Tottenham’s difficulty with Marcus Edwards is a reminder of talent’s fragile nature

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 6, 2018

The mood between Tottenham and Marcus Edwards seems to have been sour for some time. The Guardian reports this week that the teenager is actively pursuing a departure from the club and given the events of the past twelve months that appears a likely course. Much of the noise around Edwards is exactly that – conjecture. Rumours of an inferior attitude are persistent enough to be believable and, unfortunately, what might have been a beneficial loan move to Norwich was terminated early for – among other reasons – poor time-keeping.

Two years ago, Edwards was one of English football brightest lights. Today, he is nothing at all. A name still and one accompanied by a fancy reel of highlights, but still a theory without much basis.

It’s proven to be a reminder of just how delicate embryonic careers are. In this case, it also testifies to the sensitivity of a young player. Having technical ability and athleticism is a start, but only that. To survive the journey from prospect to professional, a teenager must have the emotional tools to resist the temptations which line that path. He must be able to hear praise without allowing it to create a false sense of security and, more importantly, he must understand the need for perpetual improvement. Being good in one age-group category isn’t necessarily enough to float effortlessly through the next.

In this kind of situation, it’s tempting to ascribe blame to a support network. Edwards, we’re told, is bursting with entitlement and shows a chronic lack of maturity. When a teenager doesn’t understand why he’s hurting himself or the magnitude of the opportunity he’s allowing to let slip, the onus is on the nearest, most trusted adults in his life to intervene. Evidently that hasn’t happened. Or at least not in a way which has left any lasting impression.

Over time, maybe a decade from now, that story will be told. When Marcus Edwards looks back on his career, whatever it turns out to be, he’ll have the hindsight to frankly assess these past few years. Until then, it’s all hearsay; events in football are rarely one-sided and it’s not really fair to comment.

In the abstract though, one wonders how difficult it must be to wear that wunderkind mantle. Edwards has been spoken about for such a long time, often by people with little knowledge of him, and remaining impervious to such hype must have been a mighty challenge. It’s not illogical, for instance, to believe that it is that same reputation which has stunted his growth. For as long as he’s been kicking a ball, Edwards has probably been praised to the heavens – the star of every childhood team he played in, then the decorative ornament of Tottenham’s academy and, most recently, anointed as Lionel Messi’s successor by Pochettino himself. It would take an extremely balanced personality to survive that kind of adulation. After all, it’s easy enough for adults to be seduced by a false sense of who they are, let alone for an adolescent who has been able to Google his own name from the age of 15.

When that happens – when a young player grows accustomed to uniform and often reckless praise – it must be extremely difficult to make corrections within his game. To tell him, for instance, that the tricks and traits which have been dilating pupils for years must be modified. Or that a playing personality which has allowed him to rise so far has to be broken down, rebuilt and re-thought.

Sir Alex Ferguson described this in his autobiography. He remembered a young Cristiano Ronaldo, all blonde highlights and tricks, remaining immune to the Carrington coaching staff’s attempts to economise his game. Ronaldo had no obvious attitude issues, but even he struggled to abandon the style which had made him stand out for as long as he could remember.

Edwards’ difficulties are different – and also more prohibitive. He is marvellously gifted with the ball at his feet, truly enthralling, but he remains someone with apparently little time for football’s fine print. He plays as if the game ends when he loses the ball, showing almost no interest in retrieving it and moving as if the other ten players on his side are there to compensate for his over-indulgence. At 15, that didn’t matter. He was too good. At 16 and 17, probably the same. But now, when the ability to snap a defender’s ankles isn’t all that decides a game, it’s a problem.

Do we blame him for that? Maybe. At Tottenham, he has some of the finest facilities in European football available to him and, if he was in any doubt as to the right way forward, there are plenty of outstanding role models within touching distance. He also has the luxury of playing for a club who don’t dismiss their academy prospects out of hand. Were he a West Ham or Chelsea player, it would be different. Watching the first-team being aimlessly re-stocked from the outside would be very dispiriting and that does likely sap at a player’s motivation. But at Spurs that’s not the case. Harry Kane is a shining example of how far professionalism can take someone, so too is Harry Winks.

But then, maybe that’s to underestimate just how rare the gene is which allows a player to succeed. As trite as the tales of childhood sacrifice and dedication are in footballers’ autobiographies, they’re still rare within the wider context. They don’t drink, smoke, take drugs or will the hours away aimlessly at an age when almost all of their peers are doing exactly that. They also seem to make all the right decisions at precisely the right time, or to back up away from trouble on uncommon instint. Conversely, most of us would concede to a lack of focus well into our twenties, often beyond, and would also admit that we only began taking ourselves seriously when we entered our thirties. That’s when real life began, that’s when you started to eat vegetables, read before bed, and set calendar reminders. But for an athlete, that’s when life ends. The reach the crossroads which determine their sporting life at a time when they don’t necessarily know the difference between left and right

Maybe all that Marcus Edwards is guilty of is not being old before his time. Forgivable, of course, but that is still wher the line betweeen good and special occurs. Whatever the case, we remain consistently guilty of underestimating the external challenges faced in forging a top-flight career. In this instance specifically, also of paying too much attention to superficial details of only partial worth. Of looking at two dimensions rather than the full three.

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