The curse of irresponsible expectation

AT THE risk of upsetting some in this dubious trade it is proposed that all sports reporters, including those who broadcast by television and radio, undertake the revolutionary experiment of discreet appraisal.

To be sure, this might startle and confuse the clientele, yet 1999 would be a better and brighter year if we could get through it without being imprudently advised that genius is upon us.

If we could start by setting promise in perspective, there might come a day when emerging talent is not put at risk by descriptions that twitch and quiver with irresponsible expectation.

While it is idle to suppose that any teenager who is quickly successful in sport can avoid the sort of attention given to Michael Owen in last summer's World Cup finals and Justin Rose in the Open golf championship, it can lead to difficulties in development that some have found insurmountable.

Recently, on Match of the Day, the BBC pundit and former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson stated that Owen, at 19 years old, is already a phenomenon of football.

There is some truth in that, but unfortunately it may lead the public to consider Owen complete in football education when, in fact, he still has things to master.

As for Rose, it was not so much that the roof caved in on him after outscoring many of the world's best golfers at Birkdale as that he did not live up to quite ridiculous media anticipation. Comparisons between Rose and a true phenomenon of golf, Tiger Woods, were as daft as some made between Owen and Pele, who was only 17 when he appeared for Brazil against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup final.

A great deal of attention was given last week to Jermaine Pennant, the 15-year-old prodigy who is registered with Arsenal after being brought up in the game by Notts County.

There are some important side issues involved here - Notts County's agreement with Arsenal cannot conceal their disappointment - but there is risk in Arsenal's investment.

Nobody can ever be sure whether young players will live up to their potential. I do not know exactly what the figures are, but the majority of apprentices in English football fail to make it as fully fledged professionals.

Only people who look upon an interest in football as evidence of retarded development will be oblivious to the notion that a huge future in the game is being predicted for West Ham's 17-year-old midfielder Joe Cole, who made his first-team debut as a substitute in the third round of the FA Cup against Swansea City.

Cole is just one of an emerging generation who promise much for the future of English football. Improved coaching gives them a better chance than the many who fell by the wayside after representing England at youth international level.

The trouble is that media attention may be detrimental to their progress. Few will be blessed with Owen's temperament and the solid family background from which he benefits. Some will disappear from view, either because of injury or failed personality.

I was mentioning this the other day to someone who gave up football management when the pressure to achieve became too great for him. "I think the worst thing about the job was telling youngsters that they weren't going to make it," he said. "Most of them took it well but the parents were a different matter. I remember mothers in my office pleading for their sons to be kept on."

In their eagerness to publicise the announcement of sporting youth, some people descend into a twilight of reason and language.

Gustav Sebes, who put together the great Hungarian side of the 1950s, once spoke about his belief that a 15-year-old Ferenc Puskas would rise above others in his generation and become one of the great figures in football history.

The interesting thing about this was that others were considered ahead of Puskas in natural ability. "But none of them had his nerve," Sebes said. "On the worst day in his life he would never drop below a high standard. At that age Puskas's consistency was remarkable and, of course, he lived up to all the hopes that were held out for him."

We shall have to wait and see whether something similar will be said about those who are presently causing a great deal of excitement in English football. It would help if people who report their efforts do so with more circumspection than is at present evident.

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