English football is crowded with strikers at the moment. With the imminent return of Jon Stead, we can list Stead, Beattie, Johnson, Jeffers, Fowler, Crouch, Defoe, Marcus Bent, Darren Bent, Wayne Rooney, Davies, Ameobi, Christie, Heskey, Sheringham, Carlton Cole, Andrew Cole, Ashikodi and the injured Owen and Ashton. I may have missed a couple along the way. But that’s still twenty players from amongst twenty Premiership clubs.
Sheringham and Andrew Cole are both at the end of their careers. They’ve fulfilled themselves, made the most of their talent and won medals enough to satisfy even the whiniest, greediest grandchild. Owen is still a young man, but even if he fails to return from injury, he’ll still have been an enormous success for both club and country. Rooney shows every sign of living up to the hype in all sorts of ways.
But as for the rest – can you detect a theme there?
Fowler and Heskey epitomise what I mean. Both enjoyed barnstorming openings to their careers, especially Fowler, who took to life in the top division like a new Jimmy Greaves. Both won plenty of caps. Yet, there’s a feeling around them that what should have happened didn’t happen.
And the others…
Time and time again, we are left wondering why a young English striker can come onto the scene, look very promising, and then, frustratingly, fade away. How on earth can a player be so good to begin with – and then so poor, forever afterwards?
I’m being slightly unfair, of course. But no too unfair. Kevin Davies looked a lot more than Big Sam’s crude but effective holding player when he was at Southampton – and, speaking of players who did well on the south coast, one James Beattie was once seen as another potential Shearer by people who knew what they were talking about.
In actual fact, the key to the problem is relatively straightforward, at least in psychological terms. The solution might be, too.
The first question to ask is what is a player’s attitude towards their talent? There are a good few top players who aren’t actually all that interested in football per se – it’s just that football was what they were good at, and so they chose it as a career. So long as they can continue to take a wage from the game, then that is enough to content them, and they’ll do what it takes to achieve that. But the greater sacrifices, coaching, study, effort, required to get to the very top isn’t attractive.
I suspect that this has always been the case. It isn’t just fans of the high-wage Premiership clubs that have occasion to complain about players lacking a supporter’s passion. Psychologically, people acclimatise quickly to whatever income level they find themselves at, and the same is true of wealth as it is of being “just comfortable”.
But beyond these “accidental footballers” born with a talent they didn’t particularly want are the players who have the talent and can’t believe their luck. What happens to them, when things go wrong? Why do things go wrong? That’s where we start to talk about that mysterious Factor X, “confidence”.
I’m not sure if I believe in confidence. If I believe in it at all, it’s not in terms of the presence of something called confidence, but the absence of self-shame or guilt. But if we really have to talk about it, in football you can identify two main strands:
- Expectations: what do you believe yourself capable of doing? Not, what do you hope you are capable of doing if you really try and your luck holds – what do you believe you are up to as a matter of course? And,
- Do those expectations match what you think is being asked of you? Do you believe that you have to live up to what is being asked of you? What do you think it means about you if you don’t live up to what’s asked?
The young striker coming into his first Premiership games has a few things on his side. No one knows his game, so he’s hard to plan against and can take advantage. He’s young, so in a way he’s SUPPOSED to have erratic form: if he goes a couple of games without scoring, it’s not a drought – he’s still OK.
If he makes a real impact – and almost every name on the list of English strikers has done so – then expectations change. If he thinks that he’s capable of the odd flurry of goals, and that’s all that’s expected of him, then fine. If he thinks he’s capable of the odd flurry of goals, and he’s now required to score consistently, in the 10-15 goals per season or above level, then trouble awaits, especially if he thinks it matters that he lives up to expectation.
Because what he knows are his own best honest efforts aren’t enough for him. His best possible performance isn’t good enough for himself. He can score 8-10 goals per season. He feels he “should” score 15-10. It can’t happen, and doesn’t happen, and he feels bad about it.And that feeling coils in onto him, making him feel not good enough on his own account, let alone anyone else’s. It’s the same as that famous parent-child scenario, where the child gets “Bs” at school where the parent demands “As” and the child feels guilty and rejected for the “failure”. Another child would let the parent’s complaints roll off them, happy just to live up to themselves.
Because young strikers enjoy a unique window of opportunity, free from expectation and free from the opposition knowing how they play, they can start their careers in a way that forever distort ideas of how good they are. And that, if they fall for the common fallacy of believing that they have to be as good as people want, is soul-destroying. It’s going to be hard to produce even what they are capable of. Even if they do, they won’t feel comfortable with it.
Young English strikers are especially prone to this. Even though only one great striker emerges in any given generation – track them back: Tommy Taylor, Jimmy Greaves, Frank Worthington, Trevor Francis, Gary Lineker, Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen – the pressure is on young strikers who catch the eye to keep that line alive. Every striker on that list is good – but not that good. The experience of finding out that they aren’t that good can strip them of their own contentment with what they CAN do.
I think that’s why Sam Allardyce is so good at getting the best out of players. He isn’t asking them to go beyond themselves. He creates the circumstances in which what they can do, and what they know they can do, works for them and for the team. Brian Clough did the same thing – player after player who worked under him reports Clough stopping them from trying what they couldn’t do, to play only to and with their strengths, and to learn to trust themselves in what they could do. In exchange, he’d ask from them only what they can provide.
I’m not saying that players shouldn’t try to improve. Just that a dose of reality won’t hurt. It is alright, at the end of the day, not to live up to other people’s demands, in all sorts of situations, even Premiership football. Ameobi doesn’t HAVE to fill Shearer’s boots –