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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Teenage Kicks: Football's Wonderboys


The Welsh winger was just breaking into the side at Old Trafford when the Premier League started in 1992, and he quickly became its first teenage poster-boy, overshadowing team-mate Lee Sharpe and helping United to win the title. He also made a name for himself by scoring spectacular goals with mazy dribbles and stunning free kicks. While injuries affected him in years to come, he remains a fixture at United and has won pretty much everything there is to be won in the game several times over. He is still the benchmark for how young stars should be handled to help them avoid the pitfalls of fame and burn-out.


The young winger seemed to have the world at his feet after dazzling top flight defences in a Cup run with Portsmouth, so it was no surprise when Tottenham Hotspur snapped him up in 1992 for £1.75m. Unfortunately, his career since then has been plagued by a succession of long absences through injuries, earning him the unwanted nickname of 'Sicknote'. He retired from football in December 2008, but bowed out in style by scoring a late winner for Bournemouth in his last ever appearance, to remind us all of what a great talent he could have been if he'd only been able to stay fit.


One of the first young hotshots to break onto the scene, Robbie Fowler made his debut for Liverpool aged 18 in a Coca-Cola Cup tie at Fulham in September 1993, and marked it with a goal. Two weeks later, he did even better, smashing four past the Cottagers in the second leg in front of an already adoring Anfield crowd. He scored the Premier League's fastest-ever hat-trick in 4 minutes 32 seconds against Arsenal during the 1994/95 season, then picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year award at the end of a campaign. Injuries started to take their toll however, and he has spent the last eight years flitting from club to club, currently plying his trade in Australia.


He may have been overshadowed at first by youth team colleagues like Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, but shy young midfielder Beckham soon came to prominence at Old Trafford after scoring from his own half against Wimbledon in 1997. Under a year later his international fame was secured by his relationship with Posh Spice and his sending-off for England in the World Cup clash with Argentina. He bounced back from that of course, and went on to be a star for United and a captain for his country. An ill-fated spell in America looked to have all-but ended his top level career, but he's currently doing well with AC Milan and breaking records for England.


Like Robbie Fowler before him, Owen made an immediate impact for Liverpool by scoring on his debut in a 2-1 league defeat at Wimbledon at the end of the 1996/97 season. If he was a promising young talent then, he was an international superstar a year later, after scoring 23 goals for the Reds, including two hat-tricks, and making it into the England squad for the World Cup. Like Beckham, he made his name against Argentina, but Owen was noticed for more positive reasons, scoring a wonder-goal. Since then he has had a frustrating year in Spain with Real Madrid before returning to England to spend most of time on the Newcastle United treatment table, while his international career has floundered.


Everton's original Premiership wonderkid, Danny Cadamarteri broke into the team in 1997, aged 17, and became a fans favourite by scoring four goals in seven games early in the 1997/98 season. He was born in Bradford, but was eligible to play for England, Nigeria, Italy, Ireland, Scotland or Jamaica at international level. He chose England, but never got the chance as off-pitch troubles overshadowed his increasingly less impressive contributions for Everton. He left in 2002 to join Bradford and has had spells with Leeds, Sheffield United, Grays Athletic, Leicester City and currently turns out for Huddersfield Town.


Followed Cadamarteri into the Everton side and soon became more the famous of the pair, showing a predadory instinct in the box that made him the darling of Goodison Park until a contract row soured his relationship with the fans. In 2001 he moved to Arsenal for £8m, but the move proved to be a big mistake, with Jeffers starting just four games in three years at Highbury, while he also had a brief and unimpressive spell back at Everton on loan. He did score in his only England appearance, in a 3-1 defeat at home to Australia, but has gone on to have unspectacular stints at Charlton Athletic and Blackburn Rovers before joining Sheffield Wednesday.


Like so many young stars, Steven Gerrard has had more than his fair share of injury problems since bursting onto the scene in 1998, and at various stages it has looked like his career would be blighted by them. However, he has shaken off those worries to blossom into a crucial player for club and country, inspiring Liverpool to their famous Champions League triumph in 2005 and scoring many crucial goals along the way. Recently won his fifth Player Of The Month award and is amongst the top scorers in the Premier League as well as a real candidate for Player Of The Season no matter what Liverpool achieve.


Local lad Alan Smith made his debut for Leeds in 1998 and scored with his first touch against Liverpool. He went on to become a cult hero at Elland Road until he made the controversial move to Manchester United in 2004 after Leeds were relegated. He struggled at Old Trafford, with a lack of goals seeing him pushed back into midfield before a horrific leg break. Smith was unable to regain his place after that and moved to Newcastle United in 2007, where he is still awaiting his first league goal.


