OVER the past two weeks, I’ve spoken to two prolific strikers. The first was Adam Le Fondre at Reading. The second was Nahki Wells, Huddersfield’s new record signing.
Le Fondre, who has now scored two hat-tricks in ten days, is the Royals’ top scorer, as he was last year in the Premier League.
Bermudian Wells, meanwhile, has hit two goals in his first three games for the Terriers, adding to the 15 he’d already scored for Bradford in League One.
Both, then, are highly proficient at their jobs. Yet what our conversations illustrated was what a wildly differing role confidence plays in the effectiveness of a footballer.
Le Fondre just has it. He doesn’t need to be encouraged or cajoled. His attitude is simple. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in League Two or in the Premiership,” he said, without a trace of doubt or deprecation. “If you show me a goal, I will hit it.”
Wells, on the other hand, said the most vital factor in his flourishing at Bradford was been “made to feel important” by manager Phil Parkinson. “Having someone put faith in me, someone who believed in me, that was key,” he said.
Confidence is football’s great intangible, the one secret ingredient for which managers yearn. With it, you can win almost anything. Without it, you are doomed.
But that doesn’t mean everybody would prefer a Le Fondre to a Wells. In fact, the 27-year-old’s self-belief could be a telling factor in his otherwise baffling exclusion from the first team under Brian McDermott and now Nigel Adkins.
Some managers love a cocksure player – just look at Paolo Di Canio and Harry Redknapp at West Ham. To Di Canio, the pecking order was simple: God, Jesus, then Paolo. He was the most talented footballer on earth, his brilliance infallible. Countless managers failed to harness him. Redknapp realised it was foolish to even try. They fought, they argued, but in the end, Harry let the beast loose and Paolo did the business.
Of course, Le Fondre is no mad maverick like Di Canio. But then Adkins is no Redknapp. The former Southampton boss is all about the collective, his players drilled, their roles and desires subjugated entirely for the good of the team.
It works, too, but a man like Le Fondre, certain of his ability and confident he will score regardless of Adkins’ input, does not sit easily in it. Tell him to track back and he can point to the stats sheet. “Look,” he may well say, “I’ve scored 159 goals by standing in their box”.
Wells, on the other hand, is desperate to learn, eager to improve. To Adkins, he is the perfect player.
To somebody else, less inclined to offer encouragement, more willing to let his players off the leash, a team full of Le Fondres is gold dust. Sam Allardyce, for one, is a master at letting good players get on with being good players. Of course, the best managers deal with both. Alex Ferguson was more than happy to let Eric Cantona strut around like he owned Old Trafford.
Yet he was also shrewd enough to give out-of-nick players time to turn things around, belligerently defending them from criticism and simultaneously imbuing them with belief. David de Gea and Michael Carrick are two perfect examples.
Ferguson, as ever, is the benchmark. But what Wells and Le Fondre illustrate is just what a pig of a job management is.
Sitting at home playing Football Manager, it’s easy to crunch the numbers, to search a database of players, to take Macclesfield to the Champions League and fool yourself into thinking: “I could do this”.
But what no simulator can replicate is the myriad mindsets of 20-odd young men. I wouldn’t swap places with any of them.