Sport on TV: Growing pains of boys to men of the world game

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The Independent Online
It is never easy being a 14-year-old boy, what with the fluff on your chin, a voice with a mind of its own and all the girls in your year doing their best to date sixth-formers. Nowhere, though, is it quite so stressful as at the FA Academy at Lilleshall, where aside from everything else, the young students must cope with homesickness, the demands of training, injuries and trying to make the England Under-15 squad. For some, there are also Psycho Parents back at home for whom failure is simply not an option.

And for the class of '95, there was also the small matter of the camera which was pointed at them from the moment of arrival, to catch the triumphs, tears and everything else for The World At Their Feet (ITV), a sort of 7-Up with studs. They turned from boys to men in the space of an hour, by which time several of the 16 adolescents who started the "hothousing" had moved on to professional contracts. A handful, like Alan Smith and Francis Jeffers, are already scoring goals in the Premiership.

Fortunately, the one thing they don't seem to teach them at the Academy is how to be surly to journalists (that must develop naturally in a player's early 20s). A 14-year-old Smith revealed that if he didn't make it in football, he would like to be a chef, which will get a guaranteed laugh when the clip is disinterred for This Is Your Life in about 15 years' time. It was also impossible not to like Stuart "Smiler" Taylor, now the No 3 keeper at Arsenal, with his cheerful admission that "I'm thick, to be honest with you", or little Mickey Lyons, who was too small for England but is currently doing well for Derby reserves.

In fact, almost all of the young players who featured had made progress, except for Alex Higgins, whose dad made him walk to his nursery as a toddler to build up his leg strength, and force-fed him like a French goose so that one day he would be tall enough to captain Sheffield Wednesday and England. "I always told him that [getting on in football] is like walking," Higgins senior said, "but Alex must have a limp, because everyone else is going forward, and he isn't."

The coaching staff at Lilleshall wanted Higgins to play "one and two- touch football". His dad, on the other hand, wanted him to take people on. So Alex tried to take people on, and the coach substituted him. It was hard for Alex, but desperate for his father too. They were both watching their life's work disintegrating.

This was probably not the only sad story from the 1995 intake, but it was the only one the producers bothered to tell. Sixteen kids, the cream of young English talent, arrived at Lilleshall, but The World At Their Feet featured only seven, six of whom are progressing nicely. What about the other nine? Are they flipping burgers, or signing on, or perhaps even finished by injuries before they turned 20? It may be that the film-makers did not know. Or perhaps they - or the FA - did not want us to know.

If nothing else, the Academy experience is clearly a character-forming one, but the pupils would need to spend decades there to emerge with even half as much character as Barry Dennis, the racecourse bookie who was the star of Modern Times (BBC2). Dennis has great, slopping buckets of the stuff, and he needs it all too, as the nags, the punters and the weather do their best to make his life miserable.

Dennis was the focus, as he made his way from wet Windsor to Derby day to Royal Ascot. You could tell it was Ascot because Barry was wearing a white tuxedo and complaining about the late arrival of the Queen "and 'er bleedin' wagon." But in the background, a rich and disappearing way of life was captured too, as ancient, leathery bookies prepared to make way for a new, computerised generation. The Ascot punters, meanwhile, were in a wild mood, best summed up by the young woman who had backed Dr Fong in the big race, "because I was going to wear a thong today, but I didn't".

Barry's wife knows that if her husband comes home with pounds 10,000, "it's not ours, it's there to be lost". Barry himself says that sometimes he sits at home and wonders if he'll ever win again. But the home he sits in, it has to be said, is not exactly two-up, two-down. And at the end of the programme, a brief caption revealed that a "friend" had recently lent him pounds 250,000 to improve his position in the betting ring. Someone obviously thinks there is money in bookmaking.

There is also the crucial evidence of Barry's short-cut home, along a tiny country lane. When he has had a bad day, he drives it like a lunatic, with his hand clamped to the horn. The simple fact that he is still alive proves that there must be rather more good days than bad.

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