The stars of 2013: The talents that will hit the big time next year
After the annus mirabilis for sport – and British sport in particular – that was 2012, The Independent's writers pick out the emerging talents and established stars set to make a big impression in coming year
Saturday 29 December 2012
Football: Chuba Akpom
Arsène Wenger's new preference for British rather than foreign youngsters could be easily explained, when he has players as good as Chuba Akpom on their way up at Arsenal.
Akpom is the most exciting English prospect to emerge at Arsenal since Jack Wilshere. Four school years younger than Wilshere, centre- forward Akpom signed his first professional deal at the club on his 17th birthday in October.
Just two months later Akpom found himself taken to Olympiakos as part of the first-team squad, making the substitutes' bench.
Akpom has always been ahead of his age group. Last season, at 15 and 16, he was playing for Arsenal Under-18s. This year, as well as for England Under-19s, he has been starring for Terry Burton's Under-21 team, leading the line against opponents older and more experienced than him with confidence and authority.
Akpom scores goals, with six to his credit so far this season. He is a fierce physical presence – dangerous in the air and running beyond defenders – but is also sharp in the box and cool with penalties. But it is the intelligence and maturity of his hold-up and link-up play that mark him out against his peers.
Wenger recently praised Akpom's "personality and quality". He has enough of both to make his first public impression in 2013.
A manager doesn't always entirely know what he has in a player until the moment on the biggest stage arrives and that much is certainly true of Jesus Fernandez Saez, known at his club Liverpool as Suso.
The 19-year-old Spaniard, signed by Rafael Benitez from Cadiz in 2010, offered hints on the club's United States pre-season tour, when his intelligence and cultured left foot were in evidence. His performances were arguably the biggest positive of Liverpool's trip, with a shining performance in Toronto. But it was only when Liverpool managed the calamity of allowing Andy Carroll to leave with no replacement, during August, that he sensed an opportunity might be coming.
Fairly diminutive, though with a very powerful left foot finish, he would get his chance before January's reinforcements arrived, said his manager, Brendan Rodgers. The display in the Europa League against Young Boys was something: a neat one-two with Joe Cole allowed Cole to set up Jonjo Shelvey to score. But a teenager possessing the coolness to set up a goal against Manchester United, as Suso did, is a rarity. His temperament for the big occasion also led Rodgers to select him from the start in the Merseyside derby.
There were a few bids for him on deadline day, after he had started every game for Spain in this year's Under-19 European Championship and only after the season began did work get under way to extend his contract. But Rodgers has shown the courage to give Suso a good go. Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group, want the academy to begin delivering. There'll be more of Suso on show next year and expect him to take the chance.
Golf: George Coetzee
Here comes George Coetzee, another South African comet poised to blaze a golfing trail. Last year it was his compatriot Branden Grace who claimed a first European Tour victory in January, then added three more. Don't be surprised to see 26-year-old Coetzee follow him into the winner's enclosure in 2013.
Typical of the breed, Coetzee emulated his hero Ernie Els in forgoing a serious talent for tennis to devote his career to golf. Four top 10 finishes in the closing seven tournaments of 2012 lifted him to 13th in the Race to Dubai table and into the world top 50 for the first time to secure his debut at the Masters in April.
The Pretorian combines attacking flair with fierce commitment. He was barely able to hold the club with his left hand in Dubai a year ago after trapping a finger in the door of his courtesy car, but he managed to complete all four rounds without a murmur.
Coetzee is acquiring judgement to go with cool cavalier instincts, which in his early days led him to go for everything. As a result, his driving accuracy and greens in regulation have shot up during his three seasons on tour.
Boxing: Frank Buglioni
Frank Buglioni looks and fights like a boxer from London's East End in the Seventies. It is, trust me, a compliment.
Buglioni, from Enfield, has been a pro for just over a year after deciding that he would probably get overlooked for an Olympic opportunity, and he was right. He is better suited to the pro game, a sport where a bit of thought goes a long way.
Buglioni is 23, unbeaten in seven fights, with five ending quick, including three in the first round. He has so far only beaten men that he was matched carefully against, which is how all quality boxing careers start.
