Peering into the future

Have you ever heard of Edmilson Fernandes? Probably not. He’s a footballer. Not the most famous footballer, but a decent squad player for a Premier league side. He actually plays for West Ham. If you follow West Ham, like me, you would know that he is 22 yrs old, that he is from Switzerland, has been with the club since 2016 and, although he’s not an automatic first team choice, when he comes on he often does a good job. Whether he becomes a first team regular only time will tell.

If you look at the salaries of the West Ham players, he ranks as the joint 16th best paid. I guess we can also say that he is therefore regarded as the 16th best player in the squad. He earns £30,000 (a week, that is) and his annual salary is over £1.5 million. As far as I can tell he is a grounded and decent young man, but in the four years of his West Ham contract (which takes him to the age of 24) he will earn roughly £6 million.

We all know the Premier League is awash with money. More and more people are watching the Premier League on the TV in this country and around the world. However some people tell me it has put them off going to PL games and taken the game away from the fans. Recently, after watching England U17s play Switzerland U17s at the New York Stadium in Rotherham, I got chatting to a bloke in the railway bar in Sheffield. He told me that he lived in South London, but was staying in Burton for the duration of the tournament, so that he could go to all the games. He also said that he used to be a Chelsea season ticket holder but now watches non-league games and tournaments like this. Joking aside (about his original allegiance) I understood where he was coming from. Sometimes the Premier League, can feel corporate and impersonal and increasingly concerned with the TV viewer and not the fans at the game (why else would they agree to Friday night matches?). I am not yet as disillusioned as my new friend, but a similar love of football and a desire to seek the authentic experience had led us both to not only that game but also others in the tournament.

It probably passed you by, but the UEFA U17s tournament was held in England in May with games in the Midlands and South Yorkshire. The England team were eliminated in the semi finals, on penalties, by the eventual winners, the Netherlands. Up to that point they had played five games in the tournament winning against Israel, Italy and Norway and losing to Switzerland and then, finally, the Netherlands. Had you asked the manager, I’m sure he would have been disappointed they didn’t win the tournament, but would also have pointed to how it was really only preparation for the future; that experiencing such a tournament at 16 gives them great experience for coping with others in the future. Even the marketing for event had emphasised the future rather than the present, with phrases like “see the players of tomorrow” and by using images of famous England players, when they were teenagers in the tournament, as well as the likes of Christiano Ronaldo and indeed I was looking forward to seeing some players before they were famous. I was going to see them first and through that, perhaps, elevate my status of a football fan, by being “In the know” (there’s a breed of fan, known as an ITK, who are supporters that claim to be ‘In The Know’ about the comings and goings of players at a club and, as such, are followed avidly by other fans on social media).

Most of the players in the England squad had been spotted for their potential long before this tournament and were already attached to top Premier League sides. I went to all the England games and so had a chance to see a few of these players of tomorrow at close quarters. They were all 16 or 17, but were already tall, quick and muscular. Some of them were from footballing families (like Bobby Duncan, the nephew of Steven Gerrard) and a few of them had such confidence in their future path that they already had sponsored Instagram pages (thanks to my daughter for that one!). Watching from the stands, I was struck by the level of skill on display. I saw two games at the Proact stadium in Chesterfield where I had also seen some League Two games during the season and, whereas the youngsters were able to play possession football, it would be a surprise if the League Two side could string more than four passes together in any sequence. It was easy to see these young players, from the stands, as the finished article; as men not boys. However, when they warmed up at the side of the pitch, and you could see them at closer quarters, then you could also see the boy in them. It seemed to me they were all on the cusp – between young person and adult / between a boy kicking a ball in the park and a professional footballer.

Many of us, watching the games, had cast ourselves into the role of talent scout. Who would be the next Rooney or Ronaldo? Who would I sign? Would it be obvious? Would they stand out from the crowd? And not just for the England team, but some of the other teams too? I saw roughly 80 different players in the tournament and some did indeed stand out. Amongst England’s opponents I noticed Gyabuaa, an Italian midfielder with a tackle and a pass and saw a fabulous goal in the final from their number 10, Riccardi. I enjoyed the feisty and determined Burger (yes, that was his name) for the Netherlands as well as the powerful Brobbey and skillful Redan. There was also a Swiss player called Mambimbi who had scored three goals in the qualifying rounds and wept on the pitch when they were eliminated, at that early stage of the tournament. The England team’s most potent attacking options were two pacey wingers (Amaechi from Arsenal and Appiah from Nottingham Forest), there was a player in the middle of the park who seemed to touch the ball more than anyone else (Doyle from Man City) and when he was injured in the third game, the fluency of the team was certainly effected. Then there was a tall and gangly centre half, who seemed like a natural leader, organising those around him and often seeming to appear in the right place. His name was Ajibola-Joshua Alese and he plays for West Ham. What!? West Ham?

