England is known for producing some of the best young talents the footballing world has seen. They are equally known for having many youngsters who were destined to go onto successful careers, but couldn’t live with up to the hype. This has been a recurring theme for English players ever since their last mass production of youth coming in the form of the so-called “golden generation”. These players all lived up to the potential that was seen in them from a young age, so why have we not seen this in more youth in well over a decade?
From the 1990s and even earlier, young English players have been bursting onto the scene with many able to hold down places at the top English clubs as teenagers. Manchester United and Liverpool are two clubs who have always had youth coming through their academies and going on to be successful. Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, all homegrown players who would go on to become superstars and some of the biggest names in football. They were able to make a name for themselves in the Premier League despite their youth. After this influx of English youth, there has been a sharp decline in quality and longevity from young English players who were supposed to be “the next big thing.”
Of course, not every young player who comes through is going to go on and have the careers of the names we have just mentioned, but since these players, there are not many names I can think of that would even be put in the same bracket. Players like Jack Wilshere, David Bentley, Jack Rodwell and Theo Walcott, to name but a few, were painted to be football’s next “wonderkids” who would make history. As history would tell, this never happened as these names perished into the abyss of the ‘what could have been’ category.
The biggest name that is a key example of this is Jack Wilshere, who was something else on his day for Arsenal. After his star-studded midfield masterclass against Barcelona in 2011, he was tipped to one day replace the midfield maestros Xavi and Iniesta and become England’s next big star. He rose through Arsenal’s academy and won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in his first season. His passing game was up there with the best in the world, but he was prone to injuries and this stunted his rise to the top. He was never able to get a good run in the team once he began picking up injuries, which saw him lose his confidence. A truly world-class player on his day that had the potential to be an England legend.
Another player who caught the eye from a young age and was tipped as being the next David Beckham was David Bentley. Bentley also came through the ranks at Arsenal’s youth academy, but it was his two seasons at Blackburn where he really distinguished himself as a quality player. Tottenham would make him their then club-record signing at £16.5 million, but his career would only go downhill from here when it should have taken off. Injuries and a lack of game time would lead to him unfulfilling his potential and eventually retiring at 29, after losing his love for the game.
Theo Walcott was one of the most exciting young players coming through for England in 2006 when he was named in their World Cup squad as a 17-year-old. He was then snapped up by Arsène Wenger at Arsenal and the future looked promising, with Walcott receiving comparisons to Thierry Henry. He struggled to find where he was best suited on the pitch, going from a winger to a striker, but his chances were always limited and he never got his chance to nail down a regular spot. He never got near to fulfilling his potential and would leave Arsenal for more game time, but he couldn’t revive his career.
Of all of the young talent who have at one stage or another been touted as a future England star, these players were really expected to do something special with their careers. The fact that this is always a case with young English players, I had to consider an obvious question: Does the attention and hype from the media and fans play a part? It can be easy to point fingers and look for reasons for failed prospects, but everyone knows what the English media is like. They will jump onto the bandwagon of any young talent that has a half-decent game. Surely this is a factor in players not being able to maintain the hype around them. English players, out of any other nation in the world, are critiqued, analyzed and scrutinized by those who have a front seat view.
The English media places a sense of hope and expectation on the shoulders of the next generation of players coming through that show any signs of being a quality player. We have heard countless names over the years of players who were supposed to win England a major tournament, and those same players wouldn’t even make a cap for their country. This pressure placed on young players by the media no doubt has an effect on their growth. Due to this extra coverage in papers and television, fans hop on this hype train and set unrealistic expectations for a player, having only seen them a handful of times. Not many people can cope with this attention at an early age. This gets into their heads, it’s no longer about enjoying football, they now have people expecting great things from them that wasn’t there before. This will either make or break a player, but unfortunately for England, they have been on the receiving end of this for a long time with young prospects crumbling to the pressure.
A lot of young players can get drawn into this hype around them and lose the balance of themselves, especially with the money that is in the game and the lifestyle that comes with it. We have seen this with a lot of young stars who became more concerned with their cars and profile than what they do on the pitch. It can be hard to keep your feet on the ground and not believe the hype in yourself when everyone is talking about you. This is where it is important who they have around them, people to keep them grounded and give them guidance. Sadly, not every player has this and they can quickly get sucked into the never-ending pit that is money in football, where a players wage can affect their on-field performance.
