Last week, a German friend of mine very kindly sent me a link to an article that was published back in January 2003 on BBC Sport’s website. The title of the article is “Why England will win Euro 2008”, and it outlines the incredibly promising crop of young talent that England fans, and BBC journalist Dan Warren in particular, were excited about back in 2003, and suggests that England had the potential to win Euro 2008. As you can imagine, it makes for interesting reading, and you can find it here.
When you read it, a few things immediately spring to mind. The first is “gosh, wasn’t the internet ugly back then”, but a close second is “hang on, who on earth is Martin Taylor?” While some of the names touted in the squad as future world- or at least Europe-beaters are familiar names – the likes of Rooney, Gerrard and Rio Ferdianand for instance – some of these players are now, seven years later, worryingly obscure.
The likes of Michael Tongue, Martin Taylor, Neil Mellor, Jeremie Aliadiere, Johnnie Jackson and Richie Partridge all failed, almost entirely, to leave any sort of a mark on the English footballing landscape. Even the likes of David Dunn, John O’Shea, Paul Konchesky and Anton Ferdinand are little more than solid Premier League players, certainly not the conquerors of Europe that the article suggests they had the potential to be.
Of course, there were other players who weren’t mentioned in the article that made something of amends for the failure of those mentioned above. The likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard belong to a similar generation and have certainly made their mark on world football, while a new generation of younger players are even now stepping up, the likes of Hart, Walcott and Wilshere.
But it is impossible to ignore the simple absurdity of the claims that Chris Kirkland and Paul Robinson were “likely to vie, Shilton-Clemence style, for the number one jersey for many years”. To even mention those two keepers in the same sentence as Shilton and Clemence would be, in retrospect, somewhat laughable. And then there’s the sobering thought that, far from winning Euro 2008 as this article predicted, England didn’t even qualify.
While one could suggest that poor Dan Warren was simply having an off day when he penned this piece – his suggestion that “David Beckham . . . will probably retire from football at 30 to pursue a rock career” affirms the failures of the article – it is worth noting that many of these players belong to what was known as England’s ‘Golden Generation’, and that Dan Warren was certainly not alone in predicting that England had the players to rule the world.
The reasons why such domination didn’t materialise have been discussed widely and in great depth without reaching any real consensus, but are nevertheless not the subject of this article. Instead, this is something of a warning to those who are eyeing the likes of Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart, Jack Rodwell, Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll, Kieran Gibbs and Connor Wickham (I could go on…) as a potential ‘new’ Golden Generation.
All of those players have been, or are currently being, touted as potential future England stars, players who could lead England to the success that the nation has yearned for since the heady days of ’66. Indeed, I myself have been known to suggest, in the dark days after England’s elimination at the hands of a young German side in South Africa, that there is plenty of hope for the future and that 2014 could instead be our year.
And I do not want to deny that these are players with talent. I do not want to argue that these players are not good enough to win a major tournament for England. I believe that they could well be good enough to do that, and they have all already demonstrated some serious talent. But we need to be careful about the hype that we surround these players with. We need to be careful not to over-pressurise them, and then forget about them.
After all, who can forget the hype that surrounded young Neil Mellor when he burst onto the scene for Liverpool. After he banged in a fantastic winner for the Reds from 30 yards in the last minute of a tie against Arsenal, and then set scored another against Olympiacos in the group stage of a Champions League campaign that would end in success for Liverpool, the nation’s press was buzzing. Could Mellor and Rooney be the unlikely Everton-Liverpool partnership to lead England to glory?
Yet, in four years with Liverpool, Mellor made just twelve appearances and didn’t add to those two goals. Loan spells followed, before a transfer to Preston, for whom he has made 113 appearances scoring 30 goals in four years, before being loaned to Sheffield Wednesday this season, where he has scored three goals in 11. A promising start to his League One career, but it’s hardly a Euro 2008 winner’s medal is it?
There was also Francis Jeffers. As an Evertonian and a season ticket holder at the time when Franny burst onto the scene, I remember Franny well. Banging in the goals for lowly and unfashionable Everton, Jeffers was soon entranced by the bright lights of London and encouraged by the rave reviews of the press he signed for Arsenal for the princely sum of £8million. Last week, Francis Jeffers signed for the Newcastle Jets in the Australian League on a guest contract.
In between that spectacular fall from grace Jeffers returned to Everton on loan, before signing for Charlton from where he went to Rangers on loan, then he signed for Blackburn from where he went to Ipswich on loan, then he signed for Sheffield Wednesday, where he made 54 appearances, more than in any other spell at any of his clubs, but even they decided against releasing his contract in the summer.
Dubbed by Arsene Wenger as his “fox in the box”, Jeffers was hyped up by the media in the UK beyond belief, slated as certain to be leading the line for England for years to come. And before him at Everton it was Danny Cadamateri. You know, that kid with the dreadlocks. He’s currently playing for his 11th club (Dundee United), having sunken as low as the conference with Grays Athletic.
The stories of failed potential go on and on in English football too. And it is no surprise in a way. Imagine being an 18 or 19 year old kid who makes a bit of a splash in the Premier League and is the hailed as a footballing hero of the near future. It’d go to anyone’s head wouldn’t it? How could you not get even slightly caught up in the idea that you were destined to be great? From there, it’s a slippery slope, where players don’t work hard enough, get too may off-field distractions, and are then discarded when a new bright young thing appears.
The same German friend who linked me the regrettable article that inspired this piece told me a few years back about a young kid playing for his team, Werder Bremen. He told me that he was making waves in the youth academy and at youth level for Germany, and that he was one to watch. Thus, when Mesut Ozil hit the headlines for his inspiring performances for Germany in South Africa, I was one of those smug people saying I’d heard of him years ago.
But I was in a minority. Because although German football fans knew about Ozil a few years ago, the national press didn’t splash him all over the newspapers and herald him as the second coming of Christ. They let him get on with it, they left him alone, they didn’t try and link him with Bayern Munich every time it was a quiet news day, they just sat back and watched him progress in the grun and weiss of Werder.
There’s the difference. And it’s something that the English press needs to learn. Potential means nothing until it is fulfilled. There is no point getting excited about these young players and holding them up to the world until they actually are as good as we think they might one day be. If Euro 2008 had been won by boasting about our young talent in 2003, Dan Warren may have been hailed as the mastermind that brought football home.
As it was, a good deal of the players he tipped for greatness were watching from home as England’s overhyped Golden Generation failed to even qualify for the tournament that they were supposed to win. Of course, Warren himself was aware of these risks – the last part of his article outlines some of the previous flops of English football, and this is in no way a criticism of Warren himself.
More it is a warning that the way that English football, the press that surrounds it and those of us who are involved in the game, are all responsible for creating a better, healthier environment for our bright young things to develop in. If we can reign in our desire to hype them up and simply keep them grounded and developing, England might eventually nurture a crop of players who will be good enough to win a major tournament.
Until that lesson is learnt though, we’ll be seeing more Neil Mellors and fewer Wayne Rooneys.