Ryan Keaney3 Comments

WHAT IS TALENT?

Ryan Keaney3 Comments

Ryan's decided to make his debut for IBWM by tackling a big issue, let the debate begin...

There is a wonderful football adage that has been used to describe many of the finest players to have ever graced the game, especially when they have just produced a moment out of the ordinary or are in the middle of a rich vein of form – "He's the first one on the training pitch in the morning and the last one in for a shower."

David Beckham, Gianfranco Zola, Alan Shearer, Ryan Giggs – It's been used time and time again by managers and fellow players to explain the stars in a particular side. Almost instantly though, a studio guest will have the temerity to insist that "you can't teach the things he does" as though all of the hard work and extra training that viewers have just been told he puts in, is actually of no use.

"He's a talent," they'll say. But, what is talent?

The dictionary definition of the word talent is "natural aptitude or skill". That means Lionel Messi, the most talented football in the world, walked onto a football pitch aged seven or eight capable of doing the things he does on a weekly basis on Barcelona. If it's a natural thing, then that's the only explanation for his world class performances. It can't have been anything to do with the coaching staff at the renowned La Masia training academy.

Talent, by definition, implies something written into a player's genetic code. They literally have football in their DNA, don't they? 

Following an incredible loan spell at Bolton Wanders last season, Daniel Sturridge has been able to prove himself worthy of a chance in the Chelsea first team. Having scored eight goals in 12 Premier League games towards the backend of the 2010/11 season and with the arrival of a coach who utilises a more-expansive playing style, the English forward has featured more and more in the starting line-up of the Premier League title challengers. Just a few weeks ago, he scored an exquisite goal against Sunderland. 

A pass was intercepted in midfield by Chelsea midfielder Raul Meireles. Looking up, the Portuguese midfielder saw Sturridge setting off through the middle of a Sunderland defence that hadn't regrouped and a pass was played into his path. Daniel didn't take an initial touch as he chased the ball down and as the goalkeeper raced off his line, the forward's first and only contact with the ball was to back heel it beyond the wrong-footed Simon Mignolet and trickling inside the post for a goal. 

"That's just pure inspiration," was the line of one commentator as Sturridge lapped up the adulation of the Chelsea fans, "a moment that sums up the talent of this boy, this English boy." On one radio station covering the game we were reminded that "moments like that just can't be taught." Expect when the goal scorer spoke to Chelsea TV after the game he admitted, "I've done it a few times in training… It's something I'm used to scoring." Very quickly the goal becomes less about improvisation and more about utilising a skill that had been perfected on the training pitch. Is that talent or hard work and proper preparation paying off? 

Take Wayne Rooney's passing for example. Time and time again, the England forward controls the ball in the centre of the Old Trafford pitch and "without thinking" is able to spray a pass towards Antonio Valencia. Now is that "pure instinct" or a well-drilled tactic to open up Manchester United's play? 

People that watch a lot of Antonio Valencia will know what an incredibly disciplined winger he is. When his team are in possession, he can always be found hugging the touchline, getting chalk on his boots – in a prime position to receive the ball and attack the full-back one-on-one. He's not an adventurous player in terms of roaming away from the flank without the ball. He stays way out right wing and keeps the opposition defence stretched. 

If they know all of that, then I'm fairly sure Wayne Rooney knows it too and he knows Valencia is an excellent "out ball." It helps to relieve pressure in the centre of the park and sets United on their way, prodding their way through from a different angle.

All that Rooney has to do is make sure his pass isn't over hit and flies over Valencia's head and isn't so tamely hit that the left-back can comfortably get a foot to it; and that's footballing 101.

When Peter Beardsley played for England, he commented time and time again on who he favoured leading the line ahead of him. Beardsley loved linking up with Gary Lineker as the now Match of the Day host was always predictable in the positions that he took up and the runs that he made. The former Newcastle forward could make passes without looking as he knew Lineker would be on hand to race beyond the defence or apply the tap-in.

Lineker, by his own admission, was never the greatest player. He couldn't dribble past players, pass through the eye of a needle or necessarily create chances for others; but he did know how to be in the right place at the right time to score goals. Is that talent? Maybe. Is it intelligent decision-making learned from watching the players around him? Absolutely. Without having skill in abundance, Lineker was able to carve out a fantastic career, winning three Player of the Year awards, a Golden Boot, the FA Cup and the Cup Winners' Cup, for himself thanks to impeccable decision-making.

There remains a thought that talent is essentially a set of skills and abilities that all young players who "make it" possess. Core strengths they showcase at an early age that mark them out as eventual top flight footballers and those that don't show flashes of brilliance early on, can't and won't get to the very top. Yet, Norwich City are doing their very best to shatter that myth.

It used to be only the most talented youngsters that got their chance at the top. The young players spotted at a very tender age, whipped into shape by the Premier League or Championship academy they attended and taught the way of the very top leagues. Everyone else could forget about it as nothing more than a fleeting notion that one day; they would visit Anfield, Villa Park and/or Stamford Bridge in a season.

Except that when Paul Lambert led the Canaries to the home of Liverpool and left with a well-deserved point last month, he did it with the help of eight players who have experience of playing non-league football. One or two players slipping through the net and tumbling down the tiers can be excused – their talent might be unnoticed for one reason or another. Players can be poor when they know they are being watched, injury can strike, scouts can get it wrong or they might be after an entirely different type of player. 

Case in point; Chris Smalling, who was playing for non-league Maidstone United just three years ago and more significantly, Norwich's Anthony Pilkington, Grant Holt, Steve Morison, Russell Martin, Bradley Johnson, Leon Barnett, Andrew Crofts and Marc Tierney who all contributed to the draw with Liverpool at Anfield. How did the football world get all of them so wrong? No doubt they were all told at different times that they weren't talented enough to make it. And no doubt, the men that told them are doing their best to hide their faces right now. Norwich aren't, by any means, just making up numbers in the English top flight this season either and it's thanks to those former non-league stars that they are performing so well. 

They are of course the players that come along in the wrong footballing generation. The aforementioned Grant Holt is constantly described as a throwback centre forward who would have filled his boots in the 1970's. Thirteen years ago, West Ham broke the transfer record for a 16 year-old when they paid Arsenal £400,000 for Leon Britton. Back then, Leon was described as the "hottest talent in the country" but struggled to get his chance in English football. His diminutive stature and preference to actually play football meant he struggled in the rough and tumble of English football. 

Ten years on from his debut for Swansea City and he has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water. Alongside Joe Allen and Mark Gower in the centre of the Welsh club's midfield, his way of playing to benefit from the space on the pitch is exactly where the modern game is headed. It's all about moving into gaps and releasing the ball quickly. Britton's pass completion rate is amongst the best in the Premier League and were he a few years younger, he'd sit alongside Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley as the future of the England midfield. Doesn't that make him talented?

Gymnasts are quite happy to admit that they fall off the apparatus that they train on more times than they actually stay on; but there is always something to learn from a fall. There is a lesson to learn from each and every mistake. Fans forget that when a sixteen year-old footballer makes their first professional debut, there has almost always been 10,000 hours of training and preparation put in. He has misplaced passes. He has fired shots high and wide over the bar. He has even failed to control the simplest of angled balls. And he'll do it again because the player is far from the finished article. 

Using the world "talent" ignores the time and effort that needs to put into becoming a professional footballer. It's not something that anyone wakes up and suddenly realises that they are. "Talent" is a myth.

Ryan is the man behind the excellent Football Project website and podcast availalbe here, and is on Twitter in a personal capacity here 

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