When West Bromwich Albion faced Swansea at home in September, the away supporters gave a hard time to Scott Sinclair, an old favourite of theirs. He said later that he was bemused by the reaction and anticipated that when he went back to the Liberty Stadium later in the season, “I’ll get booed again”.
For the return trip to South Wales on Saturday, there was a smattering of boos for Sinclair but only when his name was read out as one of the substitutes. It is hard to get too angry about a former player whose biggest contribution is a couple of touchline warm-ups. Farmed out on loan by Manchester City after a debut season in which Roberto Mancini gave him just three starts, Sinclair has been unable to win a place of late in even West Bromwich’s struggling side.
He last played for his loan club on 8 February, his one appearance under the new manager Pepe Mel. There was a suggestion that he was close to being left out of the squad on Saturday, were it not for injuries. Every time Mel is asked about Sinclair his response is lukewarm, to say the least.
In the summer of 2012 Sinclair was a £6.2m City signing on course to be one of the bright young things of English football. Two years later he has all but disappeared from view, a lost English talent in a country that cannot afford to waste the good ones.
Sinclair’s first season with Swansea in the Premier League had been a great success, following his hat-trick in the play-off final at Wembley in May 2011 that took the club up. He was in the Team GB squad for the 2012 Olympics, along with Daniel Sturridge, although their careers could hardly have diverged more radically since.
Sinclair was not the only one who left Swansea in the summer of 2012. Brendan Rodgers joined Liverpool and took Joe Allen with him. Sinclair headed for a club where he would be obliged to compete with some of the best players in the world for a place. Since then it has been a sorry old story of an Englishman who, with injuries also a factor, has played only 26 games in the last two campaigns combined, having played 40 times for Swansea in the 2011-12 season.
Sinclair turns 25 a week tomorrow. In December he will pass his 10th anniversary in professional football when, at 15, he made his first-team debut for Bristol Rovers. He was one of the many teenagers harvested by Chelsea in the mid-point of the last decade and, in playing a handful of times for the first team, got further than most.
The curious thing about Sinclair’s career is that, having gone down a division to resurrect it once, with Swansea, he now faces the prospects of having to do something similar all over again. It is a pity it has come to that.
In 2012, he was on course to be in contention to play for England in this summer’s World Cup finals. As it is, he has been capped at every age group from Under-17 to Under-21 but not the seniors. He is older than a large group of players used by Roy Hodgson, including Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Jordan Henderson, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Andros Townsend, Jack Wilshere, Jay Rodriguez, Kieran Gibbs and Kyle Walker. Not to mention a new generation of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw.
Those players have navigated the hyper-competitive world of elite-level English football in different ways. Many, like Jones, Rodriguez, Walker and Oxlade-Chamberlain have come up from Football League clubs. Others, such as Welbeck, Wilshere and Gibbs, have stayed at blue-chip Premier League sides and developed with the benefit of a few loans.
By comparison, Sinclair’s career path has been disjointed. A teen prodigy, he joined Chelsea at 16 and was loaned out six times before he finally left on a permanent deal to Swansea. Having taken the step up with City again he had to drop a level. Injuries have played their part in his career but they cannot be the only reason he has stalled.
When the opportunity comes for a player to challenge himself at a club such as City, it is a difficult one to turn down for many reasons, not least the wage increase. How different would Sinclair’s career be now if he had chosen to stay another season at Swansea? There is no substitute for playing every week, or at least having a fighting chance of doing so.
At West Brom, he has suffered from the dismissal of Steve Clarke, who, having known Sinclair from his Chelsea days, was a champion of the player. Clarke’s sacking still looks like the season’s most foolhardy managerial decision and Sinclair cannot be held responsible for that. Nor the haste with which Mancini, who pressed City to sign him, discarded the player when he failed to meet early expectation.
One only hopes that Sinclair’s career rises again, and that he is not doomed to inhabit that celebrity netherworld that is the preserve of those who date soap stars. You would like to think that a boy whose talent was so precocious he was playing league football before he took his GCSEs sets his sights much higher than that. But with the current generation, it can be hard to tell sometimes.
His story so far is a good example to all those prodigies of the modern age who find themselves in demand at a young age. The biggest, richest clubs can support a playing staff far larger than they ever did even 15 years ago. They can afford to stock-pile players and send them on an endless carousel of loan deals before they make up their mind. It suits the clubs, although not always the player himself.
The reason the likes of Shaw, Barkley and Sterling are contenders for a World Cup place is because they play every week and they would do well to remember that. It is a simple premise but one worth cherishing. Players have always moved to bigger clubs, since the beginning of the professional game, but doing so as a squad player rather than a first-teamer is a modern trend.
Sinclair joined City as one for whom a regular starting role was a possibility rather than a certainty. The fundamental question “Am I going to play?” is a good one to ask before any transfer. If that prospect is doubtful then life can be a drag. As Sinclair, with one start for West Brom since he returned from injury in December, would no doubt agree.
We should resist clubs getting unofficial referee blacklists
It was not Chris Foy’s finest 90 minutes at Villa Park on Saturday, when his second yellow card for Willian was one of those erroneous game-changers. The consequence of Chelsea’s grievances is likely to be another club attempting to veto having a certain referee in charge of their games. Graham Poll suggested yesterday that an unofficial agreement to that effect would come into force if Foy “agreed” to it. I hope he does not. If he is a Premier League referee next season, he should be back in charge of Chelsea, regardless of the history.
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