What makes for a prodigy is a difficult question. In some spheres it means extraordinary achievement at an inordinately early age. George Steiner had this definition in mind when he claimed that there are only three fields of human endeavor in which genuine prodigies happen: music, mathematics, and chess. The twelve-year-old Mozart wasn’t an exceptional composer for a twelve-year-old; he was just an exceptional composer. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at age fifteen. Not all such prodigies go on to become as great as they are expected to become; but they all accomplish a great deal, by any measure, in their art or discipline. As Frank D. Gilroy once noted, a person who's going to be famous usually drops a few clues by the time they're twenty-one.
In football we call players prodigies when they show extraordinary promise early on. It is an industry that has always snuffled hungrily after new things: new faces, new stories – and above all intact and unruined youth. Flick through the back-pages of any newspaper- national and regional- these last few days and it would be hard to avoid the name Ravel Morrison. He is the latest in a long line of callow youngsters who dominate players their own age, but who we can’t be certain will be able to take the steps necessary to achieve as brilliantly when they’re playing against the best in their profession. Their promotion has a rush of event-glamour about it. Partly this is the simple pleasure of inhaling that vital scent, gorging vicariously on great dripping vampire handfuls of downy-cheeked pep and vim, thinks Barney Ronay. But mainly it is the faint thrill – the distant, outside chance – of proximity to greatness. Being there means reading the first page of history.
There is an unforgiving Venn diagram here. Writing in the Guardian, Ronay argues that all great players are sensational when they're young; but only the tiniest fraction of sensational young players go on to become great. But still they just keep coming, doomed infantry battalions of junior jinkers, trainee poachers, apprentice pivots, bringing with them the same old jangling excitement, the sense that maybe this time, maybe this might be The One. Broadly speaking, he notes, there are two different kinds of prodigy: those who mature physically ahead of schedule and dominate their peers with brawn and pace, and those who develop very high levels of skill before they could reasonably be expected to.
By far the more common is the muscle-prodigy, a player who is a prodigy simply because he seems averagely, or even above-averagely, good at a very young age. James Milner was this kind of prodigy, performing at the age of 16 with all the grizzled poise of a 26-year-old when others of his age are moping and loafing, experimenting disastrously with basic heavy-metal guitar, and loitering quite near groups of girls hoping to appear fascinatingly aloof rather than pustulous and gaunt. Aged 26 Milner will still be performing with all the grizzled poise of a 26-year-old. This is the static prodigy phenomenon, where early gains ossify into a state of frowning and manfully borne stasis, a condition Ronay believes is known as 'Huddlestone's Mooch' in sports science circles.
Rarer, and naturally more exciting, is the skill-prodigy, the ferrety junior ballerina who comes snorting out of his elite rabbit hole ready-made; the skill-merchant for whom an entire wildly optimistic career map is instantly projected in prancing fast-forward. These are our most fragile prodigies. The skills won’t do them much good if they don’t develop the physical resilience to deal with angry strong men who wish to knock them about. Often they will simply disappear, or congeal, or stick around, gravely burdened in their spangled boots and faded No23 shirt.
Ultimately, the few who make it to adult greatness often take a slightly crooked path. Wayne Rooney was a hybrid prodigy – part muscle, part skill – who came barrelling out of obscurity clenched with adolescent resolve. The early Rooney was often portrayed as somehow semi-feral, a man-boy, a dustbin footballer, discovered complete in a carpark shopping trolley. In contrast mid-period Rooney has prevailed above all by a triumph of will and wit, of unblinking resolve rather than untameable inspiration. Perhaps, muses Ronay, the hysteria that greeted his atypically spectacular goal in the Manchester derby in February 2011 had at its core a release of pent-up prodigy anxiety, a reclutching to the maternal bosom, slot-mouthed with buried disappointment, of our puppyish infant-genius. Ryan Giggs also made it and stands now as the prodigy complete, still lithe and slippery in old age. Since he arrived in Manchester United's first team as a 17-year-old in 1991, he has regularly done things with a football that could qualify for an Arts Council grant. Among the concrete house builders of the British game he stood out like Michelangelo, observes Jim White. But it has been a circular process. Old Giggs has justified the lull of mid‑Giggs, and formed a boomeranging reinforcement of early Giggs. Perhaps the same process will occur with late Rooney.