Yes. One of the players I thought had great potential for the future was part of the West Ham academy. He didn’t play in the first two matches when England conceded two goals, but was a commanding presence in the final three games when they only conceded one. That means something, doesn’t it!? Okay, I think that, I probably watched him more intently than any of the other players and so no wonder he stood out. I was aware of where he was at all times and, if he did something well, would nudge my kids and say “he’s at West Ham”. In the back of my mind was that song “he’s one of our own! he’s one of our own! Ajibola Alese, he’s one of our own!”, but so were the names of other commanding centre halves that have worn the famous claret and blue (Moore, Ferdinand and now Rice). The only England captain to lift the world cup was, of course, a West Ham centre half! Will Alese go on the play for the West Ham first team or the England adult side?

The truth is, of course, it is impossible to tell. Ronaldo might have played for the Portugal U17s side before going on to have a glittering career, but there would have been plenty of his teammates from that side that didn’t “make it”. In reality only a small number of the players I saw will “make it”. Many will leave the game, after injury or having not continued their development into adulthood. Some perhaps will be seen again in ten years time playing at Chesterfield or Burton, as lower level professionals. Some will, perhaps, decide there is more to life than football or will fall in love and have their heads “turned”. We have seen it all before. At West Ham we have another fantastic youth team player that everyone said would go on to play for England, but has found the transition into the adult game hard (Reece Oxford). Perhaps he will still come good and perhaps he and Alese will play for West Ham together in the Premier League or both go on to lift the world cup for England. It is possible. Who knows?

However, I also wonder if this way of thinking about the tournament is all wrong; if viewing it simply as talent spotting for the future, diminishes something about the essence of the game. Isn’t one of the pleasures of watching football the shear enjoyment of the moment? The unpredictability of what is going to happen? Match of the Day is always better when you don’t already know the result. The most enjoyable match I saw this season was Chesterfield and Man City U23s in the Carabao cup with four goals and a sending off in the last 20 minutes. You never quite knew what was going to happen next (admittedly the first 70 mins were pretty poor).

Also, am I not falling into the mistake of judging boys on the qualities of men? The only TV programme that has annoyed me to the extent that I wrote to the regulator was Junior Apprentice. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the regular, adult version of the Apprentice, but the junior version in which young people were judged on their ability to be a project leader, without having had any of that experience in their life, made be angry. Let us celebrate the qualities of being 16 rather than projecting these young people too early into the adult world, I argued. Shouldn’t I be watching these players in the same way? Perhaps this was their moment. This was the time that were most fulfilled in their lives. This was a time when they were part of something… whether they are successful in the future or not.

There’s a strange dichotomy in football. On the one hand it is about the here and now. It is about the adrenaline rush of a goal and euphoria of the final whistle when you are ahead. But it is also immediately about tomorrow. Once the final whistle blows you look forward to the next game and imagine how many points you will manage to pick up in the rest of the season. The season ends and immediately you start thinking about the next one. The last game of the domestic season was the League Two play-offs. The winning Coventry manager told reporters that he would have a week off and then start planning for next year. Even if your team is successful, that joy lasts for a fleeting amount of time before we seek further successes. Perhaps that’s why I, as a West Ham fan, still dream of future success, whereas the former Chelsea fan I met has nothing else to hope for (to win the PL again!? To win the Champions League again!?). If we have a poor season, like we did last year, then we quickly put that to one side and imagine what will happen next year, nce we have made some stellar new signings and with a new, more attack minded, manager. Perhaps the U17s tournament is consciously acknowledging this in styling itself as an opportunity to peer into the future. For 90 mins (or in the case of the U17s, 80 mins) we are there and the game is the most important thing, but once over we are already looking into the future. Often the ‘now’ is a let down, whereas the future holds the potential of great times. The future has in it that precious commodity – hope!

Some of the players at this tournament will go on to be millionaire footballers. In five years time, like Edmilson Fernandes, they will earning in one week as much as most people earn in a year. Their playing careers will be relatively short, but when they retire in their late 30’s they will be made for life (whilst also unsure what to do with themselves). I hope that Ajibola Alese does go on to have a fantastic career and captains West Ham and his country (which could be Nigeria, through his parents, if England are not careful). But, I want that not because I know him as a person, but for my own purely selfish reasons. I am a West Ham fan and above all want West Ham to be successful and the secret to that is having the best players. I am projecting forward, in my imagination, to a point when with Alese in the side we are able to compete with the best. I am viewing him more as a commodity than as a person.

I have to acknowledge that, even though for some the Premier League is tainted, for me it still has promises and dreams of euphoric future success. I am looking forward to the point when I can smugly say to fellow fans, as if I were an ITK “You should keep an eye on Alese” or, further in the future, when I say “I saw him in the U17s UEFA tournament when he was just 16 and I knew then that he was going to make it!”

Ashley 3.6.18

P.S. There’s one thing that I haven’t mentioned, about my ability to see into the future. When watching the first England game of the tournament there was one thing that struck me about the future pathways of the players. Many of the Israeli team, who to a man/boy looked more diminutive than their English opponents, but nonetheless showed skill and competitiveness will, at 18 be conscripted into military service for their country. They had other things to concern themselves with, other than Instagram. One hundred years ago it would have been our 17 year olds. It makes you think!

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