Teenager Tom Carroll growing in stature at Spurs
Albert Benaiges tells a story of how Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, the Barcelona maestros, were rejected as youngsters by Espanyol and Real Madrid.
Can you imagine what an inferior game we would have if these two schemers, who exists almost in symbiosis, had slipped through the net.
Under the guidance of Benaiges, among others, at Barca's La Masia academy they have since flourished into truly world-class performers and have transcended the art of midfield play with their hypnotic passing and exhilarating performances for club and country.
Standing at 5ft 7in (1.7m), they provide an inspiration to thousands of aspiring footballers who are perceived too small to carve out a career. Size, it appears, does not matter when you have such tremendous technique.
Tom Carroll, the hugely-promising midfielder at Tottenham Hotspur, falls squarely into that bracket. He will pull the strings for Spurs against Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League tonight and even his coach, Tim Sherwood, acknowledges you could be forgiven for thinking the 19 year old "is the mascot" such is his stature.
"There is a perception you have to be a lump to get by but that's a myth," Sherwood said.
Sherwood represented England, lifted the Premier League title with Blackburn Rovers, played for Tottenham and is a respected pundit for Al Jazeera television. The Spurs' technical co-ordinator is not known for hyperbole or empty platitudes so you listen and you listen good when he says Carroll has the ability to hold his own in the same team as Xavi and Iniesta.
"He could play for them [Barcelona], no question," Sherwood said. "He's got the lot. He's technically good enough, sees a pass, can pop it [the ball] round the corner and only Jake Livermore [the 21-year-old midfielder] runs more than him in a game in the first team."
Sherwood, 42, was a midfielder of some repute during his playing career and has therefore taken Carroll under his wing and champions his cause with Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager.
"He's one of those who has needed a bit more time to develop physically," Sherwood said. "He could have got released and I'm sure there are lots of Tom Carrolls who have been released. He's never going to be giant but he will grow and hopefully not look like the mascot anymore."
Tim Henson, Carroll's sports teacher, oversaw the young midfielder's rise from a boy into a teenager at school. He remembers the day he first clapped on eyes on the 11 year old as he walked through the gates at Parmiter's School in Watford.
"He was so tiny when he turned up," Henson said. "I had reservations about putting him in the middle of [the] pitch as an under 16 as he would get kicked about but it's not held him back. He has such a low centre of gravity and such good feet. If he was a foot and a bit taller he would be in Spurs' first team now. He's the best I've ever taught."
Henson was fulsome in his praise of Spurs for persevering with Carroll. "There were many who always thought he was going to be too small, especially as football clubs seem to pick athletes above footballers, so good on Spurs for sticking with him," Henson said.
Carroll acknowledged he experienced that sinking feeling at the age of 14 when he suspected he was going to be released by Spurs.
"I kept getting bullied off the ball and I did start to wonder," Carroll said. "But it's not a problem now. Last season I started to go to the gym but then felt sluggish on the pitch so I stopped doing that. I feel strong and not in a rush to get to the gym or bulk up."
Carroll attended the same school as Steven Finn, the towering England cricketer who was 6ft when he joined the school and has only just stopped growing.
"I think he must have had school dinners and I had packed lunches," Carroll joked.
In contrast to Carroll, Finn underwent an intensive period of strength and conditioning with the England cricket fitness team in an effort to fill out his 6ft 7in frame. Carroll slowly but surely is filling out and is certainly unrecognisable from the boy who inspired his school to successive English schools cup finals.
"If I bumped into him [Finn] I'd recognise him but I'm not sure he'd recognise me," Carroll said.
Sherwood has seen Carroll come of age lately and said he is "still a squeaky little kid but his football does the talking now".
Last season the youngster was sent on loan to Leyton Orient in the third tier of English football to, as Sherwood puts it, "play in a league where people's mortgages are at stake and you have to play with responsibility".
And Carroll is certainly more comfortable with a ball at his feet than with a microphone in his hand.
His ability and tender years did not save him from the initiation for new players at Orient of singing a song on the team coach. Carroll chose Torn by Natalia Imbruglia.
