Five young players to watch in 2010
England's current crop of under-17s are rated as among the best the country has ever seen. Sam Wallace introduces the youngsters most likely to make a mark in the next 12 months
Friday 01 January 2010
1. Connor Wickham; Ipswich Town
Only when he turns 17 in March will Wickham be able to sign his first professional deal and you can be assured that Ipswich will move heaven and earth to make sure their latest great academy product signs on the dotted line.
Players like Wickham only come along once in a generation and once he has signed his first professional deal it will surely only be a matter of time before Ipswich cash in. All the big clubs have been watching this 6ft 3in centre-forward who already looks like a man, and plays like a man, even if legally he is only a kid.
Manchester United have taken special interest in Wickham, who comes from Colchester and whose father served in the Armed Forces. They probably don't expect any favours from Ipswich manager Roy Keane when it comes to signing the player and there will be others in the market.
Wickham's ability is no secret. He became the youngest player to make a senior appearance for the club when he came on as a substitute against Doncaster Rovers in April at 16 years and 11 days, breaking Jason Dozzell's record. He also plays for the England Under-17s team.
Wickham has already made 12 appearances for the Ipswich first team and scored two goals against Shrewsbury Town in the Carling Cup. It is the kind of experience that is invaluable at such a young age, although the days when Ipswich could hang on to good young players for a few seasons are gone, especially with competition between the academies of the big clubs so intense.
2. Luke Williams; Middlesbrough
Like Wickham, Williams is a very bright prospect who became one of the youngest players to represent his hometown team last month. The interest in whether Williams would break Tom Murray's record as the youngest-ever Middlesbrough player – which has stood since 1905 – was so intense on Teesside that the local paper kept a running countdown every day.
Eventually Williams did get his first-team debut, coming on as a substitute on Monday against Barnsley at the tender age of 16 years, 221 days, although it was not quite soon enough to break Murray's record. For one so young he has great promise, a traditional out-and-out winger who has great pace and looks comfortable running at full-backs.
Middlesbrough have produced a steady stream of young players in recent years who have made careers in the Premier League, including Stewart Downing and Lee Cattermole. Williams has impeccable Middlesbrough credentials: he grew up in the Teesville area of the town and went to the same school as the club's former great Wilf Mannion.
Gordon Strachan has a good record of bringing on young players and has shown great faith in Williams, calling him in to train with the first team from the beginning of his time in charge. Like Wickham, Williams has also been picked to play in the England Under-17s. The current crop, under coach John Peacock, are rated as one of the most talented group of young players the country has ever had.
3. Ravel Morrison; Manchester United
A powerful young footballer who can play in midfield, on the left wing and off the main striker, he has the ability to make it one day in the United first team – and he might just be in contention for a Carling Cup place next season. Not bad for a kid who is not 17 until next month.
Morrison comes from Longsight, the tough area of south Manchester that was also Wes Brown's home patch in the city. Sir Alex Ferguson famously harboured worries over the questionable influences that prevailed over a young Brown, although he eventually proved that he was strong enough to forge a professional career. Young Morrison will also have to demonstrate that he too is prepared to make the touch choices required to be a top footballer.
He certainly has all the natural attributes of strength and pace. He plays in the same FA Youth Cup team as Paul Pogba, the young footballer who was controversially signed from Le Havre and looks more than comfortable alongside a player rated as one of the best in Europe at his age.
Morrison has one of the toughest tasks ahead if he is to break into the United team. Others, like Wickham and Williams, have been able to find their feet at a Championship side where the level of scrutiny is not so high. Once Morrison gets his chance for United he will face inevitable comparisons with the likes of Ryan Giggs but there are plenty who feel he has what it takes.
He is another member of the England Under-17 team who will be playing in March and April to qualify for the European Championship in Liechtenstein in May.
4. Ross Barkley; Everton
At Everton they know a good young player when they see one and at the club's academy, Barkley is rated as the next potential first-team recruit to follow in the footsteps of Wayne Rooney and Jack Rodwell.
Still very young – he only turned 16 last month – Barkley too plays for the England Under-17s. Primarily a box-to-box midfielder, he has been playing as a forward in Everton's FA Youth Cup team. One of the best young prospects in the country, he scored against Northern Ireland in the Under-16s Victory Shield game in October 2008 when he was still just 14.
He is a big, imposing player but he is also very versatile and given Everton's record of pushing young players through it would not come as a complete surprise if he managed to edge his way into first-team contention over the next 12 months.
He comes from the Wavertree district of Liverpool, the latest gem to be unearthed in a city that continually produces great footballers. Everton will want to sign him to a professional contract on his 17th birthday at the end of the year and if they do end up losing Rodwell in the summer transfer window then Barkley will be the next to come through.
In the England Under-17s team Everton also have Luke Garbutt, a left-back signed from Leeds United, who has shown great promise and could challenge for a first-team place come the end of this year.
5. Robert Hall; West Ham United
At a club that styles itself as being the academy of football, Hall is considered the next bright prospect. Like Barkley, he broke into England's Under-16s Victory Shield team when he was just 14 and he has drawn comparisons with a young Robbie Fowler – although Hall is lightning quick.
He only turned 16 in October but is at a club where many young players have been fast-tracked into the first team. At the age of 15 last summer, Hall was picked by Gianfranco Zola for the first-team squad that played summer friendlies.
Like so many smaller clubs who have successful academies, West Ham will be anxious to sign Hall to a professional contract when he turns 17 at the end of the year. Already with a big reputation in youth football, Hall has been the subject of interest from Manchester City and Chelsea. Originally from Aylesbury, he is left-footed which makes him a valuable commodity.
He plays on the left side of a 4-3-3 for England Under-17s but is also a reliable goalscorer. There is intense competition for forward places in the Under-17s team with so many players coming through including Wickham, William Keane at Manchester United and the Arsenal striker Benik Afobe. Hall is seven months younger than all of them but has held his own.
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