“Sometimes players are not very good, then they become very good”
Matty Hayward blogs about what we can learn from the Champions League and warns about the dangers of writing a player off too soon
Matty Hayward – @mattyhayward96
Last Sunday, two of Europe’s richest superclubs went head-to-head in the world’s most prestigious club game. The Champions League final, between France’s and Germany’s biggest clubs, featured a winger who couldn’t get into Tony Pulis’ West Brom team, a forward relegated in 2018 with Stoke, and a goalkeeper who was relegated with Fulham last year.
The semi-finals of that competition – the biggest competition in club football – also featured a former victim of David Moyes’ tragic recruitment policy at Sunderland (where he got relegated) and another ‘keeper who failed to keep Hereford in League One a decade ago.
The football (social) media has been, to be fair, incredibly tiresome in its relentless reminders of the careers of Péter Gulácsi, Sergio Rico, Jason Denayer and especially Eric Maxim Chuopo-Moting and Serge Gnabry. But amidst the noise of this “bants”, the lessons that fans can learn from these players and their journeys appear to have been overlooked.
After some time kicking around German youth teams, Serge Gnabry started his career in Arsenal’s academy. He burst onto the scene as the Gunners’ second youngest ever Premier League player, and the following season was nominated for UEFA’s Golden Boy award. Arsene Wenger described him as his club’s “great hope for the future.”
In 2015 he made the move to West Brom on loan to get some first-team experience. However, he made just one appearance, and the long-standing social media joke that Tony Pulis deemed Gnabry “not good enough” was born.
Is this conclusion fair? Is it true that an incredibly experienced manager saw a player who was once tipped to be the next Arsenal star, and who would go on to be a Champions League winner, and thought “nah I’ll stick with Chris Brunt”?
It obviously isn’t that straightforward. Like any other football manager, Pulis has a certain style of play, so will sign and pick players who fit accordingly. At the time, Gnabry was little more than an academy graduate and wasn’t physically, mentally, or technically ready to play regular top-flight football. More than that, footballers’ personalities sometimes just fit in new places, with new clubs, coaches and teammates, sometimes they don’t. Far more importantly than that, sometimes players are not very good, then they become very good.
When Torquay confirmed the signing of Fraser Kerr – one of the only two relative unknowns signed by Gary Johnson this summer – the customary mining for information began with abandon. I tend to start by reading a new signing’s Wikipedia and Transfermarkt profiles, but others tend to favour the forums. Within an hour of the unreasonably lengthy announcement-video-cum-surreal-gaffer-Zoom-call, there were quotes from Hartlepool fans being circulated on Twitter about the quality of the Scottish centre back.
“Sestonpoolie” posited that Kerr is “utterly hopeless” while a user by the name of SoupLadle noted “I think you had Myles Anderson? Well he’s better than Fraser…I honestly thought he’d go to Darlo of Blyth as that’s about his level.” Sestonpoolie’s conclusion was some excellent advice for any Torquay game, in fairness to him: “If you’re in the pub before the game and his name is on the team sheet, make sure you have a bloody good drink.”
Of course, they might be wise words. Kerr might be straight out of the Conrad Balatoni playbook of inept Scottish centre backs with the turning circle of those two cruise ships that appear to have been in the Bay since the beginning of time. He may be worse than that. He may score a hat-trick of own-goals on his debut, be consistently beaten in the air by Barnet’s new signing Lionel Messi, and get sent off for scrapping with an agitated, mask-wearing, Family Stand dweller.
But let us judge him on that performance, and his subsequent performances. Let us decide whether he’s good not from what a few men on the internet write about him, but from what he does in a Torquay shirt. No Bayern Munich fans saw Serge Gnabry score in the Champions League semi-final and said “yeah but he can’t be much of a player because West Brom fans thought he was pish” in English or in German.
The lesson football fans can learn here – and I must stress I’m as guilty as anyone of forgetting this – is that footballers aren’t static robots who have one continuous level of attainment from when they emerge at 16 to when they retire at 36. They’re humans, whose quality of output depends on a number of factors.
Sometimes they are bad, then they become good. Sometimes they are good players who have bad days, sometimes they are bad players who have good days. Sometimes it is correct that they don’t make West Brom’s team, but then five years later they are good enough to win a European Cup. Sometimes it is correct that a defender was rubbish at a rubbish Conference club one year, but can fit in well and perform to a higher standard at a different rubbish Conference club, alongside different players, in a different formation, under a different manager, the next.
The flip side, of course, is that Kerr might actually deteriorate at Torquay, the Pools fans might have been overly generous in their assessment of him, but that doesn’t bear thinking about. I guess, at least, if he’s worse than “worse than Myles Anderson” he should give us something to laugh at this October.
If all else fails, we can just call him Juan.
COYY – Matty