Football: Gillespie holds the balance

Simon O'Hagan assesses a prodigy who has found his feet in Newcastle

SOMEBODY once calculated that a footballer runs about 10 miles during the course of a match. But footballers are not running all the time, and the way a player conducts himself when the ball is on the other side of the pitch and he only need walk can be as instructive as when he is at the centre of the action.

Keith Gillespie, the Newcastle United and Northern Ireland winger, is an interesting walker. Against West Ham at St James' Park last Wednesday night he was noticeably calm, almost casual in his bearing, apparently switched off from what was going on in the distance. But once on the ball the transformation into a fleet-footed shredder of defences was sudden and dramatic - all the more so for what preceded it. He was that most dangerous of players - the man who does the damage before the opposition is even aware of the threat.

Today Gillespie pits his skills against Everton in the sixth round of the FA Cup. It is his biggest club game so far in a career that has flared into life as quickly and unexpectedly as Gillespie himself does. Five months ago he was playing for Manchester United reserves, another bright young prospect wondering when he might establish himself in the first team.

At the end of October, he had a rare chance in a match against the club that was destined to be his future employer. Coming on as a substitute late in the second half, Gillespie did his materialising out of nothing routine with a breathtaking goal that saw him cut in from the left, swerve past two defenders and drive a sumptuous shot into the corner of the net.

Little wonder that Kevin Keegan was interested when Alex Ferguson offered Gillespie as the makeweight in the transfer that took Andy Cole to Old Trafford. "It was a strange turnaround," Gillespie said last week, the air of easy-going detachment as evident in the person as it is in the player. "I reckon it might have taken me another year to get regularly into the United first team. Now I'm getting first-team football every week." His voice betrays a mixture of pleasure and surprise at how it all came about before he was out of his teens.

Now 20, Gillespie excites people because while his is already a remarkable talent, there is obviously much more to come. "When you see him in flashes he's phenomenal," his team-mate Barry Venison said. "He's going to be a very important player for us for many years," his national manager, Bryan Hamilton, said. "He's got terrific ability and a great character," added Eric Harrison, who as youth team coach of Manchester United oversaw Gillespie's development as a youngster.

Gillespie, the son of a prison officer, was born in Larne and first came to United's attention when he was playing not for his school, but for a local club. That was because at Bangor Grammar School they played rugby - to the despair of any football-loving boy. Gillespie played rugby for a year - he was a winger, naturally - but no more after that. "There wasn't much the school could do about it," he said.

Having signed schoolboy forms with United and spent a year as a junior with Linfield, Gillespie crossed the water as a slight 16-year-old, wonderfully quick but, according to Harrison, with very little stamina. "He really struggled to do the long- distance stuff," Harrison said. "But he impressed me with the way he knuckled down, even though it was very painful for him. Now you think he could run for ever." Venison also pointed out that "he's got a big heart, and you don't often find that with wingers".

What of the areas Gillespie needs to improve? He admitted he needed to work on his final ball, and that he was only average against West Ham, becoming "sloppy" towards the end. Gillespie has been criticised for his work-rate, and Harrison remembers a time when his concentration used to waver.

Gillespie faces the problem all wingers do, especially younger ones, of keeping involved during a match. "It's give and take, but I think it's up to us to get Keith into the game more," Venison said. "I sometimes think it's a little bit difficult for him to combine into moves," Harrison said. "But I'm not detracting from him, because he'll learn. His link- up play won't be a problem in 12 months' time. He's going to make a lot of goals, and score a fair share as well."

But this is coaches' talk. To the untutored eye, the wonderful thing about Gillespie is that he has unmistakable class - something that is easier to recognise than to define. "He looks almost arrogant," Harrison said, "although as a person he's not arrogant at all. It's a funny sort of style. I can't really compare it with anyone."

Seeing Gillespie sway effortlessly past defenders, doing the trick that the best forwards have of waiting for their opponent to turn and then exploiting the blind spot in the wing mirror, two comparisons did spring to mind: Eric Cantona and Matthew Le Tissier.

All three have an air of haughtiness about them, which perhaps derives from a shared physical characteristic - a long back and relatively short legs, giving them much better balance than their height would suggest. Certainly Gillespie looks much taller than his 5ft 10in.

Talent is one thing, temperament quite another. But for the player who had more than most to do to make the Newcastle fans forget Cole, Gillespie has become a cherished part of the team without any difficulty. "It's such a friendly club and all the lads have made it easy for me," he said. As easy as Gillespie makes playing football look.

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