Alex Marshall for Reggae Boyz?
For much of the last two weeks, there has been a raging discussion on sports shows in Jamaica as to whether the talented St George's College striker, Alex Marshall, should now be included in the senior Reggae Boyz squad.
The youngster is generally regarded as the most talented schoolboy playing this season. I am as impressed as anyone. He has great vision, passes well, has a good shot, and has the ability to get by defenders with ease. Plus, because he is predominantly left-footed, he does have that little aura that the great 'one left' players like Messi, Maradona and Arjen Robben have. Despite his obvious class, I have tried to urge my fellow sports journalists and the public at large that we have to be careful how we assess a footballer who is playing with his age group, and from that deduce that he is ready for senior football.
The gap between schoolboy football in Jamaica and senior international football is a wide chasm that some of us don't seem to appreciate. Taking on teenage boys, many of whom are still learning the game, is a completely different business from taking on seasoned, hard-nosed professionals.
What's interesting is that those calling for Marshall's inclusion in the Reggae Boyz squad have not called for any schoolboy defender to be involved in the national senior set-up. They see no defender in schoolboy football who they feel is of that special stamp to be seen as national senior material. In other words, even without realising it, they are, in effect, saying that Marshall is mesmerising opponents who are, at this point, not good enough to be international senior material. How then do you really know if he is ready for senior football?
Marshall is registered with Cavalier in the Red Stripe Premier League. The schoolboy season is now over for him, and he can use the time between now and March, when we face Costa Rica in the next World Cup qualifier, to prove if he is ready for 'big man ball' by playing in the local Premier League. If he impresses there and shows that he is among the top, say, half-dozen best strikers available for Jamaica, then by all means, include him in the squad.
But if he plays Premier League and doesn't stand out, he must not be picked merely because he is young. The minute I make that point, some argue that we must invest in young schoolboy footballers by picking them in the senior squad. I disagree. Nobody should be picked on a national senior team because he is young. He must be picked because he is good enough, and at this stage it's impossible to tell if any schoolboy is ready for international senior football merely by playing in the Manning Cup.
People have used Ricardo 'Bibi' Gardner as some kind of modern-day blueprint that Marshall could follow, but Bibi was already playing Premier League football when he was drafted in the senior squad. Bibi has told me himself that he was playing for the Harbour View senior team from he was 15 and that by the time Simoes saw him at 17 in the Under-20 programme, he was a regular starter in the Harbour View senior squad.
ALLOW HIM TO GROW
The example of Pele as a 17-year-old prodigy is also often cited, but at that age, Pele was already a professional at Santos. There isn't any example I can think of in world football in recent times, where a youngster makes his national senior team based on his exploits purely against schoolboys.
We should allow Alex Marshall to hone his skills, even for a few months, against the best defenders in Jamaica before we fast-track him into the senior programme.
For Marshall to come into the squad, it means somebody who was there would have to be left out. Do we really feel that he is better than Mattocks or Giles Barnes, or Donaldson, or Simon Dawkins? Do we really think he is better than a Dino Williams, who is struggling to make the squad? Do we have any idea how those players would look if you put them in a Manning Cup uniform now? Would they not impress far more than Marshall is now?
I think, yet again, too many of us are making an emotional, as opposed to a reasoned, call.
Orville Higgins is a sports journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.