Wednesday 26 July 2017

Stephen Hunt: Academy thoroughbreds don't always develop into stayers

Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There were times as a young player at Crystal Palace when I could see others dismissing me. I was raw and, compared to these streetwise kids from London, I was nobody, a savage from the back end of beyond.

That's how they saw me, that was never how I saw myself.

I could see the players who thought they'd made it look the other way when I approached. They were happy to ignore me, they thought it was ok to ignore me on the way up. The thing was, they weren't even on the way up.

I knew what I had and I knew I wasn't going to let it go. They might have been in the system since they were seven years old but I was my system. I provided my infrastructure and I built my own pathway.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently as I find myself at the other end of my career, but also as people talk about what can be done to develop new talent.

Like everybody who has played the game, I can remember the talented ones who didn't make it, the players who, for whatever reason, were told they were destined to go all the way and didn't. Injury struck with some and injury brought something out in others which turned them away from the game. There were a few who seemed unaware that this was a slog, that the rewards were great but the work would be too.

I knew how hard it was going to be and my scars were my strength. The thoroughbreds who had been chosen at about three years of age maybe didn't have the same experience.

A few years before I arrived at Palace they had reached the Youth Cup final. They were beaten by a Leeds United side which contained a number of players who would go on and have good careers. Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail, Alan Maybury, Harry Kewell and Jonathan Woodgate were part of that team. They all had good careers. Nicky Byrne had a good career too but he lost out to Paul Robinson in the final and ended up as a pop star. Others weren't so lucky.

Hayden Mullins and Clinton Morrison were the players who emerged from that Palace youth side. Others thought they had made it because they'd got to a Youth Cup final. Football is unfair but sometimes it can seem very fair too as it provides a glimpse of reality to those who think they've reached the top.

I always knew I would have to fight. I wasn't the best player in the youth team and when I broke my ankle, I knew things were going to be even harder. I went to the gym and it felt like I never left.

I was dropped from the youth team, although the manager told me I was rested. On a Friday at training, they were looking for a body to make up the numbers for a five-a-side for the first team. I knew this was my opportunity. I scored four goals in a 12-minute match, the players were laughing as I dribbled round senior pros. This was my chance, this 12-minute game was the arena where I would make my mark. Steve Coppell called me over afterwards. Whatever plans I had for the weekend had changed. I was going to Bolton with the first-team squad.

I knew I hadn't made it yet but it was a start. I worry when I see the under 21 Premier League live on TV because I think this generation might feel that a few appearances on Sky will make them Frank Lampard.

I read Dennis Bergkamp's book a couple of years ago. He's coaching at Ajax where they were trying to get the kids to be streetwise, to think on their feet. The way I read it, they were trying to get them to play as if they weren't in an academy, as if they needed to fight for everything.

There is reason to despair about the players who go to academies and think their work is done, but it also means that there is always a chance that a player will come through for Ireland from nowhere, a player toughened and shaped by the rejection others hadn't experienced.

There are no guarantees in developing young players, no way of ensuring they'll make it. But as far as I can tell, one sure way of failing is thinking you have made it long before you have.

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