Friday 19 January 2018

Big words mean little in the real world

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

MICHAEL LAUDRUP played 104 times in a great era for Danish football, won four consecutive La Liga titles with Barcelona, then switched to Real Madrid and won the league there the following season having previously been a star player in a great Juventus era.

So when he speaks about what it takes to be world class, people should listen. But they probably won't.

After Arsenal's victory against an understrength Swansea team in the FA Cup last week, the reactionary analysis decided that this game proved Jack Wilshere was world class. Laudrup wasn't so sure. "Sometimes people are a little too fast, too quick with the big words," said Laudrup as he was asked to join the love-in. "We have to let them grow, because young players can always improve, that goes for Jack Wilshere too.

"To be world class you need more at the highest level. We are talking about a 21-year-old and we're already talking about him being the best."

Wilshere was exceptional against Swansea and has, as Laudrup acknowledged, "a lot of potential" but the rush to hail players or managers as the next big thing continues to flummox those who were the genuine article. After an impressive start to his Manchester United career, it wasn't enough for Phil Jones to simply be praised for having made the step up from Blackburn to a more demanding environment. No, he had to be compared with Duncan Edwards.

That the initial comparison came from Bobby Charlton made it all the more perplexing and heaped an unnecessary pressure on a player still trying to establish himself at Old Trafford.

The comparisons should really have ended with both being young players who played for United but, if Jones' career were to end by the time he was 21 (as Edwards' did so tragically in 1958), it's difficult to imagine somebody describing a promising young player at United in the year 2066 as "the new Phil Jones".

Of all weeks to start throwing big words around for players, the sight of Michael Johnson looking like a normal, if overweight, 24-year-old should have sounded alarm bells.

Sven-Goran Eriksson once offered bets to a room full of journalists that Johnson would one day play for England when he burst on the scene at Manchester City; six years later, he is now a figure of fun.

For every Wayne Rooney who maintains an exceptional standard for over a decade, there are several more like Johnson, Michael Branch or Francis Jeffers who, respectively, are a cautionary tale, serving a seven-year prison sentence for drug offences and a free agent whose last competitive game came in the Maltese league.

Football is littered with players who were hailed quickly for making an impact in the Premier League before the reality of just how difficult it is to form a sustainable, lengthy career there chewed them up.


In fairness to the players, they are rarely the ones who start the hype but when managers can see just how quickly things can change, it's a wonder they don't do more to protect them. Several years ago, Alan Pardew, Iain Dowie, Aidy Boothroyd and Paul Ince were among a new breed of managers garnering praise for a season or two of relative success.

Today, Dowie (48) hasn't managed in four years; Ince left Notts County after losing nine games in a row in 2011; Boothroyd is in charge of Northampton Town; while Pardew has an eight-year contract at Newcastle – one year for every point they have picked up in their last 14 league games. Where Owen Coyle was once the poster boy for being a good manager whose teams tended to get bad results, that mantle has now passed to Roberto Martinez who gets a stunning amount of credit for his managerial ability despite Wigan's usual home being in the relegation zone.

Martinez, like Coyle before him, earned plaudits for keeping his team in the league while simultaneously avoiding questions about why that team was in trouble in the first place.

At the end of last season, Wigan won seven of their last nine games, including away wins at Arsenal and Liverpool and beating United at home. It's hard to imagine a better platform for a manager to start a new season but, for the third year in a row, Wigan found themselves in the bottom three on New Year's Day, while Saturday's defeat at home to Sunderland ensures another relegation scrap.

Should Wigan manage to escape again, Martinez's star will continue to shine brightly – he's still favourite to be the next Liverpool boss – despite, like Wilshere, Jones and several others, lacking any kind of longevity to back up claims of being the real deal.

The big words have a habit of becoming big disappointments.

Irish Independent

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