When it really matters, hard work won’t ever compensate for a lack of talent

When it really matters, hard work won’t ever compensate for a lack of talent

One of the most pernicious myths perpetrated upon the weak, the poor and the vulnerable is that work is its own reward and a passport to guaranteed success.

It is the result of a myth peddled by some very cynical people – the white collar bourgeoisie, the professional classes and their corporate and political masters. These are the very people that profit from the status quo while professing to believe that ‘we can all get to the top if only we try hard enough’.

And it also finds its insidious equivalent in the world of football youth development.

There are simply numerous endeavours, football amongst them, where hard work means nothing without the requisite talent, physical and mental qualities to back it up. That is, the unequivocal attributes that are required to succeed, even in a marginal way, as a player.

Work as hard as you like but there is no denying the immutable facts of talent, physique, mental strength, luck and opportunity. Without those building blocks set in stone as foundations, hard work will get you precisely nowhere.

There’s a popular motivational quote in football, you used to regularly see it referenced by managers: “Hard work succeeds when talent fails to work hard.”

Unfortunately, the people that like to parrot it reflexively only ever focus on the first part of the sentence (the hard work succeeds bit). And they cling to its inference, like a man overboard clinging to a life raft.

And it is true, if you are a product of the university degree system and you are measured by the very specific criteria of standardised exam answers or continuous assessment of coursework then hard work does become its own reward.

However, it is the reality of the second half of the quote that speaks most eloquently to the nature of reality in football and in life outside the middle class careers’ closed shop.

In football, when real talent does show up in full effect, then the hard work of the mediocre does not matter one iota. Hard work faced with genuine prowess, committed, and in full cry doesn’t stand a chance. That’s football.

And this dull fact is an unpalatable truth for people that do executive, academically ‘learned’, or white collar jobs. All you need to do your work is a good attitude, the right exam results, an opportunity and also (depressingly) the presentational impression of being ‘the right kind of person’ for the job. Work for most people, is a culture that promotes mediocrity. It celebrates its own kind and promotes the status quo.

Footballers, pop stars, designers, photographers, actors don’t ‘go to school’ in the same way others do. They are coached rather than taught and their education augments their way of seeing. It is a way of seeing that can’t be taught.

And this is a vital distinction between two utterly distinct worlds – the truly vocational sphere of ‘mad obsession’ and the everyday world of work. Because without that way of seeing (an ability for high level processing of information and stimuli in the moment, under pressure) young football hopefuls don’t ever become anything more than at best average recreation players. Whatever else they do, whatever other qualities they have as people, their chances stand or fall on the extent to which there is already something great to work with, something pre-existing.

The same rules apply to every other truly creative field and it explains why a great picture paints a thousand words, why the best songs create a visceral and emotional response beyond context and logic, and why two people with the same camera get markedly different results every time.

There is merit of course in 20,000 hours of practice, in honing technique, learning a wider appreciation of things, but great players, the truly great players, are not taught, they are coached. Their key strengths are augmented rather than created by education.

Of course, despite some claims to the contrary, no-one can accurately predict who’ll definitely become a pro player aged five. But you can point to the attributes that are prerequisites for a pre-school child to become a player – and effectively rule out large swathes of the population in the process as ‘need not apply’.

Without high level physical coordination, a strong, athletic physique, mental and physical bravery, a self-contained ‘ball-sense’ and evident resilience, the dream of every football mad young kid is simply a non-starter. There is no grey area. Luck, opportunity, subjective judgements all create careers but without that extremely rare raw material to work with you might as well take up tiddlywinks.

If you have an appreciation of the game, a true appreciation of the game, then quality stands out at every age and at every level relative to the mean. But I know from the many videos of young hopefuls I’ve seen and been sent, that most people, most fans, most parents have no idea, what really matters, about what is required to succeed. Nor indeed do they have any inkling of the level of talent that either top kids or pro players possess – even at the lowest levels.

And why would they? Football is a world that plays out its narrative in plain sight while revealing almost nothing of its internal logic.

Football is a law unto itself, to all intents and purposes. The normal rules of the road, of polite society, do not apply. In that one respect it is a true meritocracy, albeit a brutal one.

I’ll give you a real-life example which might illustrate what I am saying rather well.

I have a dear, dear friend who is by any standards a top academic. He is a professor whose administration of a postgraduate program has earned his institution around £2m in fees in the last three years. He is highly published and an authority in his field of study. His opinions are widely sought by the international media.

In another life though my pal was a Premiership academy scholar at two top clubs. He wasn’t the best player in his year group by any stretch. He never played for his country at youth level but he was definitely one of ‘the 0.5 per cent club’ – the players that remain in the pro game in their teens and represent the elite of the elite in their age group.

His career didn’t work out, he says, because he lost the love of playing, of constant judgements, of bullying coaches, and because he did not enjoy the grind, the relentless treadmill of training and playing. But he does have the good grace to confirm that those that do make it are ‘a class apart’ in every way that really matters.

And he contrasts that with the lazy academic world of privilege, entitlement and people promoted arbitrarily and beyond their ability. On a bad day ‘John’ longs for the hard but fair meritocracy of football.

