Jack Wilshere is leading a new generation of Premier League talent. The Guardian’s John Crace is looking forward to seeing them set this season alight
What a difference a price tag makes. Last year, Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones were promising youngsters playing pressure-free football for unfancied clubs. After their respective £16m summer transfers from Sunderland and Blackburn to Liverpool and Manchester United, both players will now be marked men on the pitch and on the terraces when the Premier League gets under way again. The first misplaced pass or scuffed shot will have the away fans happily singing, “What a waste of money”; the second will have the home team’s supporters thinking much the same thing.
We football fans are a fickle bunch. If there’s one thing we love more than believing we’ve spotted a special young talent ahead of the paid football pundits, it’s rubbishing them once their precocity has been rewarded with an eight-figure transfer fee and they’ve become part of the furniture at one of the top Premier League clubs.
Young talent has the thrill of the unknown. However many goals Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres may score this season — and the more mean-spirited among us are hoping Torres gets none at all — nothing they do can ever recapture the thrill of their first Premier League season when they still had the capacity to take fans by surprise. Now we all know what they can do and have come to expect the same every game. Any fall in standards cannot be tolerated.
THE BIG CHANCE
That first season — or at least the one in which a player makes his breakthrough — is a fans’ delight. For a year or two at White Hart Lane, few of us could understand what the club had seen in Gareth Bale. He seemed like an over-hyped player who had shone at Southampton but couldn’t cope with the demands of a higher division. But then, 18 months ago, Spurs’ left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto got injured and Bale got his chance. He was a man transformed. For the past year and a half he has mesmerised the crowd as much as the opposition.
This season he will find life tougher. So too will Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere. He had a remarkable season last year, but this year will be a more telling test of whether he really is the one English player who could get into the Barcelona team.
Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez is something of a rarity in the Premier League, as managers tend to be reluctant to take a punt on young overseas players. And you can see why. Sir Alex Ferguson took a £7.4m flier on an unseen 20-year-old Portuguese winger, Bebe, in 2010. He won’t be doing that again in a hurry. Top Premier League managers want to buy experience from overseas; players with a proven track record of winning trophies.
But that rather explains the attraction of youth in the Premier League. There aren’t that many 18-year-olds getting a run-out, and the ones who are tend to be British, which undoubtedly gets the pulse racing a little faster. Don’t tell me that you haven’t watched Lionel Messi cutting through a defence and found yourself thinking how much better life would be if he had been born in Streatham. Unless you are Argentinian, of course — in which case, things have worked out just hunky-dory.
So who are the young players to watch out for this year? At Spurs, there’s Danny Rose and Kyle Walker — providing they aren’t sent out on loan to a Championship team. Sadly, that’s the fate of all too many young players on the fringes of the first team. For Liverpool, there’s John Flanagan and Jonjo Shelvey; for Chelsea, there’s Gael Kakuta and Josh McEachran.
There’s something inspiring about the freedom of youth. It’s that fleeting moment when talent plays with no fear, when reputations and big occasions mean nothing. And then, more often than not, it’s gone. Sometimes a player gets found out or worked out by the opposition and has to settle for a career in a lower division. More often, they become a little harder and a little more professional, sacrificing flair for pragmatism. Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott come to mind as players who have never quite fulfilled their early extravagant promise.
HOW TO SURVIVE
All of which only makes any success a young player goes on to have as a Premier League regular all the more enjoyable. Surviving the expectations of your manager, team-mates, professional pundits and the crowd is a genuine achievement. But it can be done. I don’t particularly admire John Terry as either a person or player, but I respect his guts and staying power.
And there are things a player can do to increase his chances of a long-term career — with the fans, at least. The first is to steer clear of nightclubs and appearances in gossip columns. We know you earn more than the rest of us, but we don’t want you to rub it in. One of the reasons we liked you so much when you were an ingénue is because you seemed like you were one of us. No one wants to be dumped at the first available moment.
But most of all, we want you to try. This shouldn’t need saying, but having watched Premier League football since long before it was called the Premier League, I’ve seen a surprising amount of players who don’t always try. They get frustrated and sulk when things don’t go their way or they are having a shocker. I don’t care how you’re feeling. I’m paying a great deal of money to watch you, and the very least I expect is for you to fight to the last.
Remember that. The television cameras may not always be watching you. But there are many thousands of us out there in all weather who are.
Vertigo: One Football Fan’s Fear Of Success by John Crace is published on 5 September (Constable)
(Image: All Star)