Over the course of the past twenty years in the Premier League young players have made that transition from playing for a solid mid-table top flight team to one of the Premiership’s elite with relative ease. As a result, they have gone on to be huge successes at their clubs. Examples of these triumphs are notably Frank Lampard, who moved to Chelsea from West Ham aged 23, Joe Cole, who also moved to Chelsea from West Ham aged 21 and Wayne Rooney, who moved from Everton to Manchester United aged 18.
However, for one reason or another, there are those players in the Premier League who have made the coveted ‘big move’ and it just hasn’t worked out for them. Examples of these players include Matthew Etherington, who moved from Peterborough to Tottenham, aged 19, and more recently we have witnessed Andy Carroll fail to capitalise on his move to Liverpool, aged 22 and Adam Johnson likewise, who joined Manchester City, aged 23.
So, this begs the question, when is the right time for a youngster to move to the big clubs? What are the key factors between a successful big move and a downright transfer nightmare? The purpose of this article is to consider some of the suggestions in tackling the question. In doing so, I will primarily focus on the two different fortunes of Frank Lampard and Adam Johnson. One of the first factors that sprung to my mind when thinking about the question was in regards to longevity at the smaller Premier League clubs. In other words, do young players benefit from having a long and sustained period playing for the smaller teams in the top flight? After all, Frank Lampard played for West Ham from the age of 17 through to being 23 before he made his £11 million switch to Chelsea in 2001.So was Lampard’s success down to the fact that he was more ready to play for a top side because of his six years at West Ham?
Well, probably not. And here’s why. An interesting juxtaposition to Lampard’s case study is that of Adam Johnson’s. He, like Lampard, made his debut aged 17 playing for Middlesbrough through to being 23 when he joined Roberto Mancini’s men. Despite being a highly talented winger, realistically Johnson joined Sunderland probably disappointing that he failed make a valuable impression in his move to a top club such as Manchester City. Additionally, I have always found it interesting when studying Sir Alex Ferguson’s young purchases at Manchester United. Examples of these signings in recent years include Rooney, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. What is significant in these three signings is that Ferguson has been forthcoming in bringing them to Old Trafford despite each player having only played two full seasons in the Premier League previous to joining the Red Devils.
This lack of correlation in the aforementioned examples leads me to question whether there is a right or a wrong time for a youngster to move to a big club. There is an argument that rather there being ‘the right time’ to move to a big club, actually, the difference in success and failure in moving to a big club is more dependent on ability and perhaps, more importantly, circumstances. For example,Frank Lampard joined Chelsea during the fairly dour days of Claudio Ranieri in charge at Stamford Bridge. He barely faced any competition for his place. He started his Blues career in midfield which consisted of Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit, both of whom were at the back end of their career, as well as Boudewijn Zenden, who let’s face it barely set the world alight.
By contrast, Johnson joined a City side where competitions for places was already strong with the likes of Craig Bellamy, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Martin Petrov, Carlos Tevez, Stephen Ireland and Gareth Barry all able to play in his position. Johnson’s circumstances only worsened with the likes of David Silva, Mario Balotelli, James Milner and Samir Nasri followed him to the Etihad.
A further argument is to suggest that the right time for a youngster to move to the big clubs is indeed very, very young. Many of the very best players in the world have actually played for big clubs all their careers. As a result, they find the transition to playing in the senior teams much easier. Examples of these players include Cesc Fabregas, who joined Barcelona aged 10, Lionel Messi, who joined Barcelona aged 13, and domestically, John Terry, who joined Chelsea, aged 14. Granted, these players are certainly world class in their respective positions, but maybe there is something to the old adage that success breeds success. The ability of these players to succeed at the big clubs is in their environment of not knowing anything else but to be a winner from the moment their voice starts to break.
Therefore, I have concluded that the best time to make the ‘big move’ is at a very young age. If not, then players subsequently become more reliant on circumstances working in their favour in order to be successful at the very big clubs.
I would love to hear your opinion on when is it the right for youngsters to make their move to the big clubs?
Matt Read Don’t forget to follow Matt’s articles @matt_of_the_day
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