taken from football disappeared. The diffidence of his personality became the way he played. At the stage the team was starting regular competitive matches he slipped out of the starting line-up. He moped and looked uncomfortable and unwilling. His play went backwards more rapidly than it had developed when expertly coached.
His Dad offered him the chance to stop playing. H said he still wanted to come and for months after being booted from the premiership training squad, watching him beside his Dad could be excruciating – although his Dad contained his own disappointment, which was genuinely at watching his son seem so unhappy at play. Away from football, he became passionate about skateboarding and this, his Dad reported, helped him regain some confidence.
One day in a match, maybe two years after the booting, H collected the ball close to the half-way line. Like Michael Owen against Argentina, he glided past three defenders and shot cleanly past the keeper. It was a breath-taking goal. Daft as it may sound when writing of a boy still so young, but the spirit of the five year-old had returned.
H’s Dad wasn’t at that game. It would be a cheap psychological point to link the two, which I sincerely believe would be false.
H is still a first team player at the club. He’s really very good, but like so many kids, the outstanding ability he showed when very young hasn’t persisted. What’s sad is that there is such a clear cause to that uneven development. Expectations raised at a young age, then quickly dashed. And what do professional clubs want with six year olds anyway?