In the modern era of football, finding up-and-coming talent is as exciting a prospect as winning a Cup or a League title. Liverpool hit the jackpot with an emerging Michael Owen, whom at 18 years of age catapulted to stardom with a fine solo effort for England in the Second Round of France ‘98. As did Everton in 2002, when a little-known 16-year-old called Wayne Rooney ended reigning Premier League champions Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run. Needless to say, these two talents built their careers upon being “the next big thing”.
In this year alone, we have seen numerous young English stars take the centre stage of football. Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, whom The Daily Mirror has reported to be asking for a £50,000-a-week contract, has been hailed as the ‘wonder kid’ to bring the good times back to Anfield. 19-year-old Jack Butland, a representative of Great Britain at the Summer Olympics, was selected for the England Euro 2012 squad before pulling on the goalkeeping jersey of parent club Birmingham City. The most recent recipient of the limelight, however, has been the 20-year-old Wilfred Zaha.
Zaha, born in the Ivory Coast but eligible to play for the English national team, has been lighting up the nPower Championship with his stunning displays for Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace. The winger has spearheaded the Eagles’ Premier League intent, having scored several goals in high-profile wins over the likes of Wolves and Burnley. Zaha’s blistering start to the season was duly noted by Roy Hodgson, earning him an England call up for the friendly against Sweden in Stockholm (a match that will ultimately be remembered for that Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal). More importantly, however, Zaha was noticed by the football hype machine.
Recently, Zaha has been the player at the heart of most football talk. The Sun has referred to him as “football’s hottest property”, whilst the ever-eccentric Holloway’s advice to players opposite the youngster was the rather simple “God help you.” Praise such as this can be incredibly beneficial for a 20-year-old, and can create a reputation that acts as the foundation for a successful career. A young David Beckham, the aforementioned Wayne Rooney and even Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo were encouraged by glorification early in their playing days, be that from peers or from the footballing media. These men have gone on to become icons of the modern game, and their list of accomplishments must be the achievements that Zaha is currently eyeing up.
While Beckham, Rooney et al have carved their names into football history, most young prodigies, however, struggle to live up to the expectation.
Several famous names belong to the list of careers that showed potential, but ultimately fell short. Alan Smith, Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole are examples of young players that showed all of the promise in the world, but for varying reasons could never truly get off the ground. To find a truly harrowing case of unfulfilled expectations, however, you have to rewind to the turn of the millennium. Back in 2001, Everton’s Francis Jeffers was widely tipped to be England’s newest star.