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Nov 12, 2012

Spring chickens

I must have been about ten when it happened. My mum used to let me go to the other side of town on Saturday mornings to play football on a public recreation ground, with about 12 other school-friends. One morning, when we were playing with uneven numbers (always a problem) a skinny kid from a neighbourhood we didn't know walked past and asked if he could play. He looked about our age, but slightly undernourished and deathly pale. Reluctantly, we said yes, because of the uneven numbers. I wish we'd said no. That morning mapped out everything, in a brutal sort of way. I'm not sure I'm over it yet.

He took a while to get hold of the ball, because he was a stranger and we weren't passing it to him. He had a yellow Brazil-type shirt on - I can see it now. Suddenly, there was a 50-50 situation between him and one of my mates, but before my mate's brain had told his nerve endings to react, the new kid intercepted the ball with such speed and balletic grace that it was impossible to believe what was happening. He fizzed through the space that had opened up for him, feinted inside a couple of players and scored with a sort of apologetic ease that suggested he didn't want to get beaten up for being too clever. And for the next half-hour, before we had to disperse back to our houses for lunch, he simply murdered us. There was no point in trying to foul him. He was too fast, too good. It wasn't that he was on a different level. He was on a different galaxy.

When the kick-about finished, we approached the urchin with awesome respect. "My name's Terry," he said. "See you" - and he bounded off home. But I trudged back in a strange sort of silence. I wanted to find some way of explaining away what I'd just seen, but it was impossible. A little light went out in me, that morning, because although I couldn't admit it to myself, he was the real thing. And we were just run-of-the-mill. All the rubbish that we'd believed about ourselves up to that moment just collapsed in ruins.

Four years later, at the local grammar school, I was playing in the same school team as him, and four years after that he made his debut for Grimsby Town. He was called Terry Donovan, and he went on to play for Aston Villa, earning himself a First Division League title and a European Cup winner's medal along the way, although his appearances were restricted by the presence of Peter Withe up front. He made his professional debut when we were still at school, and I was at the game, of course. And happy though I was for him, another little light went out because I knew I would never experience the sensations he was experiencing. It was time to move on - but it's always hard to do that.

We looked at the 'Golden Oldies' of La Liga a couple of weeks back, but how about the spring chickens? Whenever a new one takes wing, I still feel a slight twinge, as if it reminds me of my own unfulfilled dreams, plus decline and mortality. Frank Lampard? It scares me that I'm never sure if people are talking about his dad. The latest new phase in this scenario for me was the debut of the young Eneko Capilla for Real Sociedad 'B' against Logrones in Segunda 'B' on Saturday, because he is now the first player from my son's generation of 1995 to debut in a professional game. Capilla will be a top player in the blink of an eye and, like Donovan, it was obvious years ago that he would make it - but I hope his debut didn't put too many lights out on Saturday.

When should young players be blooded? Is it different in Spain from other countries? You would think that in the Premier League, for example, where the greater speed and physicality of the game is still a major factor, that it would take longer than in Spain for young players to establish themselves, but that doesn't seem to be the case. New factors are also beginning to influence the patterns in Spain, where the simple fact of serious financial recession means that many top-flight clubs are now re-thinking their youth policies and taking them much more seriously. The trouble is that there are so many risks involved, and bedding young players into a team is a medium-term project. Do it too quickly and you risk burn-out and a brutal loss of confidence - see Sergio Canales, yet to make an appearance for Valencia this season, cast out from the pearly gates of the Bernabeu after looking like a world-beater when he first came to prominence at Racing Santander.

Milan's Bojan Krkic was another one destined for greatness, and although he has not done too badly for himself, there remains the distinct feeling that he was a disappointment at Barcelona, after all the hype that accompanied his youth career. Gerard Deulofeu at Barcelona now, a product of the 1994 vintage, is widely seen as the next real star in the firmament, after Cristian Tello and Joan Cuenca but seems to be having his introduction to the first-team staggered, to quote a phrase. The Spanish use the word dosificando to explain this practice, but Deulofeu would surely be playing regularly if he were at a lesser club. David Silva was loaned out by Valencia in 2004 for similar reasons, to Second Division Eibar to toughen him up - the same place where Xabi Alonso cut his professional teeth. Like David Beckham's brief spell at Preston North End, the question is when to bring them back - if that happens at all.

