Christmas approacheth. Lights are being lit in shopping centres, adverts are being aired on broadcasting stations and pundits are getting over-excited by the performance of Arsene Wenger’s latest crop of youngsters in the Carling Cup – all sure signs of the imminent commemoration of the birth of our Lord. So how good are l’Arse’s latest crop of young gunners? I’d better make clear right now – I haven’t seen them in action (I hate that lot, why would I see them?), so this isn’t really a debate about their quality. I caught the goals in their 3-0 win over Wigan, as I did their 6-0 win over Sheff Utd in the previous round. Well done, very pretty, not particularly impressed. Casting my mind back a few years, Arsene’s kids are regularly trotted out in domestic cup competitions, invariably destroying lesser-rate opponents, but they came a cropper (4-0) vs Man Utd in the FA Cup, and were rather gloriously destroyed 5-1 by my lot in the Carling Cup. Furthermore, lest anyone has forgotten, the 6-0 demolition of Sheff Utd earlier this season was promptly followed by a defeat at home to Hull, or someone similarly nondescript, three days later.
However, there are many (not least the whinger-in-chief himself) who insist that this year’s crop really is something special. I suspect that that Vela character is indeed a bit of a talent, as he’s had the odd cameo in the Premiership, with some degree of success. I’ve also heard particularly good things about Wilshere, and as he is an Englishman with a left foot, there is a sense in which I temper my innate hatred of l’Arse, and watch his career with interest. There may well be a couple of others who make it at the other lot, one or two who go on to the international stage. On the whole however, I’m happy to laugh cynically in the face of all those bleating about what a golden generation this is. Yes, admittedly a sizeable proportion of such guffawing can be attributed to my white-hot anti-l’arse bias – I can admit that my perspective on the red half of north London might occasionally be influenced by two decades of bile and hatred.
However, more broadly, it seems to be a footballing fact, quite possibly supported by the law of averages, that of the plethora of teenagers who debut amidst a blaze of optimistic publicity at a given club, only one or two, if any, go on to establish themselves at that club or a better one. Inevitably, the media fanfare which accompanies the entrance of said youths onto the scene includes the phrases “precocious”, “wonder-kid” and “the boy’s got a big future ahead of him”. But look more closely, my action-indulging chum, and you shall see also phrases synonymous with “shows great potential”, “one for the future” “destined for great things”. And there’s the rub. It’s not sufficient for these whippersnappers simply to break into the first team at 16 or 17. Andy Turner did that at Spurs. (To answer your question – exactly). They need not only to make an instant impact, they need then to progress and improve. Fabregas did it. Rooney did it (although some even dare to question whether, really, he has improved that much, the heretics). But for every Fabregas who made it at 16, nailed his place in the team and carried on improving, there are a bucketload who had their 15 mins of under-age precocity and disappeared into the footballing equivalent of that flat glass thing which whisked away the baddies in Superman II. If a player is at the same level at 22 as he was at 16, or even the same at 26 as he was at 21, he’s not really going to make it. I’m thinking of Caskey, Turner, Austin, Edinburgh, Marney, Gardner, Davies and Etherington – all apparently “wonderkids” from Spurs teams gone by. I fear Lennon is going the same way, as is, less depressingly, Jamie “three-touch” O’Hara. They might make it as good honest pros, maybe even win a medal and a handful of international caps along their journeymen careers. But the hype surrounding Wenger’s latest hoarde of ear-studded, excessively-gelled and already cliché-spouting kids would have you believe that a fair number of them will rise to the very heights of the game. I make no attempt to disguise my scepticism.