Spectator sport

Billy the kid, football’s star of the future

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

Sadly it looks as though the 2020 Six Nations may have to go down with an asterisk and an explanation that might baffle future scholars — ‘Aborted due to the coronavirus’. Still, after the Wales game we can look back with affection on Owen Farrell at his horribly gobby worst, endlessly getting at Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe while dishing out a series of nasty niggly fouls: why does he do it? Then there was Eddie Jones in inimitable fashion blasting away at the laws and of course the ref. You lost a couple of men to foul play, Eddie, I’d keep quiet while the going’s good. I had my ref mic tuned to O’Keeffe throughout the match and he was very fair and clear throughout. ‘It’s still a penalty, Owen,’ he said after one pointless row. And it was.

As for Joe Marler and his robust approach to Alun Wyn Jones’s wedding tackle, well clearly a great post-playing career awaits. The jungle? Must be half a million quid with a decent agent. Then there’s Strictly. He’s an interesting bloke: sensitive — he retired to genuinely spend more time with his family; but with a bit of previous — he got into terrible trouble for calling Welsh prop Samson Lee a ‘gypsy boy’.

But Marler was just being a dick, so to speak, last weekend. And we shouldn’t throw the book at him. If everyone was penalised for being a dick, there soon wouldn’t be any rugby players left. Though it did allow Gareth Thomas, a former Welsh captain and British Lion, to joke that as a gay man he shouldn’t have retired so early. A joke as camp as Christmas but it provoked general hilarity, which shows how far we’ve come as a tolerant society. Thomas apologised, though quite why I don’t know. I guess we have to apologise for everything now.

Like snails, garlic and a decent red wine, recidivist forwards are a staple of French life. The latest is Mohamed Haouas, a hulking great prop who decided to sock the Scottish flanker Jamie Ritchie in a mass brawl near the posts — earning a red card and putting his team in big trouble. It was a blow that would have felled a tree, though Ritchie didn’t look any the worse for wear after the game. They breed ’em tough up there. Haouas really does have previous, and his club, Montpellier, often had to negotiate his release from prison. Fair play, he was the product of a broken home and brought up in an urban wasteland of Montpellier, where youth unemployment is close to 40 per cent. Rugby may have saved him from a life of crime, but not on the field. France has a problem with these big boys from the banlieueswho are more used to burning tyres than upholding their country’s honour on the rugby pitch.

Football is full of young stars who flare briefly and burn out, but Billy Gilmour, an 18-year-old Chelsea midfielder, could be the real thing. Scotland should start building their future around him. As good as Bremner? You bet, but silky to boot. As smart as Souness? Sure, and without the need to start a fight in an empty room.

Gilmour is boyish and charming and, though only 5ft 6in, has the world at his feet. He bosses the show too, and you can see old warriors like Marcos Alonso, César Azpilicueta and Olivier Giroud look to Billy for their shape. He’s been man of the match in successive games — against Liverpool and Everton, so no soft touches. Like so many Chelsea youngsters, he talks remarkably well — much better than most people I know did at 18. He’s proof that anything is possible too: he comes from Ardrossan, on the north Ayrshire coast, which you might say has yet to be gentrified. Even the locals think the best thing about it is the way out — the regular ferries to the isle of Arran. So bring on Billy, he really is the kid.

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