Amazingly, Coventry City set a new British transfer record for a teenager when they signed Robbie Keane from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £6m in 1999, and he repaid them with two goals in his first game. Since then, he's gone on to play for Internazionale (earning Coventry a £7m profit after just a year) Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur before last summer's dream move to Liverpool. Which was a complete disaster, as it turned out, so he's now back at White Hart Lane.


Caused a sensation when he signed for the Gunners from Notts County for £2m in 1999, aged just 15. He spent time on loan at Watford before getting the chance to shine in the top flight on loan to troubled Leeds in 2003/04. He did very well in difficult circumstances at Elland Road, and looked like he would be able to force his way into the Arsenal side when he returned to Highbury. Unfortunately that never happened, and a series of problems off the field, culminating in a drink-driving charge, led to a rapid exit from Highbury, with Pennant signing for Birmingham in 2005. Since then, he's had the chance to redeem himself at Liverpool, but had now ended up on loan at Portsmouth.


Very highly-rated in a talented young Notts Forest side, Jermaine Jenas was expected to set the Premier League alight when he joined Newcastle for £5m in 2002, but has so far struggled to live up to his billing. He had some great games and scored some great goals with the Magpies, but also had too many anonymous appearances. Sven Goran Eriksson liked him, and gave him plenty of England caps, but Jenas has never convinced at international level, while he has had mixed fortunes with Tottenham Hotspur since joining in 2005.


Ian Wright's adopted son joined City after being released by Nottingham Forest for being too small, and he certainly hasn't let his lack of physical stature get in the way of his career ever since. He became a real favourite with the fans at Maine Road and then Eastlands with his surging runs and spectacular goals, earning himself a place in the England squad. He then left City to join Chelsea, where his career stagnated, leaving him out of favour for club and country until 2008 when he left to return to Eastlands.


Rooney literally exploded onto the scene for Everton in October 2002 when he smashed a dramatic late winner against champions Arsenal in a 2-1 victory at Goodison Park. He made his England debut later that season in a match against Australia, and has been a mainstay of the national team ever since, particularly impressing at Euro 2004 until his tournament was cut short by injury. Moved to Manchester United and scored a Champions League hat-trick on his debut, he remains a key figure for club and country, even if his temper gets him in trouble a little too often.


After Rooney's departure, James vaughan gave Everton fans a new young hero to celebrate when he made his debut aged just 16 years and 271 days old, making him the club's youngest-ever first team player, while his goal made him the Premier League's youngest-ever goalscorer. Since then, a series of long-term injuries have held up his progress, but Vaughan remains in the first team picture at Goodison Park and is still only 20 years old, so have plenty of time to make a lasting impression.


The American-born Italian made a quick impression at Manchester United by scoring nine minutes after coming on against Sunderland in his first Premier League appearance. Another couple of goals against Burton Albion in an FA Cup replay saw him compared to Eric Cantona, but Rossi struggled to make the breakthrough at United and after a loan spell at Newcastle United, he was sold to Villarreal, where he has become a first team regular, also breaking into the Italian national team.


At just 16 years and 143 days, Theo Walcott made an instant impact when he came on against Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2005-06, and scored his first goal on his full debut against Leeds United soon after. He quickly made a name for himself and was signed by Arsenal in January 2006, where he has been allowed to develop gradually by Arsene Wenger. Sven Goran Eriksson caused a stir by including him in his 2006 World Cup squad (he didn't play at the tournament), but he lived up to the hype for England in September 2008 when he became the youngest player to score a hat-trick for England.


Gabriel Agbonlahor made his debut in March 2006 and scored Villa's only goal in a 4-1 defeat at Goodison Park, but really made his name after Martin O'Neill replaced David O'Leary in the following season and gave the youngster a regular place in the team. He made his England debut in November 2008 against Germany, but a dip in form in 2008/09 reached its nadir when his withdrawal in a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur saw him jeered by Villa fans.


Teenager Freddie Sears made his debut for West Ham in March 2008 and helped them beat Blackburn Rovers by scoring just five minutes after coming on. Since then, he has continued to establish himself as a key member of the first team squad, though he is still waiting for his second goal.


Danny Welbeck's first big taste of first team life came when he was included in the squad for the Champions League Final in 2008, though he had to wait until September of that year to make his debut against Middlesbrough in the Carling Cup. A couple of months later, he made a big impact by scoring a spectacular goal in his league debut against Stoke City, and has followed that up with a couple of FA Cup goals.