The media loves a fairytale particularly so if involves a so-called late bloomer, a player who bursts onto the scene seemingly fully formed and from nowhere at a relatively mature age.
At various points the likes of N’Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy, Dimitri Payet, a Paul Lambert, a Barry Robson, an Antonio Di Natale, an Ian Wright or Stuart Pearce, Didier Drogba or Miroslav Klose could all be considered nominal late bloomers. However, I am wholly convinced that late bloomers don’t really exist – at least in the sense that most fans and journalists understand the term.
The reality is that there is no football equivalent of the starving garret artist waiting for their genius to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. The scouts are everywhere, relatively speaking, and these ugly ducklings that became fully-fledged swans simply didn’t come from nowhere, albeit they may have been under deep cover.
On the job training
At first team level age, players are no longer coached in the youth football sense. Their learning is now done on the job, in games, in teams, in success and adversity. So effectively players are ‘more or less’ the finished article bar the addition of in game experience and what football people call the last bits and pieces of ‘manly strength’.
And as football is ultimately a game of perceptions and opinions, players rise and fall at different times. But this is largely in response to a narrative that is constructed around them ‘after the fact’ rather than an objective fact (with one exception which I will return to later).
The description of players as late bloomers is in effect an expression of sentiment, of perception that has been motivated by a change of circumstances.
As in all things, context and opportunity are everything. A right move to the right club at the right time can see a player reappraised with fresh eyes. But that is very different from them being ‘a player transformed’ or a late bloomer – someone capable of doing things they were physically or mentally incapable of achieving previously.
All it took, in most instances, was the right eyes to see something in them and a sympathetic club and team set up to allow them to flourish. Luck, opportunity and the faith of others’ tends to win the day for all players not just for the so-called late developers.
There are two other situations worth touching on.
The first is that players can quite often hit an Indian Summer or a late career period purple patch that typically catapults them (usually briefly) into a whole new level before they regress back to the mean of their form. This regularly occurs for goalscorers, in particular, and Rickie Lambert, Bas Dost and Owen Coyle are all players who spring to mind for temporarily raising their profile through non-typical scoring exploits before returning to a more representative norm.
Good begets good
The other factor is that good players beget other good players – and vice versa. Human beings sadly do not exist in a vacuum when it comes to motivation and putting their best foot forward. Context is everything and players take their cues from teammates and their surroundings, adjusting their levels accordingly. The myth is that good players stand out in bad teams but the reality is that more often than not talent is strangled by surrounding mediocrity, making it harder for good players in bad teams to play with consistency and thereby register on the radar.
Rubbing shoulders with a better pool of talent at training, in matches and in the dressing room will more than likely raise an incomer’s standards.
This explains why lower league players, given a leg up, can step up to make the grade (especially initially) and also why underdogs can raise their game in one off games to match illustrious opponents. The underdogs raise their levels and drag the opponents’ game down to nearer their level just as the incomer looks to seize their chance with both hands.
This hive mind quirk of group dynamics also explains why veteran stars often sink like a stone when they step down to a lower grade of football and why hyped youngsters from big clubs fall out the game when, having been released, they are expected to make their way at a lower level to re-establish their careers. They are literally not on the same wavelength as their new colleagues.
“It is a world away receiving a perfect pass on a beautiful surface from Steven Davis, mixing with international players, than it is playing with journeymen who are scrapping for their livelihoods on bad winter pitches.”
I always remember the words of a wise old scout reviewing the prospects of a Rangers’ Under 20 star sent out on loan to League 2 in the depths of winter. The player, a cultured midfielder now long forgotten, just couldn’t get to grips with his new ‘basic’ surroundings and the scout said: “It is a world away receiving a perfect pass on a beautiful surface from Steven Davis, mixing with international players, than it is playing with journeymen who are scrapping for their livelihoods on bad winter pitches.”
Usually the culture shock is too much. And these youngsters, despite their ability, can’t adapt and fall away disheartened.
Some though, do reappear, having gone a different route or dusted themselves down after injury or disappointment. This players’ subset typically form the ranks of the late bloomer. And these types have often needed no more than a reappraisal by a pair of fresh eyes to get their chance at a better level.