“Fi fi fo fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”
I find that this poem, as given in Joseph Jacob’s 1890 rendition of the classic English fairytale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, is very much applicable to the English media’s treatment of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. Minus the extremity and graphic imagery, it really does work remarkably well as a reflection of their *seemingly* undying lust for his demise. Having been lauded as a teenager and hyped up to the extent that unless he was winning (or close enough to winning) the Ballon D’Or between the ages of 18-20, Jack would, in the media’s eyes, only have one way to go: down.
Wilshere’s serious injury problems aided the building of a narrative which goes something along the lines of a pitiful, drug laden fall from grace. It may seem rather extreme on my part, but “grind[ing] his bones to make [their] bread” is pretty spot on with regards to how the media picked up on Jack’s broken bones and manipulated his absence into rumours of some kind of opportunity for him to “grind” down certain illegal substances.
Once the tabloids had “smell[ed] the blood of an Englishmen”, they embodied circling sharks, just waiting for their prey to grow weak enough to present the opportune moment in which they could take another bite. Being caught smoking is one such example of these moments. Of course, in this instance, Jack was foolish to have given them stick to beat him with and ultimately he is responsible for his actions and his status as a role model. But the fact that papers made such a hoo-ha out of it all was just a tad ridiculous, especially when you look at all the other footballers who have been caught puffing on a fag and take into account it’s actually quite common in the off-season.
The media’s obsession with Wilshere is inescapable and inevitable. Although, unlike Jack in the fairytale, he can’t hack down the beanstalk (paper-talk) and kill the giant that chases him, he can sway opinion and turn tides via his performances on the pitch. That’s what this season and specifically the next few months are about for Arsenal’s lion-hearted midfielder. Özil’s injury is far from ‘a blessing in disguise’ and anyone who thinks so needs to reevaluate their understanding and appreciation of the game, but one positive from the German wizard being out is that it gives Wilshere a golden opportunity and it’s one he must grab by the bollocks.
Wenger still believes his best role is as a central midfielder who has license to attack and create, especially whilst he is still young (which everyone often forgets he is). He has thrived in such a role so far this season and looks much more like the player he was before his injury problems started. His driving dribbles have always been a great asset of his and can be used to devastating effect. In the game against Manchester City, in which he scored, Jack made a total of 10 successful dribbles (10!!!). That’s an extraordinary amount of successful dribbling for a central midfielder. However, it is not always successful nor productive. He can tend to run into trouble and not release early enough, although he has done less so of late. But, as is the nature of a player still searching for his perfect chi-balance, he also often looks for quick one-twos far too often. Although it’s clear from the glimpses that we have seen this season (and on many an occasion) that when eventually he combines the two together in an efficient and fluent fashion, the results will be simply sumptuous.
When involved in the England set-up, Wilshere is deployed a deeper central playmaker, as is Roy Hodgson’s view of what Jack’s best role is in the team. Hodgson has likened Jack to being England’s Pirlo, at least in terms of potential. It is fair enough that in different formations and styles, he will be used differently, but as aforementioned his youthful desire to attack will be hard and perhaps unhealthy to discourage. Having said that, in the long run it may be a useful learning curve for Jack as he matures.
One thing that Wilshere’s whole progression hinges on is his fitness. Ankle injuries have haunted him for much of his development period and it’s imperative that he stays fit and gets the run he needs to really cement himself into a role and, more importantly, an identity as a player. The signs are improving, however, and this is probably Jack’s longest run of fitness (bar minor knocks) since his initial leg break. Arsenal fans, myself included, will be hoping for no such injuries ever again.
Jack is a player who splits opinion and draws and draws an awful lot of attention, but, in my view, that attention is a result of his immense talent. He is a very special player and is arguably one of the most complete midfielders England have had in a very long time. It’s been a bumpy road for the 22 year old, but I firmly believe he still has time to emerge as one of the game’s greatest. Jack walks a tightrope of sorts, both regarding his style of play on the pitch and his (attention drawing) aspects of life off it. Let’s hope he makes the scamper across to more stable, respected and ultimately revered ground.
I finish with another quote aimed at the media attention on Jack, but this time not from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. This is from a book of theatrical anecdotes and it regards an actress called Tallulah Bankhead, who was a sensation in the early-ish part of the 20th century.
‘Upon being asked why Tallulah was such a success in London, Mrs. Pat Campbell explained, “She’s always skating on thin ice—and the British public wants to be there when it breaks.”’