It has been a very good week for Arsenal prodigy Jack Wilshere. Following a season of ever-increasing hyperbole lavished upon his young shoulders by all and sundry he successfully slotted into two distinctly differing England midfields within the space of a few days and looked so comfortable there on both occasions he may as well have replaced his boots for slippers.
From uncharacteristic open praise from Capello, to acres of acclaim in the media, right through to begrudging respect from rival club supporters, it appears that everyone is unanimous in the belief that Wilshere is the blossoming talent to structure the national team around for years to come.
Irrespective of his temperament, chiselled down to a mature even plain after years of tutorage through the Arsenal ranks, and a clear abundance of confidence that borders just on the right side of arrogance, this is still quite some burden for any nineteen year old to carry.
Yet such expectation and responsibility is understandable considering the lad’s obvious immense potential and ability. Every movement he makes is purposeful whether linking
from deep, or venturing into dangerous areas of space that those twice his age do not have the intelligence or desire to seek, he brings fluidity and constant motion both to club and country.
His touch is so exquisite that even the short, simple passes are accomplished with a flourish – the posture and body-shape behind a routine side-foot is reminiscent of a teenage Platini – and finally it seems we can cease with the self-flagellating assumption that such wonderful technique is the sole preserve of foreign players or the occasional British fluke (who is usually exiled to the wings, both literally and figuratively, and expected merely to produce a glimpse of their magic once in a blue moon).
Additionally, as a wonderful and rare bonus from a youngster who is slight of build and whose game is encapsulated by flair and guile there is also a significant amount of grit in the oyster. Wilshere can be a dirty so-and-so when a game heats up and the studs start showing.
All of this bodes extremely well for England’s future with the important caveats that they should not become over-reliant on such a prodigious talent, nor should they become complacent in the need to develop other areas too. Wilshere can be the cornerstone of national hopes in several tournaments to come but it amounts to very little if the rest of the building is derived from straw.
Those concerns aside however it is refreshing, joyous even, to witness a British national side helmed by raw adventure and stylish probing and not, for the first time in living memory, entirely dependant on endeavour or scowling fortitude.
This is a great credit to English football but also, crucially, is an inevitable result of a mutation of tactics in recent times as most teams now employ a trio in midfield. This allows for the scope and vision of a Wilshere to prosper without being tethered to man-marking duties and ninety minutes of conflict. With protection alongside and behind him he has license to roam and exhibit his skills beyond the halfway line.
If only such was the case thirty years ago. During the latter half of the seventies and throughout the bleak, unimaginative eighties England possessed another supremely gifted midfield talent who, like Wilshire, graced a North London pitch, and regularly showcased a similar array of artful ingenuity. Yet sadly – criminally – rather than being entrusted with the hopes of a nation, and having a midfield constructed around him in order to fully utilize his world-class pedigree, in this player’s case he was underused and under-appreciated as an England player.
Glenn Hoddle was our Giresse, our Socrates, yet in a career that spanned two entire decades he only appeared a meagre fifty-seven times for his country.
Blessed with sublime balance and a range of passing so extraordinary that it meant every team-mate, regardless of proximity, was required to be alert when he was in possession Hoddle was a class apart from all of his English peers, yet time and again a succession of managers would overlook him in favour of inferior, more battle-hardened fare. For ten years our sole visionary output in the middle of the park was Ray Wilkins, an urbane player by English standards granted, but someone who considered anything other than a safe, sideways pass to be hippy lunacy.
Eventually Graham Taylor, an idiot of village proportions who was lamentably over-promoted into a national joke figure, took the reins, and though his squad was devoid of any creativity in the absence of a perennially crocked Gascoigne, and though Hoddle, now an experienced and worldly practitioner of his craft, was showing off his silky arts with swagger and aplomb at Monaco, decided to ignore the only genius at his disposal and instead regularly stuff his midfield with the basic bite of Batty and Palmer.
It was akin to taking cavemen to a debating society rather than Peter Ustinov.
Although there is little physical similarity between Wilshere and Hoddle in his pomp, their style of play and preferred position are identical, and yet the contrast between how both players have been viewed by their country – the former cherished and nurtured like a precious orchid, the latter with ignorant suspicion and scepticism – is striking and indicates that we may finally have reached an age of enlightenment in British football.
The faith shown in the enterprise and imagination of one so young is encouraging, exciting even.
It does however force us to look back with no small degree of shame, regret, and a wonder of what might have been if it had not taken us quite so long to reach such illumination.