Published 20/04/19, The Times
My dad has dined out on the same story for about 20 years. The way he tells it, I was about a year old and sitting there proud as punch in my baby-walker in the living room. I had a toy called a Happy Apple: it was spherical with a smiley face and it also happened to double as a makeshift football. One day, he says, he rolled the Happy Apple slowly along the carpet in the direction of my stumpy wee dangling legs and, as I drew back my foot and swung it enthusiastically at the target, he exclaimed: “A left footer. He’ll never starve.”
Now, whether or not there is a morsel of truth in that or simply the distant imaginings of a proud father of a professional footballer, I suppose he was right. Football may not have fed me like a king but it put food on the table for 15 years and I guess, in a roundabout way, it still does.
His joy that day, of course, stemmed from the fact that there are not all that many of us lefties around: about 20 per cent of footballers, according to one of the surprisingly few studies on the subject carried out over the years.
In Port Vale’s academy, however, the number is even smaller. So their enterprising management team came up with a novel idea. Last month they publicised a “Left-Footer Talent Identification Day”, which piqued considerable interest, not least on social media. “Do you, or someone you know, have a sweet left foot and think you have the potential to play academy football?” they asked. “If so, Port Vale academy may just have the opportunity for you.”
Their hope was to find the “next Anthony Gardner, Steve Guppy or Lionel Messi” — three names you will surely never see written in the same sentence again. And so, on a glorious Easter holiday Wednesday this week, 100 children from under-7s to under-14s showed up at the Dimensions Leisure Centre in the shadow of Vale Park, in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.
Lee Foyle, Vale’s lead academy foundation coach and head of academy recruitment, received over 400 emails from far and wide. “I’ve had emails from Nigeria, America,” he said. “We got phone calls from a player who said he was at the Ugandan border on his way over here. We got some daft ones, like the 44-year-old from Birmingham with a ‘sweet left foot’, but the title grabbed everyone’s interest, which is what we wanted.”
There has always been something about lefties, hasn’t there? The cause of right-sided bias in both hands and feet is largely still a mystery. Several studies have found that left-handers, who account for 10 to 12 per cent of the population, are over-represented in baseball, fencing, tennis and cricket — and often demonstrate a tactical or strategic advantage over their right-handed counterparts, whereas in football the number of left-footers mirrors the population.
The list of left-wanded wizards in football, however, is a lengthy one: from Puskas to Maradona, from Messi to Salah. In 2013, the Spanish newspaper Marca reported that a study conducted by the universities of Oxford, St Andrews and Bristol, in conjunction with several Australian institutions, found that players who favour their left foot have inverted brain hemisphere functions, which gives them an extra dose of unpredictability.
But back in Burslem, beneath the international interest and the faint whiff of a PR stunt, there was some sound reasoning for the open trial to be found. “We’ve got 105 academy players signed from under-9s to under-16s,” Foyle said. “When we had our academy management meeting we highlighted that we have only got 17 left-footed players in the whole academy. I’m not great at maths, but that’s definitely below 20 per cent. We’ve done open trials before and had success — we’ve signed a couple of players each time we’ve held them. So we thought we would try something different.”
For an academy with meagre resources and ten part-time scouts, the idea has some merit — but Port Vale are not alone in their search for the next . . . Laporte? Vertonghen?
“I was speaking to someone from Manchester City last week — they send scouts to watch all our age groups — who said they were on the lookout for left-footed centre halves,” Foyle said. “They’ve got all the funds in the world, all the recruitment staff, and they’re looking for left-footers for their academy age groups.”
Furthermore, Luke Daley, a left-footed winger who was a member of Port Vale’s academy between the ages of eight and 16, Foyle said, has just been signed by Huddersfield Town — the fourth player snapped up by a Premier League club this year.
For the past decade Scott Sellars, the former Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United midfielder, and himself a left-footer, has coached in the academies of Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he is head of the academy. In that time he has seen the trends for inverted wingers, back threes and marauding wing backs grow along with the requirement for the development of players with a different skill set.
“From my point of view, for balance, I’d always prefer to have a left-footed left back and centre half,” Sellars said. “Some people will have two right-footed centre halves and never bat an eyelid. But if I said you were going to play two left footers they’d look at you like you were an idiot. What’s the difference?
“The inverted winger does cause different problems; he can shoot, he can play killer passes. But in some games where there’s no space on the inside, teams will continue trying to go on the inside — I understand why they do it, because they’re trying to get shots from central areas — but it’s always good to have a wide player who can go on the outside and get beyond the back line that way.
“A lot of academies now look for players for certain positions. Others are under pressure to make money. You make the most money on strikers and, probably, goalkeepers. But there’s always a shortage of left-footers, so I think it’s a good idea from Port Vale, creative thinking. If there’s a value in that, and they can sell players, generate money, that’s also seen as a success for academies as well as getting players in first teams.”
In 2009, a Centre for Economic Performance paper, titled The Returns to Scarce Talent: Footedness and Player Remuneration in European Soccer, analysed a cross-section of players in the top five European leagues and found that left-footers receive a pay premium over right-footers, though not as sizeable as the 14 to 15 per cent premium enjoyed by two-footed players. Which is, of course, the obvious caveat: shouldn’t academies be striving to produce players who are equally comfortable with both feet?
“We do,” Foyle said. “We work on that in training on a Monday, a Wednesday and a Friday, but they are always going to be predominantly stronger with one foot.”
Which is why lefties will never starve.
4 Of the 42 players in the Premier League this season with seven or more goals, four are left-footed — less than 10 per cent
16 Of the 43 players with five or more assists in the Premier League this season, 16 are left-footed — just over 37 per cent