I recently witnessed video footage, writes Alan Gernon, of an eight-year old boy performing amazing tekkers. In just a few minutes he executed a flurry of keepy-uppys, hundreds of them…
…the ball seemingly attached to a string and taking turns to swiftly visit his right leg, left leg, right knee, left knee, head, right shoulder, left shoulder. Well, when I say video footage it was a cine-camera reel and that eight-year old was me. If it had been recorded in this age of instant online media there could have been the slim chance of a, perhaps, Chelsea youth scout spotting it on YouTube and signing me up immediately. Alas, I didn’t progress much further in football, lacking the tactical nous, positioning and general overall talent to make it professionally. And that’s what tends to happen with actual footballing wonderkids.
Just a few short months ago West Ham’s prodigious Ravel Morrison was being tipped as an outside bet for a place in England’s squad for this summer’s World Cup. This week, he’ll join an inconsistent QPR side in the Championship a club that seems to be the last chance saloon for failed players or those winding down their careers with one last large payday. Morrison’s story isn’t that uncommon with many youngsters down the years touted as the next Big Thing/Pele/George Best but ultimately don’t live up to their undoubted teenage talent.
- Freddy Adu
The closest most fourteen-year olds get to professional football is playing the latest version of FIFA on their Playstation. At the same age Ghanaian-born Freddy Adu was making his MLS debut for DC United. He had already turned down the advances of giants such as Inter Milan at just ten years of age and was widely touted as “the next Pele”.
At 17 the attacking midfielder had a trial at Manchester United but he made his inevitable move to Europe with a transfer to Benfica a year later. And that’s where it all started to go wrong for the child prodigy. He made only eleven appearances for the Portuguese giants before a series of loan spells to increasingly obscure clubs.
A spell back in his adopted homeland with Philadelphia Union followed but he suffered the ignominy last year of being a makeweight in a deal with Bahia for Man United flop Kleberson. He lasted less than six months in Brazil and is now training with Blackpool.
Still only 24, there is still time for the American international to justify his teenage promise. But like many wonderkids, the hype may have been much Adu about nothing.
- Nii Lamptey:
While Adu was once referred to as “the next Pele”, his fellow Ghanaian’s frustrating inability to live up to his early potential has led him to be called “the lost Pele”. By the age of 19 Lamptey was a World Champion and Golden Ball winner at the 1991 U17 World Cup in Italy, Olympic Bronze medallist in 1992, and a runner-up in the 1993 U20 World Cup. He’d outshone the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Juan Sebastián Verón and Josep Guardiola at the aforementioned youth tournaments and was heavily linked with a move to Real Madrid.
At 16 he became the youngest ever player in the Belgian league where his performances with Anderlecht quickly earned him a move to PSV Eindhoven. Again, he shone brightly and briefly in Holland before Ron Atkinson snapped him up for Aston Villa. However, he flopped in England, literally sent to Coventry after failing to live up to expectations at Villa Park. A string of misguided moves to footballing outposts in the likes of Turkey, Portugal and China followed, in part due to an exploitative third party ownership deal he’d ill-advisedly signed as a youngster.
His career petered out at lowly South African side Jomo Cosmos before finally retiring at just 33. While contemporaries like Del Piero and Ryan Giggs are still plying their trade, Lamptey currently spends his time breeding cattle and as Assistant Manager of Ghanaian side Sekondi Wise Fighters – arguably the only Wise move he’s made in his career.
- Michael Johnson:
Didi Hamann called him “the best English talent since Steven Gerrard” and the best midfielder he’d played with. He was linked with a £10 million move to Liverpool. Sven-Goran Eriksson was sure he’d be “the next big England star for many years”. But, at just 25, Michael Johnson is essentially retired from the game that he was tipped to dominate as a teenager.
The midfielder had broken into the Manchester City first team at 18 years of age, and a string of impressive displays earned him a five-year contract and comparisons with City legend Colin Bell. However, a series of injuries interrupted his ascent and his time on the sidelines led to a less than salubrious lifestyle. Johnson struggled with his physique and his fondness for a night out didn’t help him regain full fitness. A drink driving charge and three-year driving ban in September 2012 seemed to be the final straw for City and he was released by the club shortly afterwards. However, since his release Johnson has admitted he’s suffered from mental health problems and has been attending The Priory Clinic for treatment for a number of years. Sadly, it’s unlikely that Johnson will play professionally again, stating that he’d like to “be left alone to live the rest of my life”.
- Sonny Pike:
Ajax Amsterdam’s success in the early 90s was arguably built on their impressive global scouting network. Their Academy was so thorough they even spied a talented seven-year-old on Leyton Orient’s books. Sonny Pike soon had an agent and became a regular on British TV screens, recounting this dream start to his career, with his talent was likened to the likes of Diego Maradona and Paul Gascoigne. And then he disappeared.
Pike began to struggle under intense pressure from agents, sponsors and his club to realise his potential and he suffered from a nervous breakdown while still in Ajax’s youth team. He started to miss training and the strain involved in fulfilling his promise led to his parents’ divorce. The boy wonder soon packed professional football in but his mental health issues in Holland inspired Pike to pursue an alternative career in sports psychology. He also played for a number of non-league clubs back in England, using his birth name Luke. It seems he just couldn’t live up to the hype surrounding the Sonny Pike name.