Issue The boy done good

As told by Michael Wood

There are few things in professional football that bring me as much joy as watching the progression of young players.

They arrive into the team, these proto-footballers, with energy and verve which lasts for exactly one clattering tackle. A tackle that welcomes them to the harsh realities of the game.

From then on the live a life of constant testing. Most young players were by some way the best at football in the majority of games they played up. The late Dean Richards is talked of in glowing terms by the lads who played alongside him with Rhodesway because in a season in which they lost but a single game, he was the best player.

Progress in youth football is about that. The best move on to the next level which they are the best at, the others are moved on. The chances are that the vast majority of players who every get a pro contract were the best in their school by some distance, the best at other Junior levels too as they make the cut every step of the way.

And then comes first team professional football.

No longer the best, no longer protected by the confidence of being the best, before that first crunch of a tackle has stopped throbbing the player has gone from peerless performer to bottom of the pile.

Which is when things get really interesting.

How does one get up from that clattering, or the next, or from screwing a ball wide, or from hitting one top corner and being expected to do it again. Character, not the notion of talent, becomes the definition of the footballer.

Darren Stephenson’s debut on Saturday was not the stuff of dreams. His main contribution – bothering the keeper – has to be excluded as not being significant enough to be a foul leaving the much vaunted striker with little to recall on his first game but watching another young player Tom Bradshaw of Shrewsbury Town claiming two goals. One run down the wing while City were a goal up saw Stephenson win a throw in rather than try beat his man – a good move from the point of view of playing the percentages – but with City on the break perhaps the idea that he might have gone at his man will have played on his mind.

Perhaps done more. Perhaps there have been nights when he has wondered what would have happened had he moved to the left of Ian Sharps when Sharps slipped, got closer to Shane Cansdell-Sherriff when he missed his headed clearance. Such thoughts could drive a man mad.

Which is where the character of Stephenson comes to test. What can he learn from his first experience of League football and how can it improve him as a player? How can he think about what he could have done better without obsessing on things he had done wrong.

Every player goes through the same process. The successful ones are able to master this process of learning from mistakes, but not dwelling on them, while the less successful lose confidence on the one hand or never learn on the other.

Over the last few days Darren Stephenson will have had these thoughts on his mind, his response will go a way to telling us what sort of a player he will be. As it is the boy done good to get this far, how he reacts to successes and failures like last Saturday will define how he does from now on.