Ryan Bertrand has been at Chelsea for six years, has made more than 140 professional starts – and on Wednesday made his first start for Chelsea.
What!? Why!? How!? Simple. Among the posse of burgeoning talent out there, riding into towns up and down our land as young guns for hire, Bertrand is the ultimate Loan Ranger. Have boots, will travel,won't stay.
Since being plucked by Chelsea from Gillingham as a 16-year-old, Bertrand has been out on seven diff-erent loans. From Dorset to Lanca-shire, from East Anglia to the East Midlands, with a stop in Berkshire en route, the left-winger turned full-back has impressed every club he has helped. "This kid is going to crack the big time," they have all agreed.
And here he is, half a decade on, with his chisel out trying to break through the last shards of the glass ceiling. For now, Andre Villas-Boas has thrown away the loan forms and has granted Bertrand his chance. The Londoner is Ashley Cole's back-up for the Premier League season and will play in the Carling Cup, as he did against Fulham in midweek. Tonto can retire. His boss has finallysettled down.
It has been a circuitous journey, to put it mildly. And the question will be, what good it has done Bertrand? Already he has been judged to be – from no less an expertthan Stuart Pearce – England'sfinest young left-back. It's all there waiting for him.
But Bertrand is 22. He's not a kid. Why has this opportunity taken so long to arrive? Doubtless that has plenty to do with the win-or-else mentality in the Stamford Bridge owner's suite, which has led to managers being so obsessed with the present that the future has had to sort itself out. But it also has plenty to do with the way in which English football treats and supposedly nurtures its young talent.
Bertrand isn't on his own – and neither are Chelsea. Every top club, with the honourable exception of Arsenal (yes, it is still permissible to praise Arsène Wenger), have boys out on loan they believe to possess the wherewithal to make the Premier League. Bertrand is one of the lucky ones. The scenario follows a predictable path for the less fortunate.
The lad initially plays in the reserves. The reserve league is essentially meaningless, so the lad becomes frustrated at remaining non-competitive in such a competitive environment. The club then send him to the Championship "for a bit of experience". Soon, he's out of the picture, out of the philosophy, out of mind and unwittingly out of favour.
He comes back, goes again, comes back, goes again, and repeats this charade of returning to his "home club", which in fact is nothing more than his hub, until they either releasehim or he has had a gutful and signs permanently with a lower club.
This is the way England's brilliant youth system has evolved. The best young players go to the best clubs, where they have the least chance of playing. And we all sit dumbfounded that a club such as Barcelona can bring through a team of superstars who have been there since puberty to play in perfect harmony. What are our big clubs missing?
Villas-Boas applied hammer to nail last week. Our big clubs are missing a proper reserve system. At Barcelona they have a B team who play in the equivalent of our Championship. Villarreal B are also in that league, while the second string of Real Madrid are in the equivalent of Division One. Apart from not being allowed to play in the same division as their senior side, the reserves play competitive matches week in, week out. There are three points to fight for, and fight they do. But with the philosophy flowing down through the club's hierarchy,they fight the Barcelona way.
Lionel Messi graduated from the B team, so did Xavi, so did so many of their current world-beaters. Even Pep Guardiola managed the B team. There was absolutely no need for any of them to leave for their footballing education. In the B team you are part of the set-up, part of the family and it is there the young players get their "bit of experience". The players see the list of those who made the leap and so disillusion is banished. Itcan all happen so quickly for them. The only loans you see at Barça are of the 0 per cent finance on the Maserati variety.
Villas-Boas wonders why the English pyramid don't allow B teams, why they won't even allow them to start at the bottom, à la AFC Wimbledon, and work their way up. The reason is tradition, and our stubborn obsession with tradition. Never mind that it would be good for our football, and more pertinently good for our young footballers, rusty old convention wins the day. And boys such as Bertrand are touted around like mercenaries to earn stripes they may never wear.
Revenge is tweet for Fuimaono as Samoa rest their case
When it comes to being toothless, the International Rugby Board make world-class gurners resemble Janet Street- Porter. A fine example of this was their response to the insults tweeted in their direction by the Samoan centre Eliota Sapolu Fuimaono (whose name, I'm reliably informed, is an anagram of "I am a foul, loose Utopian").
Aggrieved at the fact that his country had a four-day turnaround before playing Wales, while their opponents enjoyed a full week, Mr Loose Utopian embarked on a rant which included saying it was "like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid". He went on to declare: "Hey IRB dickheads, suspend me." But they didn't. They accepted an official apology and let him off. It made one wonder to which evil dynasty the IRB need to be compared before they issue sanctions – Fifa?
But then maybe their restraint was because they knew Fuimaono's grievance was justified, if his analogies a little melodramatic. They admit to giving the top-tier nations preferential treatment, because of "fan appeal" and "broadcast considerations". Or in other words because they haven't the gumption to stand up for the integrity of their competition.
Fuimaono's tirade did not embarrass the IRB by its comparisons, but because of its exposure. So they swept it under the Axminster. And Mr Loose Utopian, how contrite was he? The next day he tweeted: "C'mon guys, obviously rugby does not even come close to what Hitler did... Delete the analogies and apologies – issues of injustice remain. Just feel for our people who paid for us to participate, especially thepoor children who gave their lunch money."
The man should run for office.Reuse content