This is an aside, however. My anecdote involves a holiday game of football.

So, imagine the scene, if you will? My pal in a car park with a few white collar professional guys and a football.

All of them have the hubris to believe they could all have been players had they dedicated themselves to football. In fact, they all believe the world is their oyster that they can do anything with the magic ingredient of simply ‘applying themselves’. And this is no more the case than with a stand-offish brain surgeon whose deficit in manners and good grace are the defining features of his personality.

Pretty soon the ball gets thrown to ‘John’ and he is egged on to join in the kick about. Now bear in mind, ‘John’ hasn’t kicked a ball since his late teens when he gave up football to study. Swimming keeps him fit, but that’s it.

The brain surgeon is a serial marathon runner, iron man competitor and ‘as the smartest guy in the room’ someone who thinks that winning at football is just another breezy challenge to be swept aside in a life of ‘easy’ wins.

Now ‘John’ is a lovely guy, a lover not a fighter. But one thing he can’t abide is bullies. And this over-educated goon is a bully, braying about his prowess, steaming into tackles on the rutted tarmac – all effort, no control.

Inevitably, my pal and this ersatz self-made Renaissance Man end up in a tussle. After sustained goading, bold boasts and aspersions being cast about John’s manhood, this erupts into seething contempt as the gauntlet is thrown down.

And then, like a race memory, the long latent footballer in ‘John’ clicks in and takes over.

For the next five minutes this ex-journeyman youth footballer becomes a one man advertisement for the gulf between true, unmediated ability and the vanity of human wishes.

The next few minutes are a blur of fast feet, drag-backs, tricks and feints. A Cruyff turn and nutmeg leaves Dr Brains clawing at thin air as his crude attempted hack leaves him flailing on the tarmac. The next thing he knows is he is surrounded by his baying, laughing pals, kicking his legs in the air like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, (the travelling salesman who woke up one morning to find himself transformed into a beetle).

And then an amazing thing happens. The humiliated surgeon, stripped of his comfort zone, publicly humiliated, bursts into tears, unable to process the first failure of his adult life.

‘John’ curtly helps him up to his feet and explains: “I don’t like bullies and you had to be taught a lesson.”

The lesson is that there is no book or exam process that can teach you to be a footballer, even an averagely good one, by professional standards. It is a state of mind and a way of being.

By everyday standards, staying the course to become a mature professional footballer, never mind a world great, is an incredible achievement. It takes guts, guile and extreme talent even to stay the course to become the shittest player in a pro-youth side or an itinerant pro cast adrift in a football backwater.

If you don’t believe me then let’s look at life in the football factories a little more closely.

This is how the numbers stack up as per Michael Calvin’s superb new book on youth development ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ The Players. The Journey. The Dream.

“Less than one half of one per cent of boys who enter the [English] academy structure at the age of nine will make a first-team appearance. More than three quarters are jettisoned between the ages of 13 and 16.

The odds are no less intimidating the further a boy progresses. Almost 98 per cent of boys given a scholarship at 16 are no longer in the top five tiers of the domestic game at the age of 18. A recent study revealed that only 8 out of 400 players given a professional Premier League contract at 18 remained at the highest level by the time of their twenty-second-birthday. Since only 180 of the 1.5m boys who play organised youth football at any one time become Premier League pros, the success rate is 0.012 per cent.”

I could only hazard a guess at how those numbers might work out in relation to household name players, greats of the game, even ‘mere’ full internationals.

Here’s the reality: five out of every six of the scholars starting with Premier League academy contracts next season will not be playing football for a living in five years. “If it was a university of football, with our success rates we would have been closed down by now because it’s just not good enough,” says Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the PFA.

And yet, for all its myriad faults the true cream in football definitely does rise to the top. Can we really hand on heart say that about those in mainstream careers, even in other forms of public life?

This dull fact of supply, demand and opportunity cost explains why the top, top players command such out of this world earnings in the gilded cage world of the Premier League, La Liga and the other top leagues in Europe. The probabilities require a lottery win-style pay out to justify the cost of the ticket.

Of course, every single one of them worked extremely hard for everything they got from their careers. However, crucially they also all possessed reserves of natural talent and a level of physical and mental bravery beyond the comprehension of most ordinary people.

As a result, I look at the achievements of Messi and Ronaldo, Maradona and Cruyff, Zidane, Pele and the greats of previous generations as a source of wonder.

In this mad, mad world, winning a Champions League medal, scoring a winning goal in a World Cup Final is probably harder to achieve (like for like) than a comparable career goal such as winning a Nobel Prize, publishing a best seller or become a Yale, Harvard or Oxbridge Prof.

The latter achievements are the products of a lifetime’s work. The football achievements are the distillation of a lifetime’s work processed over seconds in a roughly 25 year ‘career life’. It really is the stuff of small, small margins, tiny percentages. It is ignominy or glory sometimes separated by the width of a goalpost. It is demeaning in the extreme to suggest that hard work alone can be enough to bridge the gap between genuine quality and wrong-headed ambition.