It was April 2014 and Charlton Athletic Under-16s were coming to the end of their season. They had some gaps in the fixture list so organised a few more games, to give their players a few more minutes and just to see, on the off chance, what boys were playing for other teams.
When Charlton welcomed London FA U-16s to Sparrow’s Lane, in New Eltham, they could not believe their eyes. London FA is a representative team made up of players drawn from local Sunday league sides. They had a little 16-year-old winger, Ademola Lookman, who played for Waterloo FC. He had never been part of an academy or attached by a big club. But he was the best player on the pitch by a distance, dazzling with his easy ability to beat opponents.
Charlton immediately took Lookman on trial and soon enough offered him a scholarship. This week, less than three years on, they sold him to Everton for a fee that could rise to £11m. It is a very rare story for a player to go that far, that quickly, and for a Premier League side to invest that much money in someone who simply has not had the academy coaching from the age of eight that so many other boys go through.
When Lookman arrived at Charlton’s academy, which remains one of the very best in the country, the staff were very keen to make sure that they did not inhibit his natural instincts. Having only played school and Sunday league football before, Lookman had always played with the freedom to express himself, with an easy way to receive the ball at speed and take it past opponents. “We were very conscious not to knock out that innate talent, that love for the football, out of him,” Steve Avory, Charlton academy manager, told The Independent.
What Avory and his team taught Lookman was that there were times when it was better to pass the ball, or that when there were too many opponents on him he should not try to take them all on. It was about making him more aware of the bigger picture while encouraging him to use his skills in dangerous areas.
But Charlton were always very confident in Lookman’s ability to learn. He is a very bright young man who achieved three A*s and five As at GCSE, attending St Thomas the Apostle College in Peckham. Charlton’s academy works with Orpington College, giving its scholars one and a half days in the classroom each week towards earning qualifications. Lookman shone and completed a Level 3 BTEC in sport that is equivalent to two A Levels. In April last year he won the Championship ‘Apprentice of the Season’ because of his achievements on and off the pitch.
Lookman broke into the Charlton first team quickly enough, impressing in the Championship last year and League One this year for a series of managers. Whether out on the left or playing as a number 10 he retained that ability to ghost past people that first impressed Charlton three years ago. When Karl Robinson took over in November he knew that he would not get to coach Lookman for long so wanted to point to the example of Dele Alli, who Robinson coached at MK Dons, for how a young player could go from League One to the top flight. Robinson even took Lookman to Wembley to watch Alli play for Spurs in the Champions League, to show him what he could achieve.
The comparison is an important one. Both Lookman and Alli were initially ignored by the big clubs and have both had to learn their trade as teenagers in the lower leagues, playing competitive football against grown men.
The Lookman story also shows that academies should not just scout for the best talent at 12, 10 or even eight, but that they should keep looking for talented boys who may have fallen through the cracks. Crystal Palace U16s had a game pencilled in against London FA back in April 2014 but it never happened. Had it taken place they would surely have signed Lookman, another south London youngster to add to their ranks. Last August Palace bid £6m for Lookman but it was not enough to buy the one who got away.
The big Premier League teams all knew about Lookman in the end but it was Everton who put up the money to sign the most exciting teenager outside the top two tiers. The other clubs have to ask themselves if their eyes are open to the next brilliant 16-year-old still playing Sunday league.
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