Smoke signals!

The weekend’s top-flight football threw up three examples of the exciting, emerging talent that we have in the Premier League. However, the exploits of Jack Wilshere and Adnan Januzaj were accompanied by danger signs, while we must hope for his, West Ham’s and England’s, sake that Ravel Morrison has banished the demons that caused that great problem-player-tamer Sir Alex Ferguson to allow him to leave Manchester United nearly two years ago.

Let me first take the case of Arsenal midfielder Wilshere, who was photographed last week smoking a cigarette at the door of a nightclub. Now, smoking tobacco is not illegal but there is a welter of medical evidence telling us it is bad for our health and it is not a habit  any athlete should be encouraged to indulge. It most certainly is not something Wilshere should rejoice in, as he appeared to when tweeting his approval of the Arsenal fans’ chant “he smokes what he wants” after the 21-year-old came back from a poor first half performance at West Bromwich Albion to score a superb equaliser. I am sure Arsene Wenger will be taking his prodigy aside and pointing out the pitfalls, not only to Wilshere’s health but also his image, of being pictured with a cigarette in his hand. Let me declare a personal interest here, in that I am a committed, lifelong non-smoker, someone who grew up abhorring the habit after being raised in a household where parents and grand-parents turned the air acrid with cigarette smoke. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, but the reality is that more footballers and managers do so than you would like to think, though perhaps the habit was more prevalent in my playing days than it is in the modern era. For example, when Everton won the League title in 1970 I was one of only four players in the team who did not smoke. I doubt if such a ratio exists in any of the current Premier League teams, though the tendency to enjoy the occasional smoke is more common amongst the foreign players. The problem Wilshere must address, apart from any potential risk to his health and performance levels, is that, as the midfielder upon whom so much English hope rests for the forseeable future, he needs to be more aware of the image he portrays.

Gone are the days when footballers mixed socially with newspapermen, shared a beer and a smoke, and could rely upon a mutual understanding that these occasions remained unreported. I recall going on tour with England Under-21s to Germany, Italy and Hungary, accompanied by a press pack who spent hours paying cards and having a beer or two with the lads, comfortable in the conviction that “what happened on tour stayed on tour.” The problem these days, for both players and press, is that there is no such informal coming together, no mutual trust, and consequently, there is no hiding place for highly-paid, celebrity sportsmen. The media’s access to footballers is increasingly controlled and, therefore, reporters and photographers are only too happy to  adopt a “gloves off” approach and expose the private side of players’ lives. Photograph-taking mobile ‘phones also mean a player is vulnerable every time he steps out of his front door, which is why I would say to Wilshere: ‘If you must smoke, smoke in the house.’

Manchester United fans, still struggling to come to terms with the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and their team’s stuttering start to the season, have a reason to be cheerful today, in the slender shape of teenager Adnan Januzaj who burst on to the scene in spectacular style with his two-goal rescue act in his first start at Sunderland. The Belgian-born 21-year-old wide midfielder certainly impressed me, in particular with his technique when striking the winning goal, a 20-yard volley. Januzaj stayed over the ball and never took his eye off it as he struck, unerringly, into the corner of the net. He looks a real prospect, one that manager David Moyes obviously recognised early in his reign by giving him some exposure during the pre-season matches. And I see there are reports United are to offer Januzaj – his parentage and grand-parentage means he qualifies to play for Albania and Turkey, as well as Belgium, but the FA’s hopes of recruiting him for England via residency rules are, apparently, slim – a £30,000-a-week contract. United will need to act fast, as several big clubs around Europe are alive to the boy’s quality. Another warning note, though. Januzaj was booked on his debut for diving and Moyes and his staff must act to ensure that the lad does not allow this to become an ugly side to his game. Diving is one of the more unsavoury aspects of modern football and it really has no part in a youngster’s portfolio. If Januzaj is to go on to become the next in a long line of United  icons, in the mould of Law, Charlton, Best, Cantona, Ronaldo and Rooney, then diving he can do without. Moyes gave a youthful Rooney and Ross Barkley their first team debuts at Everton and he says he has a similar feeling about Januzaj. Let’s hope for United’s sake that his instinct is sound.

And so to Morrison, a young man from Manchester who lost his way so seriously that Sir Alex thought it best to sever him from his local environment in his own best interests. When letting him join West Ham, Ferguson told Hammers manager Sam Allardyce that he would have a special talent on his hands – provided he could keep the boy on the straight and narrow. Big Sam sent Morrison on loan to Birmingham last season and, if the goal the 20-year-old attacking midfielder scored against Tottenham yesterday is anything to go by, then the boy is well and truly re-focused on his football. Morrison went on a mazy run from the halfway line before coolly chipping over the keeper’s legs as West Ham produced a stunning 3-0 win at White Hart Lane. It was the biggest surprise result of the weekend, one that strengthens the impression that we are in for the most open title race for many a year. And Morrison’s goal, a certain early candidate for goal of the season, was hopefully a sign that England – and West Ham – have a star in the making.