"I've never been so nervous," Carroll said. "It went all right and I hit a few great notes."
Carroll was, you suspect, far more comfortable in the surroundings of the Emirates Stadium where he played in front of 59,000 fans for Orient in an FA Cup replay against Arsenal. He came away from the two matches with the shirts of Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin and his development enhanced by pitting his midfield wits against the likes of Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri and Denilson.
"It was actually Abou Diaby who stood out for me," Carroll said. "His technique was good, he was a good athlete and had a bit of everything. He's got quality but he's never cemented his place in the team."
Providing he "works on his right side and increases his range" Sherwood believes Carroll could establish himself in the Spurs first-team. Sherwood, though, acknowledges Carroll has plenty of "traffic" blocking his path to a regular starting spot in the shape of household international names such as Luka Modric, Scott Parker, Sandro and Tom Huddlestone as well as promising youngsters such as Livermore and Andros Townsend.
"You can look at it both ways," Carroll said. "Yes, there are lots of midfielders at the club but they are players I can learn from. Just watching Huddlestone and Luka in training is fantastic. Luka is a top player. He never loses the ball, shields it and his technique is unbelievable."
Carroll, however, has pressed his claims to be considered in that exalted company with assured Europa League appearances against Scotland's Heart of Midlothian and the Greek side PAOK Salonika.
He also earned a starting berth for the testing assignment at Stoke City in the Carling Cup. Against arguably the most combative midfield in the top flight of English football, Carroll played the entire 90 minutes, as well as 30 minutes of extra time, and did not look out of place.
The report of the game on the Spurs' website said Carroll "glided across the pitch, delivering crisp passes and always willing to accept possession". Redknapp described his display as "outstanding".
"Tom is only a slip of a lad but a fantastic footballer, he really knows how to play the game," Redknapp said in the post-match news conference. "He's a lad with hardly any experience but he came in and played ever so well."
Redknapp will surely have made a mental note that night of how Carroll put his hand up to take a penalty as the shoot-out moved into sudden death.
"The manager asked who wanted one and five people said 'yes' straight away," Carroll said. "I said if it went to sudden death I'd have one."
Carroll ended up having to make the nerve-racking walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot to take the sixth penalty for Spurs against Thomas Sorenson, the Denmark international goalkeeper, with the shoot-out locked at 5-5 after Jermaine Pennant, for Stoke, and Roman Pavlychenko, for Spurs, had missed.
"I knew if I missed we would be out," Carroll said. "The crowd were whistling and booing but I just tried to blank it out and focus on what I wanted to do with the pen. The keeper went early so I hit it firmly across my body. It was a relief when it went in."
Spurs bowed out of the competition as Massimo Luongo, the Australian-born midfielder, missed the next Spurs penalty but Carroll did have the consolation of collecting the shirt of Peter Crouch, the beanpole striker who switched from Spurs to Stoke last month.
"I think I'll need an extra large frame for that one," Carroll said. "Crouchy is a top man. When I started to train with first team he helped me out and helped me settle in."
Carroll said Huddlestone provided him with words of advice before his debut against Hearts at White Hart Lane but nothing could prepare him for his second appearance against PAOK at a throbbing stadium in Thessaloniki.
"It was very hostile," Carroll said. "Their fans were crazy. They were in the ground two hours before kick off, booing and whistling. Driving to the stadium they had posters up and one read 'Welcome to Hell' and were really trying to intimidate you. I just put my headphones on, turned them up and looked straight at the seat in front of me."
The England youth coaches had Sherwood jumping out of his seat at the club's training ground when he mentioned Carroll's name as one to watch.
"They said 'Tom who?'," Sherwood said. "That's not right. They should be going out and watching games. But then you just have to look at the England Under 21s and see they have got three centre halves playing in midfield. They are powerful boys but you need a bit of both, a bit of a ballplayer. Carroll played against Stoke and they couldn't lay a glove on him."
You suspect - and hope for the sake of English football - it won't be long before Carroll's name rolls off the tongue.
Updated: September 29, 2011 04:00 AM