Or, A Cautionary Tale;
Once upon a time in the land of the Merseyside Reds there was a young man who had come from half the world away to ply his trade on the left of that club's storied defense, and in that relatively golden, fondly remembered age that was the start of two-thousand and nine, the people did begin to notice his work. Despite his lack of years he did quickly pass by older, wiser, and more costly hands who shared his position, securing for himself the title of trusted deputy and becoming, all agreed, a man for the future. "Who knows?" the people would say. "Perhaps one day soon he will return to represent his country--at least when he's not representing ours, of course! And who knows?" they would say again. "Perhaps one day soon he will be one of the best there is, for it is clear as day that we have a special talent with a bright future on our hands."
Then Fabio Aurelio spent pretty much all of 2009-2010 on the injured list.
And the team as a whole played terribly.
And knowing that he'd be playing and was an inexperienced kid the opposition began to target him.
And being put under more pressure and playing almost every match facing that targeting, his performances started to drop.
And they became even worse as, being a young player unused to the demands of a full top-flight season, his stamina drained.
And soon the inexperienced kid who had looked so promising--albeit for a few years in the future after the time everybody had previously agreed it would take him to iron out any kinks and work on his positioning and increase his fitness and all the rest because there isn't a grand history of world-class 20-year old fullbacks--became the scapegoat of the day.
Meanwhile, dropping any remaining pretense at horribly put together faux fairy tales (though most of said pretense did end after the first rambling paragraph), yesterday saw Raul Meireles--one of the very few bright spots so far this season--come back from a foot injury and have not even an awuful game, but just a middling one. Yet in some quarters the reaction was disgustingly full of bile, as if all the hatred that only days before might have been reserved for Roy Hodgson, and in years past might have been aimed at Lucas Leiva, needed some target, any target. Meireles, then, was just an easy and available target alongside the more worthy Howard Webb.
Because for some it seems that it's always the worst. Unless it's always the best. And you're always the greatest player to kick a ball 'round the pitch. Unless you're the worst.
Emiliano Insua one of the many who ended up being a wonderful scapegoat for some. Mostly it was those who quickly forgot his young age and the esteem he'd been held in as a prospect and bit player only a year before, some of whom just need a convenient scapegoat to fling mindless abuse at it, and since everybody else was pointing accusatory fingers at the young Argentine they simply hopped on the bandwagon. Oftentimes this year, then, that scapegoat has been Glen Johnson, which of course also goes some way towards making his understudy Martin Kelly look an appealing option by comparison. Now, being a local lad might well save Kelly from a great deal of abuse through the ups and downs of what appears likely to be a very promising career, but if they can manage it some of the individuals clamoring hardest to see him take the right back job full time would do well to remember what happened the last time a promising 20-year old fullback still learning his trade got thrown to the wolves at Liverpool.
This doesn't even get into the rather bizarre light some view Glen Johnson in: a highly regarded attacking fullback who still starts for his country and had people tripping over themselves to sing his praises in the first half of the 2009-2010 season before that campaign clearly become unsalvageable. Then, with the season going down in flames, he soon became overpriced in the eyes of many. Not awful--not yet, at least--but hardly a great signing, and Alvaro Arbeloa, the man he had replaced, became pined for as much for what he represented as a member of the previous year's more successful side as for what he would have actually brought to the club had he still been there. Perhaps the only thing that saved any of Glen Johnson's reputation at the time was that every opponent was targeting the quickly tiring, mentally drained prospect who had been forced into full time duty on the left side. Now, in the span of a further half a season, this one under a manager who set up in just about the worst way possible to highlight his talents--while exposing as many of his flaws as possible--it is Johnson who has somehow become completely worthless in the eyes of many.
Because people need scapegoats.
None of this is to say that Martin Kelly shouldn't get regular playing time, and none of this is to suggest he doesn't have a bright future--because he very much does--it's simply to caution against the ridiculously schizophrenic approach to judging players displayed by many. This isn't helpful for dissecting the worth and ability of the likes of Glen Johnson--or even Fernando Torres, who some seem to forget is still only 26--and it's even less worthwhile when trying to deal with young players. The fullback position is one of the more difficult roles in modern football, one where you would not expect a developing player to show something like his potential for at least another three to five years, and yet some are so short-sighted that in their clamor replace the suddenly shit Johnson with the suddenly world class Kelly they forget what happened to the generally accepted wisdom regarding Insua when he went from prospect to full time starter too soon.
Maybe being local would save Martin Kelly, but if opposing clubs knew he was likely to play most weeks they would specifically train and scheme to target him in upcoming matches. He would become a focal point for every opposition attack, seen as the most likely weak link by every manager who came up against Liverpool. The increase in games played would likely tire him, as most young players aren't up to the workload of playing every week--or twice a week--in the Premier League. Those two factors would combine to add a great deal of mental stress. And all of that would, in all likelihood, do nothing but cripple his development, even if his birthplace saved him from the worst abuse.
There's wisdom to be found in backing off with the need for scapegoats, at least for a little while, as the club and its fans try to come together post-Hodgson to move forward without so much of the bile and bitterness that has characterized the past few years. There is also wisdom to be found in giving a bit of time, now that there's a new manager who might actually work to his talents rather than against them, to a man who was only a little more than a year ago considered one of the best attacking fullbacks in the world. At the very least one would hope against the grand foolishness of willfully throwing a promising youngster in at the deep end because the echo chamber has settled on him being the best thing since Roberto Carlos and Liverpool's savior at right back.
There's a real need to accept that while Kelly may one day be a great regular for Liverpool, that day is almost certainly not today, and it would be better for everybody involved--from the fans to Kelly and Johnson themselves--to accept that he is still a promising prospect better than most and best suited to starting occasionally as he further learns his trade.