Orville Higgins | Don’t make premature stars of schoolboy ballers
Last week, my Gleaner column was titled 'Watch the hype'. In a nutshell, I was warning us as Jamaican sports lovers to be careful how we advocate for the pushing of schoolboys into the national senior football programme. I must have struck a chord.
For the better part of this week on my radio show, virtually every other call was on this subject. Most people felt there was nothing wrong in fast-tracking a talented schoolboy directly into the senior national squad. Most who felt that way believed the Reggae Boyz 'nah gwaan wid nutten' anyway, and then the inevitable question came. What did we have to lose by putting some schoolboys in the squad?
Coach Theodore Whitmore must have been listening to all this discussion, and was either swayed by it or wants to pander to the public. How else do we explain Whitmore's statement that he plans to call up nine or 10 schoolboys to his camps before the friendly international games against the USA and Honduras! I thought I was hearing wrong until I heard it repeated.
Why on earth are we contemplating calling up 10 schoolboys to a national senior squad? For what? This is surely overkill, or maybe 'Tappa' is ensuring that he gets Jamaicans talking.
One thing I have heard is that one reason some of them haven't yet been called up is because Whitmore will first have to find out what their school arrangements are like. We heard, for example, that they were trying to find a school in Kingston for the most-talked-about schoolboy footballer this year, Jourdaine Fletcher. I understand what the national coach is concerned about. He doesn't want to cause Fletcher to miss out on valuable school time by having him in the national camps in Kingston.
NOT WHITMORE'S CONCERN
What I will say now may not be popular with some, but I'm not sure that a youngster's schooling should be something that Whitmore should be overly concerned about. I can understand a coach for an age-group team, say, Under-17 and Under-20, being worried about a boy's academics. I can understand why the powers that be would want to put in mechanisms to deal with academics for players in youth football.
What I can't see is why football authorities would want to call players to a senior national squad and then have issues with his education. It's just simply not the way it's done.
I can't see, for instance, the West Indies selectors calling an 18-year-old pacer to a senior West Indies camp and concerning themselves with the youngster's books. That is simply not their concern. Their job is simply to pick who they think are the best players available to them. They must simply inform the youngster that he is part of their plans. If the youngster can't take up the offer because of academic reasons, that's a choice he and his family must make.
I can't agree with those people who feel that calling up all these youngsters is a good thing because it builds their confidence and helps them to remain focused. I'm sorry, but I don't think that is what a national senior team must be about. The national senior team must be, by and large, about selecting the very best players available.
Can we honestly say that among the best players available to play for Jamaica now are some who played in the Manning and daCosta Cup this year? The answer is clearly no.
There are times, of course, when a coach may go out on a limb and select one or two players whom he may believe have some untapped potential. But ten?! If we can pick 10 schoolboys into a national senior squad, our schoolboy football competition must be on par with any other in the world.
I have seen the best of our schoolboys play in Under-20 and Under-17 competitions over the last decade. For the most part, these Under-20 players make no huge impact, even at that level. Yes, there have been some good ones, but our age-group players have struggled to stamp their authority on the global stage, even among their cohort.
If they struggle to dominate at the Under-17 and Under-20 levels, what reason do we have to believe that they are ready for the senior level? Are we not running the risk of making these schoolboy footballers think they are better than they really are?
A spot on a national senior squad must be earned by proving yourself against the best the nation has to offer. It ought not to be treated like a reward for demonstrating skills against some teenage boys in a school competition.
- Orville Higgins is a talk-show host and sportscaster at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.