May 20, 2014

How much talent does the difficult player need?

Exceptionally gifted but unreliable players are often given lots of rope by management, but far too many seem to believe themselves to be deserving of that leeway

It's been a mixed week for sportsmen out of love with the authorities. Michael Carberry, overlooked after the Ashes tour, publicly stated his frustrations about a lack of communication from the selectors. Many assumed that Carberry, aged 33, had signed his own death warrant and would never play for England again. But the selectors have made a shrewd decision in recalling him. He is a decent, understated man; the England management now looks magnanimous in overlooking a few surprising quotes in a newspaper.

No such luck for Samir Nasri, the wonderfully gifted but moody French footballer. He has been left out of France's World Cup squad. France's coach, Didier Deschamps, explained his decision with bracing honesty: "He's a regular starter at Manchester City. That's not the case today with the France team. And he also said he's not happy when he's a substitute. I can tell you that you can feel it in the squad." Deschamps went further, anticipating his critics by conceding that Nasri was more talented than some players he had selected: "It's not necessarily the 23 best French players, but it's the best squad in my eyes to go as far as possible in this competition."

Talent v unity: an old story.

Rugby union, though, has also brought two mavericks back into the fold. Gavin Henson, Wales' troubled but mercurial playmaker, looks set to return to the red jersey. And England's Danny Cipriani, another flair player who has never found a happy home wearing national colours, has been thrown a lifeline. A last chance that both Henson and Cipriani cannot afford to miss? I bet they have heard that before. And then been handed just one final, last chance. That's often the way with rare talent: different rules apply.

As always, these debates have generally descended into an argument about abstract principles. Pundits have rushed to say that French football has a problem with finding a home for left-field characters. Other have bridled at Deschamps' logic: who should be happy being put on the bench anyway? It is the job of managers, we are often told, to finesse and handle talented but unconventional personalities. Indeed, with a moment's reflection, anyone can produce a list of world-beating players who didn't conform to a coach's template for a model professional - from Diego Maradona to Andrew Flintoff.

Such a list, sadly, proves absolutely nothing. Because it is just as easy to find examples of teams that began a winning streak by leaving out a talented but unreliable star player. The French team that won the World Cup in 1998 left out both David Ginola and Eric Cantona, just as the current side have now omitted Nasri.

In the popular imagination, the argument about dropping and recalling star players revolves around the juicy, gossipy questions: how difficult are they, how does their awkwardness manifest itself, has anyone tried to talk them round? This is naturally intriguing stuff. But the other half of the question - the crucial half - is too often ignored. Quite simply, how much better are they than the next guy?

When mavericks slide from outright brilliance to mere high competence they find patience runs out alarmingly quickly. There is a lot of high competence around. It is replaceable. Not so genuine brilliance

If you are a lot better, it is amazing how forgiving sports teams can be. Luis Suarez was banned for eight games for racially abusing Patrice Evra. He then served another ten-match ban for biting a Chelsea player. Obviously Liverpool sacked him instantly on the grounds that he was bringing the club into disrepute and becoming a distraction from the task of winning football matches? No, they didn't do anything of the kind. They calculated that Suarez was the best chance, their only chance, of mounting a challenge for trophies. If Suarez had been Liverpool's sixth- or seventh-best player, rather than their star man, he would have been kicked out years ago.

In other words, the best protection from being dropped for being "difficult" is to be brilliant. Even as a young man, England midfielder Paul Gascoigne was a heavy drinker and an unreliable man. But he was a sensational footballer. Coaches put up with him because they calculated it was in their own and the team's rational self-interest. By the latter stages of his career, Gascoigne was still a heavy drinker and an unreliable man, but he was now only occasionally an excellent footballer. Glenn Hoddle felt Gascoigne was too unfit to play at the 1998 World Cup. The glass was half-empty.

When mavericks slide from outright brilliance to mere high competence they find patience runs out alarmingly quickly. There is a lot of high competence around. It is replaceable. Not so genuine brilliance. That is why Shane Warne was able to criticise Australia coach John Buchanan and (nearly) always stay in the team. Any rational man who asked himself the question: "Are Australia a better team with Warne in it?" came to the unavoidable conclusion: "Yes, definitely."

Here's the central point. At this exalted level of elite sport, a great number of players have an epic degree of self-belief. Being convinced of their own greatness is an aspect of their magic. They back themselves to shape the match, to determine its destiny - especially the big matches. Instead of seeing themselves as just one of a number of exceptionally talented players, in their own minds they are men apart, special cases.

They aren't always right, though. So the question becomes: how good, how difficult? They are two aspects of the same equation, a calculation that is being made every day by coaches all over the world - on the school pitch, in the reserves squad, all the way to the World Cup final.

A player, too, must make his own calculation. Would pretending to be someone else - a more compliant, easy-going man - centrally detract from my performances? Must I play on my own terms, behaving as I like? But this question must coexist with another, less comfortable one: am I good enough to get away with it?

Not many. Fewer, certainly, than the number who think they can.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter