independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Talking the talk is a lot easier than walking the walk

When I was on youth international duty, I told a group of reporters that not being able to drink beer often enough was what I least liked about being a footballer. It didn't make for good reading the next day.

On another occasion, I gave the name of a particularly offensive rebel song when asked by a magazine for the music I would like to hear every time I walked onto the pitch. Not the brightest answer to give to a British publication in London in 1996. And in the same interview, I said my life's ambition was to shag American singer Toni Braxton.

There really isn't any good time to give that answer, I know, but it's a cautionary tale for all. For their own good, some young players should never be left unsupervised speaking to the media.

What brought this to my mind was the performance of 20-year-old Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha last week. Most players realise there are consequences to what they say and have learned how to handle themselves with the press. They're complimentary, bland and inoffensive. They may not generate much interest in what they say, but generating interest is not what they're there to do. Avoiding controversy (and honesty) is the only aim. It appears Zaha has not yet adopted that strategy.

It was a significant week in his career both for what he did on the pitch and what he said off it. His senior debut for England came three days after giving one of the most honest and frank interviews I've read in a long time. His appearance in an England shirt will add greatly to his value and reputation, but it was his words that would have caught the eye of most players. And very few would have thought more of him after reading them.

He spoke about practising tricks and drag-backs in his bedroom and making mugs of defenders. He name-checked experienced opponents who he said were no match for him. He laughed off the attempts of opponents to verbally intimidate him and said he had yet to face a defender he couldn't work out.

He explained how Ipswich's Michael Chopra came looking for his shirt after a recent game to illustrate how recognition from his peers has finally arrived. When Zaha made his debut, Chopra was also playing and he didn't want to know. "And now he's asking another player to get my shirt? It seems more people are interested now." As Arsenal's Andre Santos learned at Old Trafford two weeks ago, looking for opponents' shirts is better kept in-house.

And when asked how he would cope against Ashley Cole at left-back, he suggested it would be a test for Cole too. He looks forward to playing against "defenders who will properly test me". As of yet, according to him, he hasn't faced any.

Predictably enough, Zaha has said his words were twisted and those close to him have spoken about his humility and level-headedness. He's supposedly hurt that he is being portrayed as arrogant. It's a wise move to distance himself from comments which appeared to suggest he thought only Messi or Ronaldo were better than him. It would have been wiser still to have stayed quiet in the first place.

However, the reaction of his Crystal Palace team-mates and every opponent he faces in the near future will be entirely different. Dressing rooms are pretty unforgiving arenas. I'm sure the senior players in his squad will put him straight but it won't be that easy with everyone else. His comments have made him a target for future opponents, and those he mentioned will make it their business to set the record straight when they can. Roy Keane surprised people by speaking openly in his book about the desire for revenge against Alfie Haaland, but it's exactly how most players think. They may look to do it in more discreet ways, but speaking so openly

and brazenly about players in that way is only going to generate one kind of response.

Because of my low profile at the time, the comments I made didn't get me into any real trouble. I'm sure I just looked like an idiot to those who read them. But Zaha has now been catapulted into a world where every remark he makes will be reported and with great significance. He may have won many admirers for his confidence and honesty. I'm sure there are fans who would love to see this from all players every time they speak. But in the dressing room, the expectation is entirely different. You keep it bland and you keep it simple. And if you are prepared to be as openly critical of others and as complimentary of yourself, you have to expect the consequences that follow.

He's a full England international with a reported transfer value of £20m. It's a steep learning curve at the level he now finds himself, but it's one that he must adapt to immediately. He is the focus of a lot of transfer speculation but he's made himself a target for other reasons now.

He dismissed Blackburn Rovers defender Danny Murphy because he was "ten times faster than this guy". I'm sure he'll learn to appreciate that speed even more in the months ahead.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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