Away from the travails of the first team, some good news this week. Spurs have four players in the England under 19 squad, John Bostock, Steven Caulker, Ryan Mason and Dean Parret. Congratulations to them all, and for many of us this may be as close as we ever come to seeing them.
Spurs have a poor record in bringing young players through into the first team. There’s the mighty Ledley of course, probably worth the total cost of the Spurs youth set up over the last 15 years just by himself, and Jamie O’Hara finally became a member of the first team squad before his successful loan at Portsmouth. Otherwise, if your son was talented, even as a Spurs fan, would you recommend that he came to our club? They bubble to the surface in a froth of expectation, maybe flatter at a few pre-season friendlies then sink through the divisions, although often they end up doing a decent job lower down the leagues.
The new training centre in Enfield could assist development but given that we are able to attract presumably some of the most skilful youngsters, we’ve done badly, or to put it another way have screwed up many promising careers. I seldom get to see the young players these days, but if you’re interested there are weekly reports on youth team matches here: http://www.spursodyssey.com. Of the above, Bostock came on as sub in a European game I think amid a buzz of expectation. Standing tall, he showed the poise and demeanour of quality and was apparently uncowed by his surroundings. At 15 he was coveted by all and sundry – there’s a Telegraph article from 2007 entitled ‘Meet John Bostock, aged 15 the Boy Barcelona Can’t Buy’. Now, he can’t get into the Brentford team and has returned from his loan spell amidst recriminations and a little spat between Redknapp and his dad. Word is that John was never quite as good as Palace made out and that he was pushed into their first team ahead of schedule in order to swell his value. Whatever, he’s not making progress with us.
Unfortunately, this is a familiar picture at Spurs, with fans bemoaning our inability to bring young players through. A quick glance at the team sheets of the mid 90s throws up the names of several young hopefuls, all of whom had a chance or two, admittedly during one of our many ‘transtional phases’ (allright, crap phases) but never made it. Caskey, Houghton, Mc Mahon, Turner, Butters, Hill, Allen – they all looked good for their 15 minutes of fame (yes, even Butters) but are now curiosities in the ‘where are they now?’ file. There was a time where the guy at the front of the Paxton was so certain of his ability to pick a future star that he invested in a Spurs shirt with the name of John Piercy on his back.
It’s hard to know if there is a problem at Spurs. Although it is tempting to point the finger at the youth set-up, the reality is that the main problem lies outside the training ground. The demands of the Premier League for instant success are such that it is much more difficult than ever before for young players at any club to break into the first team. There is so little time for boys to grow into men by making mistakes and learning as they go. I’ve written before about the time it has taken for players with experience at previous clubs, like BAE and Huddlestone, to develop into fully fledged first teamers, let alone the young men graduating from the youth team.
This is not unique to Spurs. Few other teams in the Premier League have a large proportion of home grown players in their first team. ‘Home grown’ – what a lovely phrase, redolent of stern bustling landladies with hearts of gold keeping an eye on their boys when they return from training. They feed them up, polish their shoes and are a shoulder to cry on for young men far from home and missing their mothers. These days, the term is meaningless. Spurs and other teams buy youngsters at 16 (Parrett joined us in this way from QPR Bostock from Palace) and we purchase the best of the rest from Europe and beyond, Blondel and Jonsson coming to mind. Why should Spurs invest that much in a youth set up when we can let others do the work, or of course lose our best prospects to the bigger predators.
I have a soft spot for a ‘mum and dad’ story in football. There was a piece in the Guardian recently where Tom Huddlestone, this giant of a man, paid tribute to his mother who had dedicated her life to her then teenage son and his football. The highlight of the otherwise frankly lacklustre White Lane Tour for me (‘and here’s the stall where the boxholders can exclusively place a bet…’) was knowing that Jermaine Defoe bought his mum a West Stand box and she watches every game. Quite why this touches me so I’m not sure. JD is brash and cocksure but I have a vision of his mum grabbing him after the game and telling him not to whine so much and while she was about it, use a tissue to blow his nose instead of, well, the behaviour of street ruffians.
Bostock’s dad stepped in to defend his boy when times were hard for him. John is probably not used to setbacks in his football career so far, so I’m pleased dad was on hand. It’s a reminder that these boys are just that, kids. We demand that they cope with pressure whilst still in their teens that the rest of us could not possibly dream of. When I was 18, I was mootching about worried about greasy hair and acne, girls, exam results and girls, and all I had to deal with was being in the protected micro-society that was university in the seventies. To get where we are, we made endless mistakes and expected a little latitude while we sorted out our emotional growing pains, whereas as fans we impose a totally different, perhaps unrealistically high, set of expectations.
Let’s nurture our young talent. Push them to achieve their potential but remember that some also thrive with a protective arm round their shoulder. As fans we have to be patient and tone down our aspirations. We’re too quick to write them off. The idea of players out on loan, learning their trade in the lower leagues makes a lot of sense. But also let then know that the club is watching them and looking after them from afar. I wish them all good luck. I hear Ryan Mason is highly rated, and if anyone is going to Charlton today, let us know how he and the other loanees do, and try not to compare him with Johnny Jackson, a new arrival at the Addicks, with such a sweet left foot and a career at Colchester and Notts County….I’m sorry I can’t come and see you play more often- maybe we’ll meet at the Lane some day.