'I'll have a G&McT, with a slice of meatball' : Scotland's midfield. Part 1 - Billy Gilmour.
Updated: May 9
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'He looked a world-class player... I'm looking forward to watching him again today', chimed an effusive Roy Keane [yes, you read that correctly ] on describing Billy Gilmour's player-of-the-match performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup.
Two hours later, Gilmour stood tall for a post-match interview alongside his relatively enormous World Cup-winning teammate, Olivier Giroud. At 5' 7", he may have been over-shadowed physically (not mentally, as Frank Lampard would later contrast) but there was no question that the Frenchman considered his teammate an equal, commenting on his attitude, professionalism and bright future (a constant theme amongst coaches and teammates).
Gilmour delivered a measured interview, picked up another individual award for a similarly incisive performance against Everton, this time in the Premier League, and left smiling posing for fans' selfies with his latest trophy before a member of the backroom staff mused, 'We'll need to start calling you Billiesta'.
Rewind four years to the 'dear green' outskirts of Glasgow's northerly suburbs where you'll find Rangers' training facility, Auchenhowie.
The coaches, parents and guardians are shuffling out after watching the visit of Kilmarnock Pro-Youth, except the customary traffic is reduced somewhat. Many are staying on for the u17s game to watch another Ayrshire boy, and the stands are now filling with men and women marked by the same excited and competitive look that accompanies a serious dedication to the sport they love. There was a credible hubbub forming and the word, or name, which rang in unison through the throng was 'Gilmour', the boy from Ardrossan.
As it has now been widely reported, a then 15-year-old Billy Gilmour was being watched and tracked by Europe's elite. At every age it seems, Billy was able to play above his years, with a confidence and quality that set him apart from the physically bigger and faster players often two or three years his senior; a point that didn't escape his teenage intellect in an interview with the Daily Record, 'I'm not fully developed... Scott Brown is by far the best midfielder in the league... he'd bully me for a full game... though maybe technically I'd be okay'.
Far from being 'okay', it was those technical qualities which set him apart, catching Real Madrid's eye in a Portuguese pre-season tournament where a Rangers team that had also once included Hearts' highly-rated Harry Cochrane, prevailed over their illustrious opposition. This standout trait was apparent again in the Toulon tournament, as Gilmour won 'Revelation of the Tournament' when Scotland reached the semi-finals for consecutive years.
So it was little wonder when Billy was widely expected to make his debut as the youngest ever Rangers player. This would be quite an achievement for any player, at any club, but 15 year-olds aren't considered for a club the size the Glasgow giants without possessing something... well, special.
Gilmour won 'Revelation of the Tournament' as the prestigious Toulon Tournament
Ultimately, Billy wouldn't grace the Ibrox turf he so loved for the first-team, following instead in the footsteps of another special one, to Chelsea. There he would work under one of Mourinho's protégés, the then Chelsea u18 coach, Frank Lampard.
He debuted for the u18's and stood out immediately, scoring on his first three appearances as a 16-year-old before training with the first team on multiple occasions. A League and FA Youth Cup double followed, as did numerous assists and goals, including a well-drilled volley in the final against Arsenal.
Then came the u23's, and again he shone, dictating play in the middle of the pitch as a wafer-thin but razor-sharp 17-year-old who was surprisingly tough and accurate in the tackle. Video compilations started to appear, with titles like 'The Art of Passing' and comparisons to everyone from Scholes to Xavi in the comments section.
The question was, could Billy handle the pressure-cooker attention he was gaining from admiring onlookers? If you're not grasping the gist already, he hasn't known anything different. He has always stood out, and is now even drawing 'world-class' from the most reticent dispenser of compliments.
Throughout this, Gilmour has remained seemingly unaffected, with a down-to-earth belief in his own ability, he has left it for others to gush over his progress. In response to presenter Ewen Cameron mentioning this in the Football Daft show, 'wee' Billy, sitting beside his Dad, 'big Billy', was at pains to say that he doesn't let the hype affect him, he'll 'sit doon with anyone' and hangs out with his mates as normal when he's 'back up the road'.
Such humility and maturity transfer to his game, as Giroud previously outlined, meaning Gilmour is a self-reflective player who works hard on recognising his own areas for development. Fittingly, his coaches all speak of a humble and grounded young man, supported by a very tightly-knit family unit.
