Trent Alexander-Arnold announced himself to the football world this week with a stunning free-kick against Hoffenheim in Liverpool’s Champions League Qualifier. The 18 year old broke into the Liverpool first team last season, and will be hoping to cement his place in Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI this time out. But, as the newspaper articles on the young Scouser’s rise to prominence flood the back pages, cautionary tales from the assembly line of football talent should be observed.
“Remember the name!”. It’s a phrase scribbled onto teamsheets by football commentators the world over, a reminder that, should the academy prospect included today net a spectacular goal, the clip of their commentary may be played for years to come. Every broadcaster is looking for their iconic moment – Jonathan Pearce’s meltdown over goal line technology at the 2014 World Cup is a peerless example – and in 2002 Clive Tyldesley got his when, commentating for ITV’s short-lived highlights show The Premiership, he exclaimed the opening missive over footage of Wayne Rooney’s long-range effort against Arsenal.
From that moment on the hype surrounding Rooney was unabated. He won the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year a few months later, and was awarded his first England cap in February 2003. By the time he’d starred for England at Euro 2004 he was the subject of intense transfer speculation, and duly joined Manchester United for £25.6m, then a world record for a teenager. The rest is history and senior citizens, but with the common consensus among football writers and pundits that Rooney’s ability has been on the wane for the past few years (while contemporaries such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi maintain their reputations as the best in the world), is there an argument that England’s top scorer could have reached the galactic heights had he not achieved so much so soon?
“As a young player it’s good to be known as a good player, but you don’t want that super media attention…it’s like they’re setting you up to fail”
When Rooney retires he’ll leave behind a legacy – not just his record 183 goals for Manchester United, or the increased profile for vegetables that look like celebrities – but the attitudes of the media and football fans towards promising young players. True, the sight of a youngster that has worked their way up through the academy and into the first team has always been a cause of excitement for anyone that loves the football. When Michael Owen first broke into the Liverpool team he was quickly hailed as England’s bright hope for the next decade. But there’s an argument that Owen’s formative years weren’t subject to the same scrutiny as those post-Rooney.
One player that didn’t live up to the hype happened to make his England debut on the same night as Rooney. Fellow Evertonian Francis Jeffers had already seen the best years of his career by the time he scored in a 3-1 defeat to Australia at Upton Park, the only England cap he would receive. Jeffers made his debut at Everton as a 16 year old, and would score 20 goals in 60 games for The Toffees by the time he was 19 – earning him the nickname ‘The Fox in The Box’ as an £8m move to Arsenal. Looking back, Jeffers admits that overconfidence in his ability led to finding himself out of his depth. “I look back now at that Arsenal squad I joined and think, ‘How did I ever believe I was going to get in the team?’”. Eight goals in four years at Highbury led to an eventual transfer to Charlton Athletic, and from then on Jeffers’ career slowly went southward.
“I think a 15 or 16-year-old…really needs help. It’s a big bad world out there in football and it’s easy for a young footballer to be sucked into a certain way of life.”
Francis Jeffers was guilty of believing the media hype, but other players have found themselves steamrollered by the circus surrounding their precocious talents. At the age of 14, Freddy Adu was hailed the next Pele. His impressive performances for the USA at the Under-17 World Cup in 2003 led to him being drafted by DC United and by the time he was 18 he’d been snapped up by Benfica for big wages. His profile in America was enormous, having appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and christened the future of the USMNT, but his reputation in the Eagles dressing room was non-existent. Ten years, ten clubs, and a relationship with Jojo later, Adu has just signed for Sandecja Nowy Sącz in Poland.
The story of Sonny Pike is, perhaps, the most cautionary tale of a young football talent gone wrong. First noticed when playing for school sides at the age of seven, by the time he was 14, Pike was living the life of a professional footballer. He had a sponsorship deal with Paul Smith, and was starring in adverts of McDonalds and Coca-Cola. He trialed at Ajax among others but eventually signed for Leyton Orient where his fame-hungry father stitched up a proposed transfer to Chelsea for a documentary exposing tapping-up in football. As a result, Pike was banned for a year. The breakdown of this transfer and this relationship with his father led to Pike suffering a severe lack of confidence. After appearing for trials for various league teams, Pike decided to turn his back on the game.
“We don’t know if there if a lad in our national under-16s, if he is going to have a career in the game. People are saying at 8, 9, 10, 11 that boy is going to be a pro. It’s nonsense, you can’t do that.”
The intervening fifteen years since Rooney’s goal against Everton have seen a litany of players fail to live up to their potential, whilst others – such as the members of all conquering Chelsea Youth Cup winning team – have seen their careers plateau. It takes a certain type of personality to take on the mantle of ‘exciting prospect’, the likes of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Dele Alli appear to be firmly grounded, whilst simultaneously showcasing their incredible talents on a weekly basis. Trent Alexander-Arnold appears to possess the talent for a regular first-team berth at Liverpool, but he may need the guiding hand of his teammates to ensure he doesn’t get carried away.