Belfast Telegraph

Let's not rush the next Norman Whiteside

By Steven Beacom

Matthew William Sneddon was born this week. 7lb 8oz in case you were wondering. I know his proud parents. Dad Paul would love little Matthew to grow up and play for Liverpool and Northern Ireland. Mum Melanie would prefer Chelsea.

Anything's possible. Paul was a decent player in his day... could be in the genes.

And if by the age of six, young Matthew is showing potential with a ball at his feet, the Irish FA will be knocking on Paul and Melanie's door asking if their son can be placed in various programmes to make him even better.

That's right.. at six years of age!

I'm all for getting them early, but isn't that just a little too early?

There are many grand ideas in the Irish FA's new Strategic Plan, unveiled earlier this week at Stormont, and even though the line that hits you between the eyes, relating to Northern Ireland having a team capable of qualifying for a major tournament by 2018, sounds extremely optimistic, football's governing body should be praised for the document and trying to improve the sport at all levels here.

I can't help feeling a little uncomfortable though that we are going to be searching for kids as young as six who coaches feel in the future could turn our wee country into a footballing force.

In the Strategic Plan, entitled 'We're Not Brazil...We're Northern Ireland', it says: "We must identify talent earlier and from a wider pool. Our staff from our International Manager (Michael O'Neill) and Elite Performance Director (Jim Magilton), to our senior and elite coaches, grassroots development officers and primary school coaches, will all be equipped to start player identification from as young as six years old."

The IFA aren't alone in this strategy. Other nations adopt it too. It's the way of the sporting world, not just football.

That doesn't make it right.

I know kids grow up faster these days, but at six, seven, eight and nine, surely football should be fun... not a career option.

It's at those ages you fall in love with the game, playing every chance you get and anywhere you can.... (assuming you can locate somewhere that doesn't say 'no ball games allowed').

It's later on when you find out if kids have what it takes to become a professional.

A former Northern Ireland international told me the most important period of a young player's development comes between the ages of 13 to 16.

That's when kids can flourish and be taught properly by the likes of Jim Magilton about what it takes mentally and physically to make the grade.... not when they are at primary school and coming to terms with reading and writing.

By picking a boy out at the age of six and marking him down as 'the next big thing', because that's what he'll be labelled, it puts unnecessary pressure on the lad himself and his family.

Sure, you hear about and see on YouTube all these prodigious talents at, say, eight years of age who have big clubs fighting over them, but how many of this golden child brigade actually go on to make it?

Very few.

For every Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi, considered special talents when they were 11, there are thousands of kids who never fulfil their potential.

That's because they are not always the biggest, strongest boy in the playground, they lose interest, maybe enjoy a different sport more or simply don't improve to the levels required.

I remember a story from years ago when a gifted English kid called Sonny Pike was spotted, aged seven. He ended up at Ajax with people calling him the new George Best. He didn't live up to all the expectation, eventually playing non-league football and suffering a breakdown before getting out of the game.

It's tough being that 'next big thing' before you've even reached double figures.

Our greatest footballer George Best (pictured) was 15 when revered Manchester United scout Bob Bishop spotted him and told Matt Busby: "I think I've found a genius".

Norman Whiteside, another Northern Ireland and United great, was even younger. He was just 10 when he was picked out as a future star. Seven years later, the Shankill Road native became the youngest player ever to appear in the World Cup finals.

Mind you, big Norm was a man by the time he was four, could tackle like Graeme Souness by the time he was five and scored goals like Dixie Dean when he was eight! What a footballer.

Not every kid in Northern Ireland is like Norman Whiteside though.

The IFA coaches, in their admirable desire to make football stronger here, must recognise that when they see a boy, knee high to a grasshopper, dribbling round his little pals in a small sided game somewhere.

At six years of age, life should be fun. There'll be plenty of time for the serious stuff after that, like being the saviour of the Northern Ireland football team.

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