So it was that one of those coaches, on returning to Chelsea as Manager, handed Gilmour his Premier League debut against Sheffield United in late August, stating 'complete trust' in the young Scot. Assured performances against Grimsby and Hull, respectively, followed in the FA Cup; before Liverpool, Everton and the promise of a sustained spell in the Chelsea midfield given that his direct competition was either suspended or injured, and all that before the POTM performances.
Rather incredibly, in those accumulated minutes across a handful of games, Gilmour has shown enough to challenge the established and classy Italian internationalist Jorginho, for the deep-lying playmaker role.
Let's pause for a second and surmise that, based upon this evidence, Gilmour can handle the pressure, even thriving the hotter the spotlight becomes, but what of the cause of that pressure; his ability? Have we, the British public, become dizzy with 'Gilmania' for no good reason, or has he been singled out by seemingly every pundit, article and podcast appropriately?
What I'm getting at is; the hype is real, has been accumulating for years, and looks ready to continue, so what is it exactly that makes him special? In a conversation with Sky Sports recently, Lampard was asked this very question;
When you [see him] train day-to-day through the season, Billy moved up to the first-team building a while ago because he just had to. He just trained at such a level... day-in day-out... He deserved to play a bit earlier to be honest but I was probably being over-conservative. The minute he got in there he showed the replication of that, doing the passing drills right, being the brightest player in training... he went and did it against Liverpool, the best team in the country. He set a benchmark.
- Frank Lampard, April 2020
As a football fan who is as prone as any other to become excited over a young player, it was obviously wonderful to hear this. Yet as a football writer, still, my question remained, what did he do Frank? Give us the eyes to see.
'the basics of receiving the ball, turning it around the corner... all the right decisions in the game... are not easy, the simple things are sometimes the hardest, and Billy has those.'
Okay, 'the basics'. You can now see why Roy Keane likes him, as against Liverpool we could all see that he 'tracked his Man(é)' [sorry] when he pinched the ball from the Senegalese inside his own box, preventing a 1:1 and goal-scoring opportunity.
We too can all become guilty of nodding along when a professional footballer speaks of 'the basics' as if we know what that means. However, surely every professional has mastery over the basics? And if that is the case, then why on earth is this cause for the numerous individual accolades fast accumulating next to Gilmour's PlayStation as he plays Daniel James on FIFA for CombatCorona?
Paying attention to the conversation, Lampard and Jamie Redknapp seemed to speak on a level that appeared so simple, yet as a researcher first and foremost, I know that such discourse can only be shared upon a deep working knowledge of the subject matter. To speak simply and accurately requires a careful distillation of well-mined thought. Some may dismiss this talk as 'football people' slinging monosyllabic cliché, and sometimes that is true. However, we know that not to be the case with Lampard.
He thinks a great deal about what he says and is very measured in his vocabulary and delivery, with his cognitive ability well publicised. He is then able to nod along with his pundit-cousin, knowing why 'turning the ball around the corner', 'always being available' and 'putting in a tackle' are so essential for a midfielder, there is something deeper going on, and that can help us to understand what makes Gilmour special.
Let's begin by analysing Keane's maxim; 'track your man', accepting that the former Manchester United captain knows a thing or two about being a top-class midfielder, and let us try to read into what he means... and it probably isn't just 'running'. For such tracking back to be purposeful, incisive, and contribute to play, it first requires excellent positioning, which comes from consistent awareness of space on the pitch and potential developments in play.
Simply put, Gilmour is not faster than Mané, few if any are, but because of his diligence in positioning, he was able to anticipate the movement of play and step in at just the right time, preventing a shot on goal, a possible corner and then retaining possession with a simple pass to the left-back position, drawing applause from the Shed End.
This apparently simple component of 'tracking' is therefore built upon something else. In seeking this intangible quality, we encounter what has often been described as being 'one step ahead', having the 'first yard in your head' or as Keane put it; 'football intelligence'.
Whatever you'd like to call it, this quality is perhaps the key to understanding why Gilmour looks like he has time and space whenever he collects the ball. It is difficult to describe and is awash with the above cliché-nodding for good reason; few footballers have it, and even fewer 18-year-olds, when playing against the runaway league leaders, can demonstrate it. In short, although apparently simple, it is excruciatingly difficult to describe just why it is so rare and important.
This semantic logjam is perhaps helpfully illustrated by Thomas Müller having to invent a phrase ('raumdeuter') to describe his incredibly simple but effective method of playing, or like the famous Jim White question to Brian Laudrup when he was mesmerising defenders whilst playing for Rangers and Denmark, 'Brian, how come you're so good?'. For these players, the game appears effortless, fluid, in control, at ease... they have superfast fibre whilst the rest of us are still buffering.
