There are many players who never reach their full potential for various reasons. In this list I have focused on those within the Premier League years and those who never reached the heights their early years suggested they would.
10) Mark Kennedy – Kennedy was a regular at Millwall by 16 and his pacy wing-play had a number of top clubs courting him. He had the priceless commodity of a decent left foot and further enhanced his reputation with an exhilarating solo goal at Highbury to knock Arsenal out of the ‘95 FA Cup. His big move soon came but came too soon. A switch to Liverpool for a sum of around £2m made Kennedy the most expensive teenage footballer in British history but he came nowhere near repaying the fee and faith. 18 goalless appearances at Anfield later and Kennedy was carted off to Wimbledon in a move that began a nomadic career whereby he never did anything to justify the hype which accompanied a great goal and a few good performances as a kid.
9) Jermaine Pennant – Pennant epitomises the many players of supreme talent who’s main failings in the game were not combining their ability with the attitude it required to flourish. Arsenal made Pennant the most expensive trainee in history when they paid Notts County £2m for the 15-year-old in 1999, but a move to the big smoke was not necessarily the best thing a troubled kid from a crime-ridden area of Nottingham could have done. Pennant simply never grew into anything other than a super-skilled teen and thus never showed the maturity or application to succeed at Arsenal. A series of loan moves proved Pennant was infuriatingly inconsistent and when a second chance of the big time with Liverpool came in 2006, he never lived up to his billing their either. There have been plenty worse players than Pennant and still performing admirably for Stoke suggests his inclusion is harsh, but no England caps and no silverware shows the lost promise.
8. Matthew Etherington – Pennant’s partner in crime at Stoke has also gone on to find redemption in the Potteries but like his mate patrolling the other flank, he too must wonder what could have been. The lesser spotted English left-footed winger, Etherington’s performances as a kid brought him a trial at Manchester United and a move to Tottenham but again the expectations never materialised and after four fruitless seasons at White Hart Lane, Etherington was sold to West Ham. Throughout his stint in the capital, Etherington’s subdued on-field form was precursored with an off-field gambling addiction which led to a stint in Tony Adams’s Sporting Chance clinic. Etherington has since gone on to enjoy a decade of relatively continuous football in the top-flight without ever coming close to being one of it’s top performers.
7) Nigel Clough – It takes some doing to step out of the shadow of a figure like Brian Clough but in his own unflappable manner, Clough Jr looked like he was going to manage it as he became one of the most prominent strikers in English football towards the end of the 80’s. Short of inches and shorn of weight, Clough’s intelligent understanding and appreciation of the game was light years away from many other domestic players of his generation and saw him become the unwitting jewell in the crown of his Dad’s Forest team. Nigel played in two successive League Cup wins in ‘89 and ‘90 – scoring two against Luton in the first – and was also on the losing side in the ’91 FA and ’92 League Cup finals. But once his club were relegated from the inaugural Premiership, Clough left as the clubs second highest goalscorer of all time and a move to Liverpool awaited. Anfield was in revolution under Graeme Souness and in three years on Merseyside, Clough never adapted to being away from home and his stock slumped dramatically to the point he was playing in the Southern Football League Premier Division by the time he was 32.
6) Richard Wright – Unfortunately Richard Wright carries the can for a whole host of suspects who were supposed to be the great white light of English goalkeeping. Wright played over 200 times for Ipswich after coming through the ranks at Portman Road and his all-round assured keeping had him earmarked as the long term successor to David Seaman for both Arsenal and England. Alarm bells should have rung when he gave two penalties away on his international debut against Malta but nevertheless Arsene Wenger shelled out £8m for him to be the Highbury number one, but Wright departed after a single season, 22 appearances and numerous gaffes later. Now just 34 – a age many keepers consider their prime – Wright is hanging about in the Ipswich reserves to complete a hugely disappointing circumnavigation.
