Oral Tracey | The demise of creative footballers
With continued talks of the imminent reshaping of the Jamaican football landscape, the now-worrying trend of suppressing, and downright destroying, creative players merits some attention and analysis. There have been some glaring instances that typify our treatment of creative players in recent times.
It gets no higher in profile than the former national director of football looking at a 15-year-old Leon Bailey during a national age-group training session and concluding that from what he saw, Bailey was "just an ordinary player as far as he was concerned". I would wager a bet that if Bailey, at the time, was a bustling hard-running tackler, he would have caught the eye of the then director of football.
With all that said, within three years, that "ordinary" player became one of the hottest young properties in Europe, who, at 19, attracted an EU18 million move from his Belgian club KRC Genk to German Bundesliga team Bayer Leverkusen. Now, in his first full season, Bailey continues to create and score goals in the Bundesliga and indeed was voted the player of the month of October in one of the world's elite football leagues, approximately five years after being condemned as ordinary.
It is hard to forget the trouble and trials of the now retired Harbour View creative genius and playmaker Jermaine Hue, where, despite having the unique qualities of being arguably the best and most natural passer and visionary to have played in Jamaica over the last decade and a half, he struggled to hold down a regular place in the national team.
I remember being totally flabbergasted when the final squad for the national under-17 team for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers was selected after learning that young, creative forward Trayvon Reid was cut from the squad. Coach Andrew Edwards stated at the time that he simply opted for other players. I was in shock, especially after having seen the team play a couple weeks before and concluding that Reid was the most conspicuous creative spark in the Jamaican offence. Impressive Clarendon College playmaker Lamar Walker was also a reject from that same under-17 unit.
Reconcile those recent instances with the near crisis admitted by national senior head coach Theodore 'Tappa' Whitmore citing the urgent need for creative playmakers at the senior level as he continues his rebuilding exercise. The crippling trend of discouraging, and indeed killing, the confidence of several generations of creative players continues. It has been drilled into their heads from an early age that dribbling and, generally, expressing themselves are wrong and too risky and that they need to pass the ball and move, run, track back and tackle, but not hold on to the ball. The young ball artists are hardly, if ever, encouraged to play their natural game. Implicitly in their treatment is that dribbling is an aberration that should be sacrificed in the interest of the team structure.
Hardly, if ever, are the commensurate criticisms made of the hard runner and tackler. Hardly is the hard worker criticised for being incapable of any kind of creative magic or that he needs to score a goal or two, or have an assist, while the creative ball handler never seems to do enough. He is seen as a potential liability instead of the asset he could be if properly and strategically deployed. At the very least chance, he is substituted, and as demonstrated by the instances above, cut completely from the squad.
There appears to be a tangled ignorance as it relates to the value that creative players can potentially bring to a team with their innate ability to produce moments of spontaneous and unpredictable skill that are impossible to predict and counter by the opponents - the kind of skills that are often needed to discombobulate and dismantle well-organised and disciplined defensive systems.
Show me a successful championship-winning football team at any level, anywhere in the world, and I will show you one or more creative players who were pivotal to those successes. Case in point: Jamaica's most successful ever football team. The 1998 Reggae Boyz were piloted to the World Cup finals in France by, among other factors, the skills, creativity, and genius of players like Walter 'Blacka' Boyd and one Theodore 'Tappa' Whitmore. How ironic.