Future's bright for five stars of FA Youth Cup
Mark Fleming scouts the stand-out players from the country's top Under-18s tournament
Thursday 06 May 2010
Chelsea's victory in Tuesday's FA Youth Cup final was the club's first since 1961, when the side contained the likes of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, who between them went on to play 1,524 games for the club. Since then the competition has provided a stage for great players such as George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Ryan Giggs, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney.
However, in the past decade only eight players who have won the FA Youth Cup have gone on to earn international honours, and just one – Kieran Richardson – is English. Here are five young men from this year's competition with the potential to become major names – and four of them are English.
Josh McEachran, 17, Chelsea
An elegant, creative midfielder, McEachran was the undoubted star against Aston Villa on Tuesday night. He orchestrated Chelsea's triumph with a superb display of passing and dribbling from midfield that was reminiscent of a young Liam Brady.
The 17-year-old from Oxford, who has been with the club since he was eight, has caught the eye of the senior teams' manager Carlo Ancelotti and has recently been called up to train with the first team. Even in the afterglow of victory, though, the youth-team coach, Dermot Drummy, warned: "Josh is a wonderful talent but you have to be careful of pushing his body too far too quickly. Next year will be a deciding factor, to see how he grows. We know he has ability and the vision that you can't give a player. But how his body adapts will be decided by time."
Conor Clifford, 18, Chelsea
Clifford was the man of the moment for Chelsea when he dispatched a spectacular shot from 25 yards that won the cup with just five minutes left. The strike was reward for the gamble he took two years ago when he joined Chelsea from Crumlin United in his home town, Dublin, the club that produced Robbie Keane. Clifford has since developed into a hard-working midfielder who loves to tackle but also possesses a dangerous right foot.
Even though he is only 18, Clifford has already been capped three times at Under-21 level by the Republic of Ireland, and has featured regularly for Chelsea's reserve team this season. He resembled Frank Lampard with the way he scored on Tuesday, but his combative style probably has more in common with Michael Essien's game.
Gary Gardner, 17, Aston Villa
Villa had the bad luck to go into the final without their captain, and arguably their best player, after Gardner suffered a cruciate ligament injury. Gardner, who is the younger brother of Craig, who moved from Villa to Birmingham in January, had scored 14 goals before the injury in January, including a hat-trick – one goal with his left, one with his right and one with his head – from midfield in a 4-0 win over Rochdale in the third round of the FA Youth Cup.
Gardner, who has been at Villa since he was seven, is rated so highly that he twice played for England Under-20 team in last autumn's U-20 World Cup in Egypt where he was the youngest player in the squad at 17. The Villa manager Martin O'Neill believes he has the potential to become a hugely influential player.
Benik Afobe, 17, Arsenal
This 17-year-old striker from London's East End is widely thought of as the best of the next crop of youngsters to come from the Arsenal academy, where his goalscoring feats have marked him out. Afobe has scored 17 goals in 23 games for Steve Bould's Under-18 team this season, and before that he scored 120 goals at Under-16 level.
Quick and physically imposing, he signed professional terms with the Gunners earlier this year, and has regularly featured for the reserves, making his debut for them aged just 16 years and four days. He also is a regular up front for the England Under-17 side. Last year he trained with the Brazil squad and scored twice past the Internazionale goalkeeper Julio Cesar in a practice game.
Connor Wickham, 17, Ipswich
Tottenham lead the Premier League clubs chasing Ipswich's physically imposing striker, who is already 6ft 3in and 14 stone, and has been making his mark in the Championship in recent weeks. Despite just 10 senior starts this season, the 17-year-old finished as the club's second-highest scorer with six goals, three of them coming in the last six games. He also featured in the FA Youth Cup, scoring in the Ipswich 2-0 victory that knocked out the holders, Arsenal.
Wickham made his debut for Ipswich in April 2009 at the age of 16 years and 11 days, to become the club's youngest ever player. Likened to a young Wayne Rooney, but a lot bigger, he has scored a hat-trick in just 21 minutes for the England Under-17 team against Azerbaijan.
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