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Allardyce Column: Caution is needed to safeguard teen stars

Sam Allardyce

Seeing Jude Belllingham and Joe Gelhardt scoring goals in the Championship – it’s like going back to the past.

One 16, one 17. Fabulous. Young players today take an age to break into the first team. In my day, you were considered a failure if you weren’t playing by 18.

There are various reasons for that, but fundamentally we were just more robust. As children, our lives were about walking everywhere, running and cycling to school.

We played out until it was dark. In the summer holidays, you only came home when you were hungry.

At school, you played every sport available, which is no longer possible. For instance, I would do gymnastics, trampolining, pommel horse. I’d play cricket and athletics – the 100, 220 and 440 relay. I’d do swimming. And it wasn’t beyond me to play two games on a Saturday and another one on Sunday.

It gave me a rounding as an athlete, not just as a footballer. It meant that I turned up at Bolton Wanderers naturally fit and ready to fight for a place at 15.

Today’s players aren’t the same. They don’t play out. They only play organised sports. They get driven here, there and everywhere. And they don’t engage in as many different sports as I did, or play them for so long. That’s why we developed quicker.

As a manager, it’s a real privilege to have a player of that age and be able to give him some first-team experience.

I did it with Jermaine Pennant at Notts County, who was only 15 at the time. We knew that he wasn’t going to sign a contract – even though we’d looked after him from the age of nine – so playing him was a way to increase his value. But he was also good enough, without a doubt.

Managing someone that age is a completely different kettle of fish. And how he is managed in those teenage years could very much define how his career pans out.

You’re dealing with someone who is still growing. His muscles aren’t fully developed. Nor is his brain.

Initially, a kid of that age plays without fear. He doesn’t think about what he’s done. Then all of a sudden he realises he’s playing in the first team in the Championship. That can cause a dip in performance.

Even if it doesn’t, you have to keep an eye out for fatigue, which will inevitably kick in at some stage. Play him through that, and you’re putting him in danger of a serious injury.

So you take him out, give him a rest. Then everybody says you aren’t doing your job properly because he’s just had a brilliant game. You explain it to the player, and he probably won’t accept it if he thinks he’s playing well.

But most clubs now have sports science, psychologists and other professionals all providing a manager with hard data on what a player needs. Listen to them – not the player, not the media and not the people in the stands.

The whole game is so short-term now, it’s beyond belief. Everything is tomorrow, next week, next month and nothing beyond that matters. That’s the world we’re in.

But the longevity of a player’s career is your responsibility. If you shirk that and continue to play him, well just read Michael Owen’s book.

I was with Michael on talkSPORT the other day and he’ll tell you that his first hamstring injury at 19 was devastating to his career. He never felt the same player going into his twenties and it ultimately shortened his career.

That’s why you’ve got to forget the pressure, resist the temptation and do what’s best for the player and the club.

You want to develop a player who can play for ten years, and look after an asset that, one day, will hopefully entice a Premier League club to bid £40 or £50m.

Will Birmingham’s Bellingham and Wigan’s Gelhardt fall into that bracket? It’s impossible to know. For now, let’s just celebrate the emergence of two exciting English players who are proving that you don’t need to look abroad for the best young talent.

This article was brought to you by The Football League Paper. On-sale every Sunday, the newspaper provides extensive coverage for all 72 Football League clubs with news, features and gossip plus comprehensive match reports.
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