The 30th anniversary of the release of the Blue Nile’s magnificently melancholic album Hats received a measure of recognition this week.
Walking to Hampden Park in the drizzle last Sunday night felt like stepping into one of their songs, particularly From A Late Night Train, a track off that record, with its talk of rainy pavements and the haunting reprise: “It’s over now, I know it’s over…” And not just because it seemed to chime with Scotland’s Euro 2020 group qualifying campaign.
The song would also work as an elegy for the career of Islam Feruz – a player who might have been expected to fire Scotland to these finals. The trope of the footballer who could have had it all, but threw it away, is a hackneyed one now. But rarely has it been portrayed as starkly as it was last weekend. Parking near Hampden ahead of Scotland’s clash with San Marino, I was pointed in the direction of an interesting figure playing across the road at Toryglen.
On the farthest away pitch, Feruz was in action for a team of Govan associates against another side going under the name of The Unscoutables. When I say he was in action, that’s not strictly accurate. Clearly unfit, he featured as a second half substitute. His side lost 4-0.
I’d left long before, to report on Scotland’s progress literally across the road. Teamsheets handed out in the Hampden media room confirmed a start for Dundee United’s Lawrence Shankland – born in August 1995, just a month before Feruz.
As expected, the side would be skippered by Andy Robertson, who recently recalled playing alongside Feruz for Celtic youth teams. “He was the golden boy,” said Robertson.
It was widely assumed that, by the age of 24, Feruz would be displaying his extravagant talent on the international stage. At the very least it was expected he would be playing regularly somewhere. The last time he featured for Scotland was in a 6-0 defeat to England Under 21s in 2013. By then at Chelsea, he was subbed off after 62 minutes.
“After the game he was more interested in getting home to London than anything else,” a member of the backroom staff says now. “It has not surprised me the way his career has gone.”
But the extent of the decline is startling. It’s further illustrated by just how far Robertson has travelled in the other direction, and now, too, Shankland.
Two years ago, the striker was on loan at Morton, career going nowhere fast. Now look at him. Look at Feruz. At the side of a pitch in the rain, waiting to come on. His is a cautionary tale exposing the myth of talent, which, it has been proved again and again, is never enough in itself.
Shankland would presumably concede he had an easier start. After all, his family were not forced to seek asylum in order to move to the United Kingdom from famine and conflict-ravaged Somalia. But one is making the most of what he has been given, while the other is, well, what is he doing exactly?
There was a forgettable spell on loan at Hibs from Chelsea but that was four years ago. Feruz’s last competitive appearance was in April 2017 while on loan at Swindon in a 3-0 defeat to Charlton. Now it’s kickabouts in the shadow of Hampden, the stadium which should have been his playground.