Development in football and the rocky road of chance

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of the NFL Films series “America’s Game”.  Each episode documents a SuperBowl-winning team’s season and, without ever getting particularly deep, its beautifully scored soundtracks and talking heads format makes it a reliably excellent watch.

In one episode, chronicling the 1998 Denver Broncos, running-back Terrell Davis speaks about the roots of his career and how, as an undrafted player on a pre-season tour of Japan, a single tackle in an exhibition game changed the course of his entire career.

Tackling is not part of a running-back’s job description, but it was a question of being noticed in any capacity.

In 2015, Davis is in the NFL’s Hall of Fame, but the way he tells the story implies that, had he not covered that single kick-off in the way that he did - and had all the associated variables not aligned in that particular way - he may not have even made a living as a professional athlete.

What an extraordinarily fine margin.

In all of sports, including our own football, the accepted truism is that talent defines a career.  If someone glints sharply enough as a teenager, they will join the right academy and, if that ability grows as it is expected to then, eventually, a successful career follows.

That in itself is a tightrope.  Fans are often guilty of making assumptions about that pathway - ultimately because we have no experience of it - but it must be terribly precarious.  Talent isn’t like a limb which just grows with age, it has to be nurtured and developed in the right way and it’s effected by a constant swirl of outside factors.

But even if a player survives that process and even if his maturation is perfectly proportional to his physical growth, he doesn’t necessarily make it.  He can work hard, he can make the right sacrifices and he can develop the necessary habits, but that still only takes him to the front of his generation’s queue.

What happens next - as the Terrell Davis story shows - is probably more perilous.

Having reached the front of the line, the young player is really reliant on luck and chance - or, at the very least, on being in the right place at the right time to exhibit and take advantage of their growing talent.

Last season, Francis Coquelin was the beneficiary of Arsene Wenger’s failure to properly equip his midfield. With the cupboard bare, Wenger was forced to re-call Coquelin from his loan at Charlton Athletic and throw the young player straight into his line-up against Manchester City.  And not only did Arsenal win that game, but Coquelin played very well in spite of that limited preparation.

That’s all it took.

Coquelin’s talent allowed him to play well, of course, but it was circumstance which put him on the pitch in the first place and, ultimately, chance which has led to him becoming a consensus first-teamer at a Premier League club.  Maybe he would have had the same opportunity in the future? Maybe. But it’s still fair to conclude that his career was changed forever by factors which were initially beyond his control.  His parent team’s injury troubles at that moment in time have completely changed the perception of him as a footballer and allowed him to cross the invisible line between “prospect” and “player”.

It’s an enormous concept and one which is almost impossible to fully appreciate.

What would have happened had Arsenal been beaten by Manchester City?  What would have become of Coquelin if he had made an early, confidence-denting mistake in that game?

Similarly, does Harry Kane ever play for England if Andre Villas-Boas isn’t sacked by Tottenham Hotspur in late 2013?

Kane has shown that he has the ability to exist at that level, but without the pieces around him falling in precisely the way that they did, maybe his career would have been comprised solely of a long list of lower league loans?  Who knows.

Even beyond their early years, though, there are myriad factors which can interfere with a player’s trajectory.

If, for example, Rob Green hadn’t made such an appalling error in Rustenburg, would he have played for a different club after the World Cup?  With his reputation intact and his confidence galvanised by becoming England’s established first-choice goalkeeper, would he have been elevated to a different level?  Maybe YouTube would never have heard of Green and maybe, today, he would be halfway to a testimonial at Arsenal.

There are instances of situational immunity, but they tend to be very rare.  Lionel Messi, as one of the most talented players the game has ever seen, was presumably not reliant on circumstance to get where he is.  But, even in that situation, there must have been a moment or two of fortune which ultimately allowed him to soar into the game’s stratosphere.

A scout being in the right place at the right time, maybe, or a particular session at La Masia which emboldened his self-belief.

It’s a very deep rabbit hole, because all of life is subject to similar forces - an encounter on a street, a well-timed email - but localising chance to its effect on football and considering its impact is fascinating. Professional sport is such a competitive, bottom-line business, that there is really no such thing as certain development or an established route to success.

Injuries; opportunity; being at the right club at the right time; having the relevant set of attributes. There are so many different aspects to consider, that dwelling on this topic leads you to realise that, rather than being a narrow pathway, the road to the top of the game is actually a vertical cliff face which has to be scaled on the backs of good-luck sherpas.

How different everything could be if not for all of those Coquelin moments.