One of the more combative graduates of Arsenal's Double-winning class of '71 couldn't get to the Emirates Stadium this week. It was a pity because he missed something which would have brought an old gleam to his eyes. It was Jack Wilshere.
The veteran, despite deep admiration for the football instincts of Arsène Wenger, had fretted just a few days earlier: "I love what Arsène attempts to achieve but sometimes I look at his team and I think, 'Well, their football is sweet as a meringue – but where's the hard centre?"
It's a common enough complaint, of course, but the Wilshere factor was the most thrilling dimension to Arsenal's Champions League destruction of Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday night, in that it suggested Wenger, who has so brilliantly trawled the football world for the highest quality of young talent, may just have found an answer to his most persistent critics in somewhere no further afield than Hertfordshire.
He may, in England of all places, have found the young player able to supply the missing element of iron while still contributing to the silky wrap of Arsenal's football.
For the moment, at least, forget Wilshere's weekend red card and the fortuitous escape from another one after an early tackle against the Ukrainians. If a certain restraint on a reckless tendency has to be applied to the 18-year-old, that is the responsibility and the challenge facing the Arsenal manager – but it is a small one indeed when set against the possible reward.
It could be the meeting of a need that has not been satisfied since the prime of Patrick Vieira.
Wilshere, it is true, is almost a dwarf when compared to his influential predecessor in the midfield, but on Tuesday night you had to have scales over your eyes not to recognise quite extraordinary potential to shape a game with the most unerring natural instincts.
No doubt many agreed with Ruud Gullit's after-match complaint that the English football mentality is far too inclined to herald outstanding native ability prematurely, and then enjoy the macabre process of building it up in the certainty that the knocking down will come soon enough.
This is no concern of Wenger, however. He can only call for a degree of restraint, as Sir Alex Ferguson did at Old Trafford all those years ago when some cried hysterically that in Ryan Giggs they had seen the new Georgie Best.
For Wenger the challenge is new and tricky. Never before has he had a product of the English football culture, with all its hazards, imbued with such deep promise. Theo Walcott, it is true, arrived with excessive expectations, not least those placed on him by former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, but his case was surely different. A youth who had been given solid grounds for aspiration by his background, Walcott merely had to mature in his knowledge of the game.
For Wilshere that latter gift was delivered in the cradle and at a time when young English footballers, for one reason or another, have to struggle for a place in the Premier League, there is no reason not to celebrate the fact that one of them has demanded his place by right.
He has also landed the most intriguing possibility in the lap of his mentor Wenger.
It is that the answer to his team's now chronic deficit in edge and steel may indeed have been created in a shire he had previously considered better suited to country bike rides rather than football recruitment.
Don't build up Wilshere too quickly because you are guaranteeing his fall, some say, but really the charge misses the point of how to make and then sustain a genuinely exceptional talent. Ferguson did it with Giggs and Paul Scholes and proved that success and failure will ultimately depend on the character and the ambition of the recipient of an experienced manager's best care.
After Wilshere's superlative performance – admittedly against a Ukrainian team who brought a vastly better reputation than performance – Wenger might have been issuing a Wilshere policy statement.
He rhapsodised about a talent that was running so far ahead of its years, he talked glowingly of a stunningly mature understanding of what it is to play in a vital midfield position at the highest level, but the manager also advised caution as the building blocks of an outstanding career are put in place.
There are, apparently, some worries about possible threats to an untrammelled future for the 18-year-old. His father acts as a de facto agent and closest adviser, a situation which creates concern in every branch of professional sport, most especially tennis. Nor was it particularly encouraging recently when the boy managed to get involve in an affray literally just a few floors below the newsroom of a national newspaper.
Wenger, however, knows well enough that he is not dealing with a Cesc Fabregas, who comes from a society where the kind of binge drinking among young people so common in England, and a significant hazard in professional football circles, would be considered not so much an ugly social problem as a breakdown in civilised behaviour.
Wenger has to produce a light but persuasive touch of care and discipline. He has to be ultimately watchful of every gust and eddy in the life of a young player who, on the form displayed this week, is quite simply, his – and England coach Fabio Capello's – best chance of introducing a vital new ingredient of tough and brilliant tactical understanding in teams that, for all the prettiness displayed in Arsenal's case, are saddled with the unshakeable image of underperformance when it matters most.
How good is Wilshere? Potentially, he can step into the very best of English football tradition; he has the kind of authority and confidence which was always visible in the young Moore and Charlton and Ball and Owen, and which, until recent traumas, seemed an inseparable part of the football nature of Wayne Rooney. Wilshere looks as so many of the great players did in their formative years. He has time and space and a wonderful certainty about what he has to do. Someone complained of the boy that he never smiled but was told: "He doesn't have time to smile, he is too busy reading the game." Arsène Wenger can only pray that such concentration is never seriously broken. If it is, it could well put at risk the best hopes of both Arsenal and English football, which when watching Jack Wilshere this week seemed pretty much the same thing.Reuse content