Perhaps it is the mark of what makes a player special, and why Keane had to 'put his cup of tea down' and find out who this player was. This space and time that Gilmour's intelligence buys him are the bedrock of everything he does, and any subsequent movements in the play seem therefore smooth, elegant and precise because like Müller and Laudrup, he is playing his game, not reacting to another's.
His father, Billy Gilmour Snr., himself an accomplished footballer, recognised this aspect as being important in his son's development from an early age. When 'wee Billy' was training with both Rangers and Celtic, Celtic-supporting 'big Billy' chose Rangers as 'at Billy's age, they played brilliant football, they kept the ball and played through the thirds, they played a football that you'd want to watch... it was great for his development'.
It is heartening to hear of a father making positive choices which break the mould of the Glasgow goldfish bowl, something that happened once before with a certain Rangers-supporting Kenneth Dalglish, another whose ability to find space and use it wisely led to... well, we know the rest.
Müller, Laudrup, Scholes, Xavi, Dalglish... it's hard not to feel the weight of expectation that accompanies those names; each rightly held as generational talents by their clubs, countries and even the most oppositional of fans. When Redknapp compared Billy's effortless execution of 'the basics' to Scholes, Lampard fielded the remark skilfully;
'Billy has shown early signs of that kind of ability, I'm not comparing him to Scholesy, no way at all, but in terms of those qualities that you mentioned, Billy certainly has them.'
In the same answer, Lampard mentions Scholes' transition from attacking midfielder and goal-getter in his youth to world-class deep-lying playmaker later in his career. He describes the attacking area of the pitch as 'cut-throat', where 'space is tighter'. Few know this area of the pitch better than Lampard, and so in this less-forgiving context, how has Gilmour performed? Is he just looking good in an area less challenging and less pressured?
Two examples in each of the games against Merseyside opposition help to examine that query. Later in each game, Gilmour found himself further forward due to substitutions and tactical adjustments, demonstrating again the trust his manager has of him in the final third.
Against Everton, Gilmour was moved forward to support his friend and fellow academy graduate, substitute Tino Anjorin. Seizing a chance to close down a tired André Gomes, the still fresh, razor-limbed, Gilmour wriggled the ball free and galloped towards goal. Dropping the shoulder he weighted the ball perfectly to Anjorin, only for a heavy touch and excellent recovery challenge to rob the debutant of a late goal.
It was against Liverpool however where the watching world gasped audibly, the latest to join the conversation which began in Auchenhowie. Gilmour, receiving the ball side-on to an on-rushing Fabinho, unarguably the best defensive midfielder in the league this season, had a split second to react. He could have played the ball square to the advancing Pedro, instead, he dared what no one could have predicted, and rolled the ball with his studs through the Brazilian's legs, playing his game and shifting the other 21 players' conception entirely, before playing another perfectly weighted pass to Giroud, who managed a shot on goal.
When space was tighter, Gilmour applied fight and finesse in appropriate measure. Regarding the nutmeg, commentators were rendered speechless, along with the rest of us, stopping mid-sentence, 'Oh!...', before taking a moment to remark simply, 'Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant'.
The resulting commentary continued to reflect the same infectious enjoyment with which Gilmour was playing, 'he's having a very good start to this match, Billy Gilmour, another tackle that he flung himself at and won the ball'; or when he broke the lines and galloped past Fabinho again, 'he's gliding'. Dribbling, tackling, carrying, passing. Simple things, done well; 'the basics'.
Whilst this may only be a glimpse into his talents, we haven't spoken of his passing range for example or his dead-ball delivery, I'll leave that to the numerous compilations on YouTube for you to enjoy, it is hopefully a balm to soothe the fear that accompanies hype. For all the furore surrounding this young man, he's steady and calm, much like his style of play.
The hustle and bustle will continue, but one thing we can rely on is his ability to tune it out and play his own game. He's been doing it since travelling between the Old Firm with his Dad, and moved 417 miles to continue this relentless mastery of the basics. Gilmour seems to know what he is doing and how he can improve, and maybe we should all relax a little, put down our cup of tea, and enjoy him, for there is plenty to enjoy. In closing, let's recall what Jamie's Dad said all those years ago about a certain teenage midfielder.
“I'm telling you now, he will go right to the very top. Right to the very top. 'Cos he's got everything that is needed to be a top midfield player"
Well said Harry, well said.