The edge for Buglioni is his fans and he now attracts just over 700 punters whenever he fights. They arrive smart, early and lively. They Poznan in victory and change the shape of a night with their noise and laughter.
Frankie can fight, he likes to fight, which is not always a sensible thing, and his Italian roots have made him de rigueur on the espresso circuit. Boxing fans like a fighter who goes for the knockout, who lives in the ring a bit dangerously and in Buglioni they have a boy they can trust.
Rugby League: Alex Walmsley
A year ago, Alex Walmsley was studying to be a quantity surveyor and wondering whether he might get a few first-team games at Batley. Now he is surveying a Super League career at St Helens.
The 22-year-old prop is a classic example of the way a talent can sneak under the radar.
For his first two years at Leeds Met Carnegie he did not even play for his university team, preferring to concentrate on his amateur club, Dewsbury Celtic.
Once the Met's coach, Paul Fletcher, got hold of him, however, his progress was rapid. He was the Student Rugby League player of the year and caught the attention of semi-professional Batley. "Their coach, John Kear, told me he was taking a gamble on me and I only expected to play the odd game now and again," Walmsley says.
Neither player nor coach need have worried. Walmsley played almost every game last season, was Batley's player of the year and the Championship young player of the year.
With credentials like that, Saints were persuaded to take a look and liked what they saw. Although he had not come through the usual channels and had been, by his own admission, a fat, unfit teenager, they could see Super League potential in him.
They offered him a contract and Walmsley told the firm that had already offered him a job when he graduated that he would not be taking it up.
Saints do not expect him to make an instant impact at the top level. The plan is for him to be loaned back to Batley when he is not needed for Super League.
But those who have watched his development over the last 12 months do not expect him to play very much more Championship rugby.
Big, mobile front-rowers with good hands and a dash of aggression do not grow on trees and Fletcher is already on record predicting that Walmsley could go all the way to full international honours.
Cycling: Chris Froome
Chris Froome was the man that 2012 forgot. He was there and played an impressive part – runner-up in the Tour de France, Olympic bronze medallist – but it was reduced to little more than that of a walk-on thanks to the man who won the Tour and won the gold medal in the same Olympic race. Froome was Bradley Wiggins' right-hand man throughout the Tour, always in the picture but rarely the centre of attention. There was one notable occasion when he was, on the 11th stage when all of a sudden he rode away from Wiggins, only to be barked back to the leader's side by angry instructions from the team car. This year it could be very different.
The 2013 Tour de France is predicted to favour the climbers, something which will suit the Kenyan-born Briton. The battle – for that is was it will be, and an intense one too – to receive the nod from Dave Brailsford to lead Team Sky into the Tour will in itself be one of the sporting contests of 2013 – except it will be largely unseen by us as it will happen in training. Froome desperately wants it, as of course does Wiggins and, if the 27-year-old gets it, another British triumph in France's great race will be a real possibility.
Athletics: Adam Gemili
This time last year Adam Gemili had yet to get into his stride as a sprinter. He had only just made the decision to give up a career in football as a right-back with Dagenham & Redbridge to concentrate on athletics. He had just turned 18 and had a promising 100 metres personal best of 10.38sec.
Twelve months on, the 19-year-old from Dartford has clocked 10.06sec for second place in an Olympic 100m semi-final and 10.05sec for a World Junior Championship record. He is a faster teenager than Usain Bolt or Yohan Blake were. Indeed, if Gemili maintains his progress under the guidance of coach Mike Afilaka in 2013 he will become the first teenager ever to break the 10 seconds barrier for 100m.
That is the measure of the exceptional talent British athletics has found on its hands in the wake of London 2012. Promisingly, Gemili did not just cope with the pressure of being thrust into the home Olympic arena, with an 80,000 crowd cheering for him; he positively thrived on it.
Britain does not have the best of records for nurturing junior world-beating sprinters through to success at senior level, but here's hoping...
Formula One: Lewis Hamilton
I'll be watching Lewis Hamilton's progress at Mercedes like a hawk in 2013.