Some recent players that come to mind are the likes of Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, two young players who lit up the Premier League with Manchester United and Tottenham, respectively. Both of these maintained this level for over a season which was a very promising sign. The attention around the two of them was the biggest it had been for years. Two creative players who were excellent on the ball and had an eye for goal, it was just what England needed. Both players would receive new contracts, different from anything they had ever received. Their performances have never really been the same since which does raise a few suspicions and questions. Were they a genuine talent or just overrated and another victim of the hype train instigated by the English media? Both are quite similar in their interests outside of football, with their high-end products, advertisements, sponsorship deals, unique dance moves and constant social media promotions. It really is a pity as they looked like genuine talents, but it’s not just about football any more with some players, there are other temptations.
A major issue that we began to see around 2010 onwards was the absence of young English talent in the Premier League, due to the money being spent on foreign players. Young players were suffering from a lack of game time due to each squad preferring to enter into the transfer market for a recognized name in Europe. Due to so many “flops” of young talent occurring, clubs didn’t want to take the risk of being another club that failed to develop a potential star. The influx of both money and foreign internationals into the Premier League was on the rise for years, but Manchester City really kick-started a new beast when it came to it in the 2010s. Big transfers were happening at every team with club-record fees being broken in almost every window. At this time, the national team was struggling at tournaments, with most of their key players for the last 10 years coming towards the end of their careers. They were screaming out for fresh, young talent, but less and less were emerging. This was a dark time to be an emerging English youngster.
The reducing number of English players in the Premier League and Champions League was clear. English players were producing the least amount of minutes on the pitch in group stages across Europe, compared to every other nation. Clubs in Germany and Spain consisted of predominately home-grown players, who took up the starting 11. Whereas, English clubs had one or two home-grown players starting. The lack of quality amongst English players was a reason for this, so this became a major hindrance for young talent looking to break through into the top sides. Barely any English players were playing abroad, they weren’t wanted. Opportunities were limited and English players were in fear of being tossed aside.
A word that is often associated with English footballers is “overrated.” The public attitude around the players is that most of them are rated a lot better than what they actually are. This really became apparent with the new style of play entering the game; fast, passing football. English players were getting exposed in this style and replaced by foreign stars who knew how to play the system. Players who were once seen as world-class were now becoming average and eventually losing their place in the team. Because of this attitude around English players, not many clubs wanted to bring young players through, instead, they would scout for young Spanish or young Brazilian players. It was and still is hard to break into a team that is full of such world-class players, an issue facing every young Englishman. If they are not given the opportunities, how are they ever going to make a name for themselves and achieve something?
English players as a whole, have underachieved in many ways, not just the young talents coming through. England has not lived up to expectations at just about any major tournament they have been in. The one tournament that they did do well in, the 2018 World Cup, expectations were at an all-time low. This low expectation seems to have been just what the team needed after years of pressure to achieve. The young team accomplished something no one thought they would, making it to the semi-finals. Gareth Southgate deserves plaudits, not just for that performance, but his hand in producing young talent at underage level and then giving them the chance to prove themselves. Because of this, young English players are now getting more chances at top clubs to prove themselves after years of drought.
Young talents like Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phil Foden, Tammy Abraham, Declan Rice and James Maddison have all emerged as top players at their clubs. The future of England has never looked brighter with an influx of young English talent coming through the ranks due to these players proving that they have the capabilities of competing. England has one of the youngest national squads in the world and is all gelling together under Gareth Southgate. For the first time in a long time, there is optimism around these players and the team. But, as we know, English players rarely live up to the hype, so let’s just hope these young stars aren’t going to be added to the list of underachievers like many young talents have.
The reason why so many of England’s young talents underachieve can be put down to a number of reasons; attitude, lifestyle, media hype too early, injuries, sheer talent and dedication. These all often combine to ruin a prospect by putting them in the limelight too early. They can have all the talent in the world, but if they don’t work hard, they won’t succeed, which has been the case for many young English talents.