The Scottish tanna’ ba’ player once cut a distinctive figure in the British game. He had grown up kicking a tanna’ ba’ (tennis ball) in the streets of Glasgow, Aberdeen or Dundee and combined a precocious willingness to take on opponents with a prickly, aggressive nature.
At the more talented end of the spectrum were players like Jimmy Johnstone; at the more aggressive end stood the likes of Billy Bremner (or indeed any of the Scottish players in the Leeds side). Probably the last of the tanna’ ba’ players was United’s Gordon Strachan. They don’t make them like that anymore in Scotland, and Scottish football has declined as a result.
Despite the name, he isn’t Scottish, but United youngster James Weir is like the tanna’ ba’ player resurrected. He’s been a major part of the title push of the Under 21 team in the current campaign, driving the team on from his advanced midfield position and often playing a crucial role in swinging tighter games in United’s favour.
It’s been that never say die attitude, as much as the quality of their attacking play, that’s made the Under 21s such a joy to watch this season, and Weir epitomises it more than anyone. 1-0 down and struggling at Middlesbrough earlier in the season, Weir almost single-handedly took the game by the scruff of the neck, winning a penalty and then supplying the ball that put the Boro defence under pressure and yielded the own goal that gave United their win.
He was at it again at Old Trafford on Monday night, his persistence and ability to arrive Scholes-like in the penalty area at the vital time bringing United’s equaliser against Chelsea. Typically, it was Weir’s header that brought United closest to grabbing the winner.
The Scholes comparison is one you wouldn’t want to weigh around Weir’s neck too heavily. Those are huge boots to fill, after all. Yet Weir, like the young Scholes, has had to fight for his place in United’s academy teams, his determination and positional sense allowing him to hold his own in the company of more naturally gifted players.
But then that was what the tanna’ ba’ player always did. Weir may have grown up on the streets of Preston rather than Glasgow, but it’s an unmistakeable element of his make-up as a player. It’s also something that, should he ever become a regular part of the senior squad – he made his debut as a substitute against Arsenal, of course – will surely make him a huge favourite among United fans.