There's been so much negativity about his switch from McLaren to Michael Schumacher's old team, much of it based on the fact that the great man was unable to do anything with them for the past three years. But I believe Hamilton will make a huge difference on many levels.
"Aerodynamics for sure is the key performance area," the Mercedes team principal, Ross Brawn, acknowledged this year, "and because of that we have done a substantial amount of work to improve the strength and capacity and facilities of our aero group."
Mike Elliott, the former chief aerodynamicist at Lotus who created this year's impressive E20, joined Mercedes AMG as head of aero in July and the new W04 car will be the first to reflect his influence.
There are other big changes afoot and the "retirement" of Norbert Haug as Mercedes' head of motor sport is surely just the start of a reorganisation Niki Lauda is going to effect as the newly appointed "non-executive chairman".
Lewis will be on a mission, not just to drag Mercedes to the front, but to demonstrate that he made a good decision. How well the team gels, and how much progress they can make, will be fascinating to monitor.
Football: Jack Grealish
Yet another promising Aston Villa kid from Kevin MacDonald's prolific academy production line. Given Paul Lambert's faith in young players, Grealish looks like he could get his senior debut before the end of the calendar year. At the age of 16 he was named on the bench for Villa in their Premier League game against Chelsea in March.
Now 17, he is very highly regarded within the club and is already on his first professional deal, which contracts him to Villa until 2015. He operates as a wide player but can also play in behind the striker and is a regular in Villa's Under-21 side.
Grealish comes from Solihull and was born in England, but has so far elected to play for the Republic of Ireland, whom he qualifies for through Irish ancestry, at junior level. However, Football Association coaches still hold out hope that he will play Under-21, and possibly senior, football for England.
Lambert's Villa project remains one of the most intriguing in the Premier League. If he can make Villa competitive with a young side and a core of players primarily from the academy there will be others trying to follow suit. With players like Grealish in their academy, however, Villa know they are in a stronger position than most to pursue this policy.
Tennis: Laura Robson
The fact that she alerted the world to her talent four years ago at junior Wimbledon makes it easy to forget that Laura Robson is still only 18. There have been times, particularly when she has struggled with injuries and growing pains, when her potential has been called into question, but 2012 underlined her outstanding ability and 2013 has the makings of a memorable year for the current world No 53.
The youngest player in the world's top 75, Robson has the big-hitting game that has become so important in modern women's tennis.
While she is unlikely ever to match the athleticism of her fellow Briton Heather Watson, Robson has taken her fitness levels to new heights this year and added a steely determination to chase every ball. Those qualities were particularly evident in her remarkable victories over Kim Clijsters and Li Na at Flushing Meadows in the US Open last autumn.
Robson loves the big occasions. Wimbledon and the US Open are the Grand Slam tournaments where the courts suit her best, but she loves returning to Australia, the country of her birth, and Maria Sharapova's triumph in the French Open at Roland Garros this year proved that even players who lack the natural movement for clay can eventually learn to win on the surface.
Football: Nick Powell
The word had gone out that Crewe Alexandra had found another gem and sightings on television of Nick Powell bursting from the England midfield at the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico appeared to confirm it. In March, in the humble setting of Priestfield Stadium, came proof.
Midway through the first half, Powell, leggy and elegant, picked up a loose ball just outside the centre circle. He spun away from an opponent, glanced up, then dipped a magnificent 30-yard drive into the Gillingham net. The goalkeeper he beat was no mug either – a few months later Southampton paid £1m for Paulo Gazzaniga.
Powell moved on too, to Manchester United for £4m, taking with him all five Crewe end-of-season awards, including one for that goal. He has made two brief appearances for United, during both of which he showed his class, but is otherwise continuing his football education away from the glare and pressures of the first team.
United are determining where to play the level-headed, hard-working 18-year-old. Crewe played him in attack, England Under-17s used him in midfield, but his best position may be as a No 10. Expect to see more of him at Old Trafford, and at the European Under-21 Championship during this summer.
