From Diamond Lights to diamonds in the rough
Glenn Hoddle was a couple of months short of his 18th birthday when he came on as a substitute for Tottenham in a 2-2 draw against Norwich City in August 1975. It was a low-key debut for a player who was already the talk of the Spurs training ground.
Six months later, the rest of English football would see what the likes of Martin Chivers and Bill Nicholson had spotted almost immediately when the 18-year-old made his first league start against Stoke City, beating England goalkeeper Peter Shilton with a long-range shot that would help Spurs to a 2-1 win.
Like Duncan Edwards before and Wayne Rooney after, Hoddle was old enough because he was good enough. There is, of course, a flipside to the prodigy: the late bloomer, the unpromising teen the scouts missed or the apprentice who was told to try a different trade.
I'll let the pedants decide if Hoddle's interest in unearthing the next Stuart Pearce/Neville Southall/Tony Galvin is ironic or just mildly interesting, but the fact remains that one of English football's most fully-formed talents is now dedicated to helping those deemed not good enough at an age he was already a hero.
I went to see the former Spurs, Monaco and Chelsea star, now 52, at the University of Warwick last week. He was there to oversee a three-day trial for places at the Glenn Hoddle Academy, a finishing school for young pros released by their clubs but still desperate to make the grade.
I took my boots but soon realised I was 20 years too late and that's ignoring the gaps in my CV...Ian Wright might have been "discovered" playing non-league but it was not the West End League's Sunday AM, Div II. So I stuck to reporting, and here's my TV effort:
The 10 lads trying out were all nearly-men at leading clubs - each of them the product of years of coaching in British football's academy system. They were very good but deemed not quite good enough.
What they had now was another crack of the whip: a shot at Hoddle's last-chance saloon, a scholarship worth up to £50,000 in time, effort and tuition.
What Hoddle had was a problem: three days to spot something in a player that the player's club hadn't seen after five or six years.
There was also more at stake than just professional pride in his ability to pick a player. Having raised £4m to open the academy in Jerez, Spain, two years ago, he needs to prove it works as a business.
To do that he has to return his graduates to the professional ranks, earning development fees and slices of future transfer fees for his trouble. The evidence so far suggests this will be a tough trick to pull off but not impossible.
The first batch of 30 players has been through the academy with almost half returning to professional football. By ordinary academy standards, where wastage rates are more like 85%, this would be a healthy return, but most of these "successes" are at Jerez Industrial, a local team that has just been relegated to Spain's fourth tier.
And unlike the club academies that supply him, Hoddle does not have the revenues of a parent club to sustain him. So the pressure was on the former England manager too.
As luck would have it, there was a match against a Crewe Alexandra XI scheduled for the day I was at Warwick Uni. Not only would this be the most important element of the selection process it would also pit Hoddle's hopefuls against one of English football's most prolific talent factories.
And my day got even better when Crewe's collection of academy players and trialists was led off the bus by Dario Gradi, now in his third stint as Crewe boss but still as utterly obsessed with player development at 68 as he was when he took his first coaching job with Chelsea in 1971.
Ask almost any fan in the country about Crewe and you will probably get an answer that includes David Platt and Danny Murphy. The small Cheshire club has an alumni list that most Premier League sides would be proud of and Gradi deserves a lot of the credit.
His academy costs £2m a year to run, a massive investment for a League Two club with gates of 4,000 this season, but Gradi told me the cost was worth it as Crewe could produce better players than the players rejected by the region's big sides.
Crewe products Luke Varney and Nicky Maynard have brought the club more than £4m in transfer fees
Talking to Gradi, Hoddle and the rest of the coaches (experienced pros like Dave Beasant and Nigel Spackman) during the match was an education. We all think we can spot a footballer but these guys saw things in five minutes that I was still struggling to pick up as the final whistle blew.
Hoddle spoke about players who had the ability and courage to make the positive pass: keepball is better than defending but football is about scoring goals, to do that you have to move forward. He pointed out midfielders who could receive the ball when marked but still give themselves options. He looked for defenders who were already moving when a ball was flicked on, and attackers who could beat them to it.
He also talked about clubs being forced to make assessments on players too early because of external pressures like the tyranny of the league table, and was passionate about the difference practising in southern Spain's more conducive climate could make.
The Italian-born Gradi, no kick-and-rush merchant, had an interesting take on this point. He thinks it is a mistake to try to produce Brazilian or Spanish-style players in this country because our climate and short winter days will not allow it. Gianluca Vialli made a similar point in his book "The Italian Job".
A more suitable template, for Gradi, would be the kind of players the Dutch and Germans have been producing for years: tough, hard-running footballers with sound techniques and steady temperaments.
There is, of course, no reason to suspect that we are not producing these kinds of players now. Improving results at age-group level for England, Scotland and Wales would suggest we are at least producing a few.
If the real problem is finding first-team opportunities for those players, as both Gradi and Hoddle say it is, perhaps more British footballers will have to think about the Jerez Industrials of this world. After all, not everybody is ready for the big-time at 18 and there is more than one route to a career in football.