The glitz, the glamour, the fast cars and the beautiful women. Yes, the life of a Premier League footballer sure is tempting. The closest that I ever got to this lifestyle were the dreams of international soccer stardom that I had as a kid, but for a few select youngsters the Premier League is within their reach. The lure of playing of playing in sell-out, state of the art stadia every week can be too much to resist, but are too many of the brightest young players making this jump too early in their careers?
The mentality of getting to the top as quickly as possible exists in just about every profession with the lure of the big bucks often hard to turn down. However, a young player turning his back on a lower league club to join the riches of the Premier League can often find himself consigned to the reserve team scrap-heap. The buzz around the youngster fizzles away and he becomes another ‘what if’ player.
The latest young players linked with their big Premier League moves are Ipswich’s Connor Wickham and Southampton’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and both have gone about their business very differently.
Oxlade-Chambelain is only 17 years-old and has just broken into the Southampton first-team, yet has been tipped with a move to the Premier League since December. It appears like he is keen to make the move this month to either Liverpool or Arsenal and his father, Mark Chamberlain, has made no secret of who he’s like his son to join. He said: “Arsenal, with the manager there, the way they play and how they develop players I think they are the ideal choice”.
On the other side, we have Wickham. Wickham is also 17, yet has made almost twice as many first-team appearances as Oxlade-Chamberlain. He has been on the big boy’s radar since making his debut at the age of 16 in 2009 and is continually linked with the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal. He has gone about his business quietly and has remained a consistent performer at Portman Road. He has recently signed a new deal which will keep him at Ipswich until 2013 in order to keep progressing and playing football.
Both players have chosen to take different paths in their careers and only time will tell who has made the better decision for their career.
It is important for young players to be playing first-team football regularly – which is the reason that so many Premier League teams send their young players out on loan to lower-league clubs. Nowadays teams sometimes use the option to buy a player and then let him spend the first year of his contract on loan at the team which they have brought him from, a scenario usually beneficial to all parties involved. The lower league team can retain the players’ services for another year, the player himself continues to develop in familiar surroundings and with the same coaches while the buying team know that their investment is playing regular football and is in good hands. From a fan’s perspective, if they know a young player won’t go straight into their first team and risks being forgotten about in the reserves then the loan move is clearly the better option.
Tottenham’s squad contains good examples of players who have made the step up at an early stage in their career, but to mixed fortunes. Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton, both right backs, both joined Spurs from Sheffield United in 2009. While thought highly of by fans, they have amassed a total of four first team appearances between them since they joined. Walker was loaned back to Sheffield United for the 09/10 season where he played every game until February, but Naughton was not. Both have gone on numerous loan moves since, but with Alan Hutton, Vedran Corluka and even Younes Kaboul ahead of them in the pecking order neither is any closer to a regular staring place now then when they joined.
Gareth Bale and Tom Huddlestone’s stories though have been slightly more successful. Bale joined at the age of 18 and Huddlestone joined at the age of 19 and both currently find themselves a permanent fixture in the first team. So why the contrasting stories?
Like it or not, footballers rely heavily on luck. Would Gareth Bale be making headlines if Benoit Assou Ekotto hadn’t got injured last January? Who’d have thought that Alan Hutton would still be at Tottenham, let alone having an extended run in the side, thus keeping Naughton and Walker away from the first team? Things happen in football which means that some players get breaks and some don’t. Bale and Huddlestone both had to wait their turn in order to get their chance, so young players need to remember that the opportunity that they crave may take some time in coming.
It should be considered that just because a player isn’t making headlines on the back pages it doesn’t mean that he isn’t progressing as a player, learning the game and growing up. Some players take longer to mature than others. But then some players just aren’t suited to the Premier League, but how will they know unless they try? – surely it’s better to make the move when you have the chance then risk never having the opportunity again.