Football: Will Hughes
Off the pitch at Derby County, they have a fairly innovative ticketing system to maximise attendances. On it, they have a more old-fashioned way of pulling in punters, a young, stylish footballer catching the eye of everyone in English football. And beyond.
The queue for the young midfielder Will Hughes is long. Arsenal, Fulham, Manchester City, Liverpool and even Barcelona have been credited with having their heads turned by the young central midfielder.
Hughes uses the ball well, can protect his back four or play behind a front two. He has been integral to Derby's season and has a left foot that suggests he has a real future at higher levels of English football.
Hughes was unfazed by the step up to Championship level and that temperament is appealing to Premier League clubs sniffing around a player who stands out with his almost white shock of hair.
The 17-year-old has already become the second-youngest player ever to pull on an England shirt for the Under-21 side. He got the call-up after an A level class. That was reward for how effortlessly he has stepped up from youth football to reserve football and to the second tier of English football.
The price tag, after just 25 Championship games, is already beyond £5m. That has been the level of his impact. Those in the know expect Hughes to go on to play for England, already. Nigel Clough, his manager at Derby, could play. He has already drawn a comparison with Liam Brady – that is some praise.
Rugby Union: Kyle Eastmond
Kyle Eastmond must be fed up to the back teeth with suggestions that he is Jason Robinson's doppelgänger: there are similarities, certainly, but rugby men who cross the divide from league to union have quite enough on their plate mastering the complexities of the 15-man game without worrying about trying to emulate the unfathomable. Bath are far from fed up with Eastmond, however: having seen their latest cross-code trickster nail a place at right wing after a brief fling on the left, the West Countrymen are now wondering whether his innate understanding of space, width and tempo might be of most benefit in midfield.
Generally speaking, rugby league types are most effective in union the further they are away from the pack. Eastmond may be different: Bath have already shown trust in him at outside-half and they gave him a run at outside centre earlier this month. Even if he ends up as a full-time wing, he is certain to interest the national selectors sooner rather than later and is a decent bet for a summer tour place when England, shorn of their Lions, travel to Argentina. What he might achieve there is anyone's guess. Jason who?
Cricket: Ben Stokes
Part of the trouble with modern sport, apart from the fact that there is far too much of it, is that the stars are all known from about the age of two (and getting younger).
It will not do to be sniffy about this because it was a fair bet from a long way out that Denis Compton was going to be big. But academies, programmes and scholarships have made the left-field pick extinct.
Before his formidable innings of 73 in Nagpur a fortnight ago the choice would have been Joe Root. To choose him now would be almost cheating.
Ben Stokes, of Durham, it is then. Stokes is still only 21 but looked a little special at 18 (and probably at two) when he scored a rumbustious 161 at Canterbury. His batting has flair. He can bowl a reasonably nippy brand of right-arm seam and the all-rounder that England are looking for may reside in his talent.
As part of the Performance Programme Squad in India, Stokes has just acquitted himself well in all three forms of the game. A sparky chap, by all accounts, injury in 2011 impeded progress but a good start in 2013 at Chester-le-Street may compensate more quickly than generally presumed.
In most years, too much excitement about a young colt like Kingsbarns would represent a triumph of hope over experience. After all, it is never hard to find a two-year-old who has ended his first season with the persuasive glister of a champion in the making. It is less common, however, to find one able to see through all that promise in the Classics.
In this case, however, precedent suggests only encouragement. Kingsbarns bolted up in the Racing Post Trophy on only his second start – just like Camelot last year. The two physical paragons share the same trainer, Aidan O'Brien. And, like Camelot, Kingbarns was preceded from Co Tipperary by expectations that went far deeper than a brief public career.
As a three-year-old, Camelot won not only the 2,000 Guineas, over a mile, but also the Derby, over a mile and a half – and came within three-quarters of a length of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1970.
At Doncaster, Kingsbarns showed the same beguiling blend of speed and stamina. The one difference is that sons of Camelot's sire, Montjeu, can be mentally delicate. Kingsbarns is by Galileo, whose progeny tend to be as robust as they are brilliant. All in all, the hoofprints he might follow could not be imprinted more clearly on the paths of glory.
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