CAPE TOWN – I’ve always been fascinated by the oft-told tale of a 15-year-old Gareth Bale.
During his time at the Southampton youth academy, he was always rated as a kid, but he hadn’t kicked on - and the coaches weren’t happy with his progress.
His future was in the balance and quite a few club officials weren’t keen on keeping the youngster at the academy. But the English club’s chief scout, the man who had initially been alerted to Bale’s talent at the age of nine, went with his gut; he continued to believe in the lad, confident the youngster’s struggle at the time was related to biology. Once the teenage growing pains had settled, the natural ability would shine through.
It was to be an inspired decision - and we all know what Bale has gone on to achieve.
But, for me, and perhaps for many professional clubs in the Mother City, and across South Africa, there is a valuable lesson to be gained from that fable: it is, of course, a lesson which is rather anathema in present-day SA, where everything is about the quick-fix, the quick-reward. In a word, to extrapolate from the Bale narrative, it’s about patience - something which is often in short supply.
Football academies sprout like daisies in SA in a bid to unearth that one gem to export overseas and, of course, in the process make a few bucks. There is nothing wrong with that, I have no truck with the idea behind such development schemes - but, often, in this mad rush to cram in as many talented young kids as possible, there are many gems who go missing.
And the reason they are missed is precisely because of the Bale scenario: the failure to understand physiology, and the fact that footballers mature at different ages and at different rates.
So, to get to the point of my opening gambit, two Cape Town City footballers are proving that, while they may have been discarded early on in their careers, through time, patience, maturity and the Cape club’s willingness to offer the duo a late opportunity in the PSL, they have now been able to fully realise their potential.
With all the high-profile names and “Hollywood” signings made by City since their establishment as a club in 2016, two locally-grown products have made an enormous impact: central defender Taariq Fielies and winger Craig Martin.
Fielies, from Salt River, was at the Ajax Cape Town academy, where he managed just one PSL outing before being shipped off. Martin was at amateur club Kensington FC and also had stints at lower-division clubs like Hellenic and Glendene. Both are leggy, gangly athletes, so it’s easy to understand the struggle they would have had with growing pains. Speedy winger Martin is from the Factreton/Kensington area, which has, over the years, produced many a good player.
If anybody understands what players like Fielies, 25, and Martin, 24, can offer, it’s City coach Benni McCarthy, who comes from much the same circumstances and conditions. The former Bafana striker had no hesitation in playing the duo - and they have been consistently good all season.
In last week’s derby win over Ajax Cape Town, the two were undoubtedly the best performers on the pitch: Martin’s unerring pace and verve just too good for the opposition, while Fielies was a rock in defence: committed, aggressive and an absolute, fearless physical presence.
I will always remember the words of City boss John Comitis when I asked him about the signing of the unknown Martin. He told me: “Some players have not been fortunate enough to be noticed at a young age. Sometimes they can get lost and sometimes, because they are in their 20s, it’s almost too late to be considered... But I believe Craig may still surprise us all and make his mark at this stage of his career, especially based on the belief he has in his ability.”
We all now know how true Comitis’ prediction has turned out to be.
As we have seen from the Bale tale, due to the complexity of the human body, it is difficult to determine the rate of development of a footballer. The human body is not an engine, where adjusting the spark plugs or an oil change is enough to elevate performance.
Patience is far more important. And, therefore, because of this, it’s vital that PSL clubs don’t only rely on academies for talent: keep looking at amateur clubs; you never know what has been missed, and you never know what you might find.