It’s been just over a year since the new chairman of the FA, Greg Dyke, lambasted the lack of homegrown talent in the Premier League.
According to Dyke, a bleak future lay ahead for the English national side unless changes were made at both youth level and in the Premier League. Yet, in the opening weeks of the 2015-2016 season, several emerging starlets have re-opened the debate.
The emergence of the likes of Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Reece Oxford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have given hope to future tournament participation. But, is this all just a flash in the pan? Have England’s ‘wonder kids’ always been overhyped? We at Shoot thought it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of some of the failed English ‘wonder-kids’ in the Premier League era.
NAME: Sonny Pike
WONDER-KID STATUS: There was a media frenzy about a British boy in the widely acclaimed Ajax academy during the mid-1990s. Described as the next George Best, huge expectations were placed on Pike’s head before he’d even kicked a professional football. According to football magazine, WSC, 13-year-old Pike had “a lot of skill, could pass it and was a nice player, but he lacked pace.” Appearances on Big Breakfast, Sky Sports and Blue Peter cemented his place as England’s next great hope.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Despite the hype, Pike is no longer in football. It is widely believed that the media pressures got the better of both Pike and his family; leading to a breakdown in his parent’s marriage. He had spells in the English non-league but, ultimately, never managed to fulfil huge potential.
NAME: Francis Jeffers
WONDER-KID STATUS: After making his Premier League debut as a 16-year-old in 1997, big things were expected of Everton’s local lad. Just four years later, Jeffers was given his opportunity to impress at elite level. Arsenal decided to part with an eye-opening sum of £8 million for the so-called ‘fox in the box’. At England Under-21 level, Jeffers held the all-time scoring record with 13 goals in just 16 games.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Remarkably, Jeffers’ career peaked at the age of just 21. His time at Arsenal was, to put it lightly, a disaster. In 22 games for the North London giants, Jeffers managed a measly four goals. And, despite scoring on his England debut in 2003, the former Everton man would struggle to ever hold down a regular first-team place again. After touring around the Football League, and briefly touching down in Australia, Jeffers hung up his boots in 2013, aged 32.
NAME: Cherno Samba
WONDER-KID STATUS: For anyone familiar with the Championship Manager franchise, Samba’s name was one said in delight. For a whole generation of adolescents, the big powerful forward was the man to buy. In the real world, Samba had broken goalscoring records at every youth level. As a 13-year-old, he scored 132 goals in just 32 games for his school side. In 2001, Liverpool offered Samba’s club, Millwall, £2 million for the then 17-year-old.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Samba’s hype on the Championship Manager wasn’t without foundation. The £2 million offer from Liverpool for the England Youth International eventually collapsed and Samba begrudgingly signed school boy forms with Millwall. He was fully expected to spearhead England’s attack at the 2006 World Cup and dominate the back pages of the tabloids in Britain. Speaking with the Guardian in 2007, Samba said that all the attention he received made him feel as though he had made it. He lost focus and was eventually released by Millwall without ever playing a professional game for the club. Now 29, Samba has retired from professional football.
NAME: James Vaughan
WONDER-KID STATUS: At the age of 16, Vaughan came off the bench for Everton in the 2004-2005 season and, within minutes, became the youngest scorer in Premier League history. The striker had the raw pace, strength and determination of a superstar in the making.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Now aged 27, Vaughan hasn’t pushed on as many expected. After several loan moves and seemingly continuous injury problems, Vaughan left boyhood club, Everton, in the summer of 2011. Unfortunately for Vaughan, his time at new club, Norwich City, was also interrupted by persistent injury. In 2013, Vaughan moved to Huddersfield Town in the Championship. His time at the club has been much more successful, and, in the last year or so, he’s managed 17 goals in 50 league games. Internationally, Vaughan never quite managed to break into the England senior fold and, in 2012, declared himself eligible for the Jamaican international side.
NAME: Michael Johnson
WONDER-KID STATUS: Before Manchester City’s financial takeover changed their whole perspective, the club were far more reliant on the production of homegrown talent. In 2006, a young box-to-box midfielder emerged from the club’s academy. Former youth team captain Michael Johnson was, as a player, mature beyond his years – displaying characteristics similar to that of Steven Gerrard. By the end of the 2007-2008 season, he was one of the first names on the Manchester City team sheet.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Johnson’s case is one of the most peculiar episodes in English football history. After storming onto the scene and impressing managers worldwide, Johnson picked up, what seemed to be, an innocuous abdominal injury. However, when he finally reappeared – some 12 months later – his appearance was completely different. He had lost his skinny, wiry frame and his golden long hair had been replaced by a skin head. This would be one of the last times Manchester City fans would see Johnson in the club’s shirt. In 2012, Johnson was finally released from his contract. He revealed, in 2014, that he had received treatment for mental health issues and was looking forward to a future away from the limelight. In January 2015, Johnson opened an estate agent’s business in his hometown of Urmston and has plans in motion to open a fine dining restaurant in Didsbury, Manchester.
NAME: Giles Barnes
WONDER-KID STATUS: At the age of 18, Barnes established himself as a pivotal part of Derby County’s 2006-2007 promotion push into the Premier League. His performances also saw him named as Derby’s “Young Player of the Year”. Many expected Barnes to push on and secure a move to a Premier League giant in the not too distant future. A £5 million move to Liverpool was heavily touted in the press.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Now aged 27, very much like Vaughan, Barnes’ career has been blighted by injury. His breakthrough season in the Premier League was restricted by injury. As Derby were relegated back into the Championship, Barnes’ stock slowly diminished. A move to Premier League side, West Brom, offered him the chance to re-affirm his position as one of the country’s top up-and-coming talents. Again though, Barnes struggled to make an impact and he was soon released. However, in recent times, Barnes has managed to resurrect his professional career in the MLS with Houston Dynamo. He has a decent goal return too – 25 goals in 81 league appearances. In June 2014, Barnes announced his intention to represent Jamaica at international level. This proved to be a masterstroke as, just a year later, he helped his adopted national side to the 2015 Gold Cup final.
NAME: John Bostock
WONDER-KID STATUS: Bostock created waves in 2007 when he made his professional debut for Crystal Palace at the age of 15. The central midfielder was seen to be so valuable to his club that a proposed transfer to Tottenham was taken to the high court in May 2008. After the move to Spurs was finally ratified, Bostock was heavily lauded as the future of the club. Within months, he had become Spurs’ youngest ever player to feature in a competitive fixture.
WHERE IS HE NOW? Bostock never managed to established himself in the Spurs squad. Blaming his failures on an attitude issue, former manager Harry Redknapp used Bostock sparingly. After several loan spells away from the club, Bostock finally established himself in Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon side. His performances for the club saw him picked up by Toronto FC in the MLS. However, again, he struggled and, after six years as a Tottenham player, was finally released. He has since attempted to resurrect his career in Belgium with, first, Royal Antwerp, and most recently, with OH Leuven. He has scored 14 goals in 38 games for the newly-promoted side. Bostock has pointed out in several interviews that he is still only 23. He still harbours hopes of a return to the English game at some point in the future.