The passing of youth

As I watched England stroll to a victory over Wales, I gawped in awe at just how composed Jack Wilshere looked at the highest level. It hasn't been an isolated thought this season. From Arsenal's first game of the season away to Liverpool, via a Champions League double-header against Barcelona, and through to the present, the young midfielder has been a constant source of joy all year. So why then, as I basked in all this Wilshere-induced glory, did I have a niggling sense of annoyance planted in the back of my mind?

Well, for the first time ever watching a football match, I thought to myself: "he's younger than I am."

When we are young, the stars of the beautiful game tower over us. They are mystical beings. Masters of the most attractive craft. Throughout childhood, we see ourselves as invincible; the world as ageless. Only as our teenage years dwindle do we start to see choices arriving on the horizon. Yet even these decisions seem far  away; mere distractions that teachers and parents have conjured up to make us do a little extra school work. Rarely do the millions of children playing in parks on a Sunday morning possess the self-awareness to realise that their dreams of scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final are just a forlorn fantasy. Even the most devoted of young fans, when following the Under-17 or Under-20 World Cups, see those players as contemporaries: classmates if we'd gone to a different school. It's only when we see a new up-and-coming star that's younger than us - a Wilshere, a Josh McEachran, a Neymar - that the true physical evidence really confronts us: the dream in now over.

Life is defined by these moments. But because sports careers peak and troft at such a young age, often the dream of on-field glory is the one fans awake from first. Most other hopes have years of possibility left. We can still travel the world, write the next great novel, achieve fame and recognition in a host of other fields. But, after that moment as a sports fan, often for the first time in life, one dream is now permanently just a dream. Seeing these young players evokes a strange sadness, or perhaps regret, of chances gone and roads not taken.

Yet for all the sadness and regret, there is joy as well. For the passage of time allows us to form a perspective on history. When we are young, we know who the best players are (or at least who are favourties are) but rarely do we appreciate the intricate details that make them special. Our older friends and relatives can tell us that a player runs faster, passes better or tackles harder than anyone they've ever seen; we can nod, pretending to agree, but because at that age we have no experience, we can't truly appreciate that statement.

Once we have perspective though, once we see a legion of greats leave the game, we begin to acknowledge the beauty of true genius. In the halcyon days of youth everything is new: we can watch 50 different tricks and 50 different ways of scoring that we've never seen before. As we age though, novelty becomes less and less. When I hear Arsene Wenger say: "Jack is the best young player we've ever produced, " I understand how much that statement means. I've watched enough Arsenal youth products come through the ranks now to understand just how special Wilshere is.

There's a physical component to all this eulogising as well. Most of us, if we've ever played football, can recall a moment of personal brilliance: that last-minute winner against your local rivals, the penalty you scored that all your mates say is the best they've ever seen. Yet the moment when our body does what our mind conceives is fleeting. And so we wonder how anyone can score a goal like this or this or do this. Each year though, a flock of exciting, young players give these ideas substance. And isn't that the beauty of the game we love so much?

I may be sad that I will never run an England midfield single-handedly, but I'm still happy knowing that somewhere, someone can.


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