"He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind," remarked Alex Ferguson on seeing Giggs for the first time. Yet in a country where the usual form is for footballers to look like troglodytes and run around like beheaded poultry, the elegant, economical Giggs was still assumed by many to be too flash, too handsome, not serious, recalls White. Then again, being British and gifted in the feet, you are expected to go off the rails up top. There's Bestie with his drink and women; Gazza with his ice-cream and hair extensions; and most deviant of all, the teetotal, God-bothering Glenn Hoddle. Which brings us back to Ravel Morrison, the 'troubled genius' described by Ferguson as "one of the best he's ever had at that age."
Almost on a weekly basis the former United boss would be confronted with news that the midfielder had stepped out of line in training. Worse yet, reports of his unruly behaviour away from United's Carrington training complex caused Ferguson far greater concern. He was the Lost Boy of the United academy, showing up late and exasperating staff with his inability to grasp the opportunity at his feet. Morrison's numerous run-ins with the law nearly ended up in a prison term in 2011 when he pleaded guilty to two counts of witness intimidation. Yet Ferguson allowed Morrison numerous second chances; second chances that were not permitted for far more illustrious names. Why? "There was a feeling at United that Morrison could go on to be one of the club's greatest ever players," one United source told the Mail's Sami Mokbel. "Ferguson knew what he had and he didn't want to let it go."
United's players knew it, too. Many of them would watch in awe at a prospect who had the potential to become a "monster", if he got his head right. His stunning solo goal against Tottenham on Sunday simply underlined the ability of a player that Ferguson believes can still go on to to be one of the world's greatest. Rio Ferdinand tweeted: 'Great to see Ravel Morrison playing well and focused consistently now. That goal wouldn't make his top three goals showreel by the way.' And it's true, notes Mokbel. It wouldn't.
Morrison would routinely make senior internationals look ordinary in training at United. However, despite his immense talent, he would only go on to make three League Cup appearances for the Old Trafford club. His connections with Manchester's murky underworld ultimately meant Morrison had to leave the city if he wanted to make a go of his career. Having grown up on the tough streets of Wythenshawe, south Manchester, he was involved in his fair share of trouble. Reluctantly, Ferguson sanctioned Morrison's sale to West Ham in January 2012, for an initial fee of £650,000, and a clear switch in mindset since has seen him go from the brink of prison to a potential England call-up.
Sir Alex did not want to sell, though he knew it was necessary for Morrison to have a fighting chance of salvaging his career. He told Hammers manager Sam Allardyce: "I hope you can sort him out, because if you can he’ll be a genius." In truth, United sent West Ham a giant package of trouble, wasted talent and arrogance: a dysfunctional young footballer, born to be the kind of player the English game so wantonly lacks, but unlikely to overcome a "wrong beginning", as Larkin might have put it. Ferguson, however, was not dispatching him to oblivion. Allardyce says his friend in the north told him: "A brilliant footballer. Brilliant ability. Top-class ability. Needs to get away from Manchester and start a new life."
Now 20, and in the England Under-21 squad, Morrison initially showed the same old traits; arriving late for training combined with a laissez-faire attitude during sessions. A reluctance to integrate with the rest of the squad is also understood to have rankled. "The reason he is succeeding now is because he has got rid of all those hangers-on," explained a source. He showed signs of improvement during his loan spell at Birmingham City last season, where he played 30 games for the Midlands club. Allardyce has seen the improvement with his own eyes since pre-season: a new Ravel, who is finally ready to show England what he has got. Indeed, his decision to have 'Ravel' and not 'Morrison' on the back of his West Ham shirt is a symbol of his attempts to leave his past behind him. Allardyce says: "He [Ferguson] let Ravel go for Ravel’s benefit, because he couldn’t see it happening at Man United. It was: 'Get him down there and see if you can get the best out of him, because you’ll have a great player on your hands.'"
