Football: Young players to watch

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Gareth Whalley, Crewe Alexandre

CREWE ALEXANDRA are probably the only club from the lower divisions where you can be sure to find stylish young footballers in abundance. Lest we forget, it was the tutelage of the manager Dario Gradi that sent David Platt, Geoff Thomas and Rob Jones on their way to the England team.

Gareth Whalley could, or maybe should, go the same way one day. In his first full season opponents paid him the compliment of giving him quite a bruising, but in his finest hour, at home to Blackburn Rovers in the Cup, he strode the pitch with a maturity far beyond his years. No matter that Blackburn won

3-0; Whalley proved that even as a teenager he could live with the big boys. His composure on the ball is already prodigious, and he passes with freedom and precision.

The only quibble is with his strike rate. He only scored three goals last season and, unfortunately, none of those came when it really mattered. Crewe progressed all the way to a penalty shoot-out against York in the play-offs at Wembley, but Whalley missed the spot-kick that lost the match. There should be many better memories to come.

Robbie Fowler, Liverpool

'WHO would say that anybody was ever better than Ian Rush?' Steve Heighway, director of youth coaching at Liverpool, said. 'That would be a daft comment.' Daft or not, rumour circulates that at Melwood, the Liverpool training ground, the player with the best nose for goal is not the famous Nose himself but a stripling called Robbie Fowler.

Fresh from the recent Uefa under-18 championship, where he scored five times in four games, Fowler has reached the stage where the underachieving seniors can feel his breath on their necks. 'Whatever level he's played at he's always scored goals,' Heighway said. 'He's the best youngster that I have seen as regards goalscoring ability and a belief in himself to score goals. In other words, he's not frightened to miss. If he misses two or three it doesn't put him off. The first time I saw Robbie he stood out as having tremendous natural ability and lovely movement and balance - a super little player who loved the game. He's not heavily built and he's not particularly tall. He's very good with his head. He's certainly the best young finisher that I've seen for many a day. At his age there's not an awful lot better.'

Peter Fear, Wimbledon

IF YOU'RE looking for bright new footballers you don't traditionally go to south London to find them, but not many clubs have been in the top division longer than the artful dodgers of Wimbledon, and that is in large part due to their youth policy. The latest and at present the most impressive teenager at the club is Peter Fear, a ball-playing right-back with a shock of off- white hair.

The club already have someone who fits that description perfectly in Warren Barton, so if Fear steps up from the reserve team it is likely to be as a midfield player. It was in this position that he made his debut on a cold midweek night last season, emerging from the bench at Highbury to help claim a notable scalp in a 1-0 win over Arsenal.

'I've seen Peter come from the second junior side right through to me giving him his debut over at Arsenal,' his manager, Joe Kinnear, said. 'The beauty about him is that he's very mature for his age. Peter can go in and do a hell of a good job. He's got a great football brain. An excellent passer, he's got good vision. he's got a tremendous strike from dead-ball situations. He can bend balls round.'

Keith Gillespie, Manchester United

THEY say that last season was just the beginning for Manchester United. If the championship turns out to be the first of many, it will be down to Alex Ferguson's youth policy.

Most of the juniors will have to rely on senior injuries to force their way upstairs, but one player who has already been there is the 18-year-old winger from Northern Ireland Keith Gillespie, who is already said to be the best crosser of the ball at the club. In January he made his debut in the Cup against Bury and impressed at once with his speed and skill on the right flank. Only later that month did he sign his first professional contract.

Ferguson's options on the wings were the envy of the Premier League last year, but now his cup is even fuller. Gillespie should get his chance, though. Ryan Giggs is likely to make the move inside some time this season, Lee Sharpe has been less than reliable since he returned from the sidelines and, as one of the foreigners, Andrei Kanchelskis should be surplus to requirements in the European Cup campaign. Gillespie will be even better placed next season, when he qualifies as an assimilated foreigner.

Paul Dickov, Arsenal

APOLOGIES to the manager, but it's a general rule of thumb that Arsenal and Scotland don't mix. In the rather small shadow cast by Peter Marinello and Charlie Nicholas, down came Paul Dickov as a raw, even smaller 16-year-old. He stands only 5ft 5in in his red and white socks, but should prove to be an import of much greater stature than his compatriots.

How soon this will be, with Wright, Smith, Campbell, Merson and Limpar also in the queue, is anyone's guess. When his chances arrived in the meaningless finale to last season he took them with gusto, scoring two good goals in two appearances as substitute.

'We had been watching him for quite a long time, the same as various other clubs were,' Pat Rice, Arsenal's youth team coach, said. 'When we invited him to join us we were absolutely delighted that he took us up on our offer. He's very, very good with his back to goal, at holding the ball up. He scores goals regularly. Over 10 yards he is quite quick and gets away from players and of course he's very very tenacious. I should imagine that everybody's looking over their shoulders.'

Sol Campbell, Tottenham

THE GAP left by Neil Ruddock at the heart of Tottenham's defence will not be filled in a hurry. In one season his influence turned a four-man colander into something like an impregnable fortress.

If or (more likely) when the club recovers from his departure it may well be thanks to Sulzeer 'Sol' Campbell, a man- mountain in the Ruddock mould. But as his contribution to England's encouraging victory in the recent Uefa Under-18 championship proved, he is not just head and shoulders above others of his age by virtue of his height.

There have been tentative comparisons with Mike England. He scored on his substitute against Chelsea last season, but only made his full first-team debut against Lazio in last weekend's Makita tournament, playing at left back in place of the injured Justin Edinburgh. He did not look at home on the flank, as you'd expect for his size, but he fared better than Jason Cundy did the next day against Chelsea, so our first sighting of him in the Premier League may be unrepresentative of what he can do. But bear with him.

(Photograph omitted)