5) Joe Cole – Misunderstood genius or impractical luxury? The fact nobody has ever fully found a solution overwhelmingly suggests the former. Cole was instantly cast into the public eye after a sensational FA Youth Cup final performance for West Ham against Coventry in ‘99 and he was quickly inducted into the Hammers set-up at 17 and club captain by 21. His illuminating feet and dazzling array of flicks, tricks and showboats were eagerly lapped up by the nation and from a tender age Cole was expected to be the answer to a national flair drought. A move to Chelsea was supposed to conduit substance to style but his game was never fully embraced by the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho and nor did Cole make himself indispensable during a seven year stay at Stamford Bridge in which he scored just 40 goals. Now aged 30, the waiting has seemingly gone on for ever as Cole failed to establish himself as one thing or another during a career where he had the world at his feet.
4) Robbie Fowler – They dubbed him ‘God’ on the Kop but had Robbie Fowler been to confessional a few more times he may never have petered out by the time he should have been in his pomp. After starring in England u-18’s European Championship win in 1993, Fowler was quickly promoted to the Liverpool first team and marked his debut at Fulham in the League Cup with a goal, followed by all five in the return leg still just 17. The Toxteth terrier scored his first league hat-trick in only his fifth appearance for the Reds and had hit the back of the net almost 80 times by the time he was out of his teens. Injuries eventually took their toll and despite a brief flurry with Leeds, he never managed to recapture the lethal penalty box prowess which made him so dangerous in his youth. Fowler remains the fourth highest scorer in Premier League history with 162 goals but the fact that 120 of those came before he left Liverpool at 25 illustrates just what could have been.
3) Paul Merson – Merson made his reputation as the artist amongst George Graham’s artisans at Arsenal with his trickery and exuberance on the wing endearing him to the Highbury faithful. At 21, Merson was crowned PFA Young Player of the Year and earned his first league title courtesy of Michael Thomas’s last gasp winner at Anfield. Merson soon followed that up with another league title in ’91, an FA and League Cup double in ’93 and the Cup Winners Cup in ’94. However, his celebrations after defeating Parma in Copenhagen hinted at demons, with Merse joyously mimicking glugging down booze with a manic glaze in his eye. In November ’94 Merson admitted alcohol and cocaine addiction and underwent a three month rehabilitation which never completely put the Harlesden born winger on the straight an narra’, blighting a unique talent throughout the rest of his playing days at Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Portsmouth, Walsall and Tamworth.
2) Stan Collymore – Tall and lean, quick and mobile and two footed, like many enigmas Collymore doubled up breathtaking forward play with the sort of mental issues which deprive players of ever delivering their true potential. A British record move to Liverpool’s ‘spice boys’ was perhaps not the best fit for someone with such hedonistic tendencies and even a move to boyhood heroes Aston Villa could not calm Collymore down. Demons eventually all got the better of the man who’s career dwindled out by the age of 30 after enduring further problems at Fulham, Leicester, Bradford and Real Oviedo. Three England caps was scant return for a striker who could genuinely have gone on to become one of the continents best had his mind not dictated otherwise.
1) Paul Gascoigne – They say there’s a fine line between a mad-man and a genius and in British footballing terms nobody echoes those sentiments more than Paul Gascoigne. Gazza was the raw talent who single handedly lifted English football from its post-Heysel doldrums, but who privately – and too frequently publicly – drove himself to despair. It was hard not to sympathise with the lovable rogue because everything he brilliantly did on his haven of the pitch, was spectacularly negated in some way. Few players light up whole World Cups like Gazza did at Italia ’90 and few, if any, English players have had such an impact on Serie A. But ultimately, Gazza did not have the mental capacity to cope as a world-class player and through drink, drugs and gambling, Gascoigne’s physical and mental state deteriorated as did his career. The true tragedy of Gascoigne’s demise is that every time you hear his name on the news now, you expect tragedy.
Follow John Baines on twitter @bainesyDiego10
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