No fear. Just Do It. No guts, no glory. Occasionally, the trite slogans of the advertising industry acquire human form. They are embodied by someone like Andros Townsend, who is instantly transformed from unconsidered aspirant to national treasure.
It takes years to create an overnight sensation, and it remains to be seen whether Townsend can help England dispel 40-year-old demons, and defeat Poland on Tuesday to progress to next summer’s World Cup finals.
The perils of presumption and over-promotion are, quite literally, neon-lit. Walking up Wembley Way, in Friday night’s fine rain, the eye was drawn to a display in the eaves of the old Arena. There, in a golden glow, were words like Mesmerising, Amazing, Inspiring, Rewarding.
This was the hype machine in action, an England sponsor seeking to set the agenda by association. International careers have often been lost in the chasm between premature acclamation and agonised rejection. Wingers are mercurial, egocentric, and prone to the sort of regression endured by David Bentley.
Townsend may yet endure the growing pains of Raheem Sterling, ironically recruited from the Under-21 squad yesterday, to cover for the loss of Tom Cleverley. Sterling struggled to come to terms with sudden fame after breaking through at Liverpool, and has cause to be grateful for the faith of Roy Hodgson, who sees beyond a plateau in form.
The limitations of natural talent, emphasised by the personal and professional immaturity which has hampered Wilfried Zaha’s transition at Manchester United, can be exposed ruthlessly and unexpectedly.
Yet, in a world of sudden squalls, there is now hope and a semblance of serenity. Other emerging English players look at Townsend, who had nine loan spells and was seen as a realistic transfer target by such Championship sides as Millwall and Ipswich, and dream.
They will draw strength from their version of ancient history. Geoff Hurst did not make his full international debut until he played against West Germany on 23 February, 1966, 139 days before the World Cup finals started with England’s deceptive goalless draw against Uruguay.
Ross Barkley is in the early stages of assimilation into the senior squad. His Everton team-mate John Stones, a full-back who may yet migrate to the centre of the defence, is capable of making a late run for recognition. So, too, is Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, a thoroughly modern midfield player. External influences remain a danger, but Townsend’s mechanics are right, and his basic character traits are sound. He had the strength of will to resist temporary rejection by Spurs at the age of 15; he simply refused to stop coming to the training ground, and was given a second chance he seized.
He is a product of a system which attempts to factor social trends and attitudes into the development process. It was significant that Hodgson, at last looking comfortable in his own skin during the Montenegro debrief, should admit to paying special attention to Tottenham’s Academy.
He has already capped Steven Caulker, and cited the promise of Tom Carroll. Spurs, who harbour great hopes for Alex Pritchard, currently on loan at Swindon, and striker Shaquille Coulthirst, routinely use psychometric testing as part of their recruitment procedure.
John McDermott, Tottenham’s Academy manager, insists: “I want everyone involved to understand our philosophy. Today’s children are more curious and bolder than before. We have got to be able to be honest with our kids, have an empathy with them. We can do the scouting reports, examine the sports science, do the physiology, but we need also to look at the person.
“What is he like socially? Where, and how, does he fit into the group? It is a two way process, in which trust can be built up over time. Remember, it could be fourteen years, from a boy being recruited, to him making his first-team debut.
“We do what I call Zidane work. Can our boys twist and turn, protect and use possession, when they have someone up their back? All our players have to have the attributes of a midfield player, that ability to play forward when they are under pressure.
“We have to be careful of being condescending, because the days of the thicko have gone. We have got to see beyond the now. The best players have football courage. Speed across the ground is not their single most important quality. Perception, and speed of thought, is as important.
“Only the mediocre are at their best all the time. We see if boys can cope, by playing up, beyond their natural level, and provide a safety net when they can’t. Of course there will be a time when we have to decide whether the kid has hit the ceiling, and whether it is the end for him, with us at least.
“But until then, we won’t drown talent, by accentuating fear. We live in a world where managers are three or four games away from the sack. Trying to get through to that culture is a major issue for all of us in English football.”
There are justifiable doubts about the window dressing, like Greg Dyke’s flawed Commission, but qualification for Brazil will help to ease the burden of negativity which prompts coaches to adopt a defensive mind-set.
Townsend was set free by his ambition and his opportunity. He expressed his talent, regardless of the occasion, and set a telling example.
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