No longer was Morrison happy to be an outsider. He made a noticeable effort to involve himself with his team-mates and captain Kevin Nolan, in particular, is helping to ensure he continues on the straight and narrow. "The Kevin Nolans and Mark Nobles probably do it better than me," the manager said. "He’s in the dressing room day to day with them and they’re guiding him along and talking to him, and saying – you’ve only just started. There’s a lot of praise going to come his way, and deservedly, particularly after that goal. We’ve been seeing it – not quite as good as that goal – all season. We’ve seen his finishing quality in pre-season. That’s why it wasn’t a great difficulty for me to take someone out with experience and put him in, because everyone was saying: 'He’s looking like he’s ready, gaffer'. He is that. As we say in the football fraternity, the penny’s dropped. It’s dropped in his lifestyle and his attitude to everybody, his timekeeping and so on. All of a sudden there’s the belief that he doesn’t want to do anything but break into our first team.
"I think a 12-month loan spell at Birmingham gives time to reflect on what exactly it takes to be a player on a week in, week out basis. It probably taught him a lot. ‘Who’s this lad? Can he stand the physical side?’ Rav’s learnt from that experience and taken it into pre-season, where he’s listened to what we’ve had to say, and what he has to do in our team shape. Basically we’re talking about players getting the ball to him in space as much as we possibly can. We saw it in pre-season against some good opposition like Sporting Lisbon and Braga. We saw it in the Capital One Cup. There was talk at the start: shall we take him out of the pressure pot position and start him in the wide position, because there’s less pressure out there? We ended up putting Mo Diamé out there and Rav in the middle. That’s what we felt his performances deserved."
On his audacious run through the Spurs defence, Morrison displayed balance, poise, confidence, speed and the ease of movement you see in all naturally gifted players, drools the Telegraph's Paul Hayward. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, who was in the stands, is bound to have recognised a quality his squad is constantly accused of lacking. A curse of the English game is that talent so often arrives with a side order of mayhem. In Morrison’s recent discovery of stability there is no guarantee that praise and exposure will work in his favour. The boy who claims never to have of heard of Gazza may pass through his whole career one indiscretion away from implosion.
But for now, West Ham should enjoy the emergence of a man who has the minerals to become one of the Premier League's greatest. Because sink or swim, prodigies seem to speak to something vital, a football-centred sense of enduing national fecundity, of great, untapped footballer-pockets still walled beneath the granite slopes, concludes Ronay. Brazil has always done this better than most, celebrating its own twig-thin ball-jugglers with an almost sacrificial zeal. In England the initial trumpeting around Theo Walcott, the Berkshire boy, seemed to portray him as a kind of wood sprite, a rural foundling, glossy-coated and wet-nosed, ready to hare out of the tree line. But really, alluring as they are, the big thing with prodigies is probably just to stop talking about them. Prodigy-talk is a vice that feeds greater vices, a substitute for rigour and systemic excellence, pinning hopes instead on the fluke of random greatness. This is just another reason to wish 'Ravel' well as he faces the usual challenge of trying to wring every drop from his considerable talent – and to remember that, in every sense, we are extremely lucky to have him.
"There is a sacred horror about everything grand," wrote Victor Hugo. "It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling. Every summit seems an exaggeration. Climbing wearies. The steepnesses take away one's breath; we slip on the slopes, we are hurt by the sharp points which are its beauty; the foaming torrents betray the precipices, clouds hide the mountain tops; mounting is full of terror, as well as a fall. Hence, there is more dismay than admiration. People have a strange feeling of aversion to anything grand. They see abysses, they do not see sublimity; they see the monster, they do not see the prodigy."
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