Cyril Connolly’s quote “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising” can be applied to countless young players dubbed potential world-beaters who do not live up to expectations. Newspapers are fond of printing speculative features predicting who will make up future England teams. These are almost invariably wrong. In 2007, the Daily Mail made such a prediction. Come Brazil 2014, not one of the players they said would be in the team were in the squad and only one (Theo Walcott) would have been but for injury. Only a further two (Micah Richards and Scott Sinclair) are still in the Premier League, bit part players at Manchester City.
A poignant story centres on another Manchester City player in the Mail’s predicted England team: Michael Johnson. After a start to his career that saw him garlanded with praise from many quarters, things quickly unravelled for Johnson, mental health problems which forced his retirement manifested themselves in symptoms such as excessive drinking while injured. A photo of Johnson looking less than athletic in a Manchester takeaway provoked a range of public responses which largely demonstrated how stigmatised and misunderstood mental health issues still are in our society. This ranged from crass, empathy-free mockery to pompous, class prejudice-ridden moralising about footballers’ wage packets.
So what causes careers which briefly burn brightly to fade away? There is never any single reason, though a key one may lie in a player’s talent. Cricketer-turned-journalist Ed Smith argues in What Sport Tells Us About Life, “talent…has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve.” It is an argument which you can quite easily find exceptions to. Those who have managed Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney have always been quick to praise the extra training those two players do, both out of love for football and that elusive urge to improve.
In Smith’s favour, there are far more talented players who do fall by the wayside. Billy Kenny, an Everton midfielder of the early 1990s is one. Dubbed “the Goodison Gazza” by Peter Beardsley, he dazzled in 17 appearances for Everton before disappearing just as quickly into a spiral of alcohol and cocaine addiction, dropping out of the game at 22. Kenny said in an interview about his problems; “Sometimes I could hardly see the ball. I was a joke”.
What these two stories of talent unfulfilled show is not that sportspeople are uniquely at risk of mental health problems (one in four of the population are, and depression does not discriminate) or susceptible to vices (who isn’t?). The cocktail of intense scrutiny and the self-denial one must constantly practice in order to succeed in elite sport would place a heavy psychological strain on anybody. Ally this to Smith’s argument that talent is a burden in the hand of those who “lack the psychological capacity to develop…when life gets tough”, and you have a mix of ingredients that can turn toxic. Life is such that there will always be casualties of this kind in football and other sports. The hard line van Gaal is taking with Shaw will not work for every player, but it should make Shaw think about his life choices at 19. If young footballers can be encouraged to take tough love combined with softer lessons, it should hopefully promote self-awareness to a degree that it reduces their chances of following Kenny or Johnson.
Does the British media play a role in the making and then subsequent destruction of our young stars? Is it right to heap pressure on teenagers by including them in predicted squads for upcoming tournaments? Will Luke Shaw be able to live up to the expectation already heaped upon him at United?
Read more from Tom Simmonds here!