It’s a fine line that needs to be walked throughout a young player’s development.
LAST week young footballer Christopher Atherton and Glenavon hogged all the headlines when he became the youngest ever player to play a senior game in the UK.
Atherton, a pupil from St Patrick’s Academy Dungannon, came on as a 75th minute substitute in Glenavon’s 6-0 League Cup victory over PIL opponents Dollingstown at just 13 years and 329 days old on Tuesday evening.
His appearance was front and centre of all the local sports coverage and it also made the BBC Sport website alongside news of Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Ajax and England’s Test series win over South Africa.
Atherton’s senior debut is still being talked about and there is no doubt that his cameo appearance attracted maximum publicity.
Afterwards manager Gary Hamilton told Glenavon Media that he had no hesitation playing the rising young star.
“He didn’t give the ball away the whole time he was on the pitch. It’s incredible for a 13-year-old kid who is in third year at school,” said the Lurgan Blues boss.
“At 13, I was still dreaming of becoming a footballer. First-team football was a million miles away. But for him, it’s a reality.
“I knew if we got ahead, I would bring him on late in the game because I know he’s comfortable playing against older players. He has trained with the first team before.”
“He’s a great kid. I’ve had the pleasure of watching him every other week for the last seven or eight years as he plays in the same team as my son, and he is a joy to watch.
“The work he does in his own time and the dedication he has in becoming a professional footballer is unbelievable. That’s what separates him from other kids. He works night and day at his game, he eats the right food and he goes to bed at the right time. He is doing everything he can to become a better footballer.”
Apparently Atherton is already on the radar of several cross channel clubs, has trialled in Scotland and has represented Northern Ireland at underage level.
Hamilton added, “ He’s a special talent. There’s a lot of interest in him from across the channel, and I’m not surprised one bit. It fills me full of pride and joy because he is a product of the Glenavon Academy.”
It sounds like this kid is destined for great things and there’s no doubt his appearance has attracted positive PR for him, his club and indeed football in Northern Ireland.
But personally speaking it all feels a little uncomfortable for me – I’m sorry but it does!
For what’s it worth in my opinion there should be a minimum age – probably 15 or 16 – for a kid to be allowed to play in the senior game. I found it fascinating that this is something that the Irish Football Association has decided to investigate since young Atherton’s much-talked-about senior debut.
In fact, some sources are suggesting that the IFA are considering introducing a minimum age limit for senior men’s football which already exists in the ladies game.
Young Atherton’s appearance highlights the wealth of young talent that exists in local sport but for me it also reminds us that our rising stars should be handled with a certain amount of care.
At this point I need to make it clear that I am no longer referencing young Atherton; I’m talking in generic terms.
In general there always has to be concern in sport about introducing young players into the adult game before they are ready for it.
I don’t care how talented any kid is there has to be duty of care issues around players being too young to play senior football.
To be perfectly frank the obvious imbalance in terms of physicality would certainly be a concern but perhaps more worrying might be the added pressure that could be thrust on a young player’s shoulders.
Young footballers have a lot to contend with in this modern era and they have to have time to develop and mature mentally as much as physically. We also forget that all players are different and develop at different rates from they start out at four or five years old right up until their early 20s.
A lot can happen in between. I have seen players who were nothing short of incredible talents at 12 and 13 and by the age of 18 had already given up the game. It’s a fine line that needs to be walked through a young player’s development, and that’s something we all need to be mindful off.
Christopher Atherton’s appearance at 13 years and 329 days certainly got us all talking and I wish him all the best in whatever he achieves in life, be that on the football field or elsewhere. However, and this is my final thought, if there are no boundaries in place where does this kind of thing end.
What next? Some talented 10-year-old comes on for two minutes just to set a new record and gain the publicity that comes with it.
If the IFA is thinking of imposing a minimum age limit then I, for one, will be all for it – and the sooner the better!
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