The world's five all-time greats, Pele, Diego Maradona, Leo Messi, Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano all made their professional debuts before their 18th birthdays, which seems significant but probably isn't. Greatness cannot really be generalised, nor held back. In contrast, Alvaro Morata scored the winner for Real Madrid on Sunday night at Levante but is already 20 and relatively unknown. We even seem to talk about players now in La Liga as 'young', such as Celta's Iago Aspas (who scored two at Rayo at the weekend), when in truth he is 25 and simply a new sensation. Malaga's Isco, widely seen as the best new player in La Liga this season, also seems to be a novelty at the age of 20, but has in fact already played 50 professional games. Athletic's Iker Muniain is still only 19 and has made over a hundred senior appearances, but these two seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

Real Madrid offered €10 million for Real Sociedad's midfielder Ruben Pardo before he'd even made his first-team debut there (the offer was rebuffed), but the player, now 20, has still only made 15 first-team appearances, a fact that has made the French manager, Phillipe Montanier, unpopular. Antoine Griezmann, as already profiled in this column, was promoted with giddy speed to Sociedad's first team, but such acts remain unusual in Spain. If anything, there is more caution here than in the northern European leagues. Fabrice Malinga, the 16-year-old who scored on his debut for Malaga in the opening game of the season, has only played in one further match, which is perhaps how it should be. Sixteen- and 17-year-old players can often look the part physically, but they still lack the musculature of a 20-year-old.

The slower pace of the game in Spain might in fact be more of a hindrance to younger players than a help. The older that players become in Spain, the more their declining pace or simply their more contemplative style seem to suit the paradigm here. Younger players like Muniain, who base their game on darting pace and changes of direction, can suddenly begin to look less interesting than they appeared to be at first, simply because La Liga quickly gets their measure. Canales might be another case. Unless they make some further adjustment, they risk joining the list of tarnished prospects. On the other hand Muniain's team-mate, Ander Herrera, looks like he's 12 but is in fact 23. His period at Zaragoza has taught him how to pause the play, when to rush in and when not to. Apart from his worrying tendency to pick up red cards, he is currently the Basque club's best player, and you get the feeling that he is the real thing - a future star at national level.

Goalkeepers are different, but Thibaut Courtois is making headlines at Atletico Madrid, at just 20 years of age. Part of the Belgian golden generation, he has stepped into the equally young David De Gea's shoes with aplomb. Chelsea will no doubt recall him when it is convenient to them. Looking at other teams in La Liga, Sevilla's 19-year-old left-sided midfielder Jose Campana is settling in nicely, as is Koke (also 20) at the happy hunting-grounds of the Calderon. Defenders take longer to blood, perhaps because of the greater strategic risk of their position, although Raphael Varane (19) is doing well at Real Madrid, as is Martin Montoya (21) at Barcelona.

Finally, a quick word about Michel, who was the last member of the famous Quinta del Buitre to be promoted to the Real Madrid first team in 1982. Deciding to complain to manager Alfredo Di Stefano (never a good idea) that he too wanted to be in the first-team squad, Di Stéfano replied concisely "You can play for Real Madrid when your b**** have dropped". Thirty years later, a more mature Michel, managing Sevilla in San Mames on Sunday night, intervened with the fourth official to plead for Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic's manager, not to be sent off. The plea worked, prompting Bielsa into another of his literary speeches at the post-match press conference. He described it as "an act of gentlemanliness and solidarity from a colleague whose kindly action speaks for itself". Michel - the spring chicken come home to roost? Long may such gestures dignify the scene and teach the young 'uns how to behave.

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