Y is for youth…
For a nation that supposedly suffers from a chronic problem with youth development, the Premier League isn’t exactly starved of young talents and exciting prospects.
Going into the new season, the likes of Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Adnan Januzaj, John Stones, Luke Shaw, Aaron Ramsey, Calum Chambers and many other teenagers and early 20-year-olds are being touted as not only points of interest but genuine stars.
Last year, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard walked away with the PFA Young Player Of The Year award, becoming only the fifth foreign national to pick up the gong in 40 years.
The first non-Brit to receive the crown was Nicolas Anelka in 1999. A year later the ranks of this hugely talented, low-aged foreign legion swelled to two, with Australian Harry Kewell lauded in 2000. Cristiano Ronaldo won the award in 2007 who then handed on the trophy to Cesc Fabregas in 2008.
Beyond their more recent flourishes to the roll of honour, the award’s list of winners reads like a who’s who of UK football.
In the 1980s, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Tony Adams, Paul Gascoigne and Paul Merson were honoured, with Matt Le Tissier kicking off a 90s period that would be dominated by Manchester United, both in terms of league titles and young talent.
The Class of ’92 was soon emerging into first team football, led by Ryan Giggs who won the Young Player award two years on the trot in 1992 and 1993.
David Beckham would go on to claim a win in 1997 which, along with Lee Sharpe’s 1991 award, made it four to the good for United. Liverpool were second in line with three Young Player winners: Robbie Fowler in 1995 and 1996, and Michael Owen in 1998.
Since 1994, Newcastle United have supplied three winners, beginning with Andy “Andrew” Cole, who began to realise his potential at St James Park after failing to impress at Arsenal, and followed by Craig Bellamy in 2002 and Jermaine Jenas in 2003.
Other notable winners over the past decade or so include Steven Gerrard (2001), Scott Parker (2004), Wayne Rooney (2005 and 2006), Ashley Young (2009), James Milner (2010), Jack Wilshere (2011) and Kyle Walker (2012).
Prior to Hazard’s win last year, Gareth Bale was the holder of the title, having been awarded it in 2013 after a stellar season that encouraged Real Madrid to pay Tottenham Hotspur €100M (or £85.3M—both figures according to Wikipedia) for his services. That made the Welshman the most expensive player of all time, and one of the most pivotal figures in a new era of Galactico signings.
Who can say what the future holds for this season’s winner, whoever they may be?
Hazard could of course retain the title with another excellent year with Chelsea, but would anyone bet against Ramsey if he were able to keep himself fit for a full season? Perhaps Sterling and Barkley. Given their central billing for Liverpool and Everton, either Merseyside-based youngster could be in with a shout.
Even if England do fall down at making the most of the young talent that comes through—there is a huge gap within the mid-20s where players seem to go missing at present—there is still a paradoxical cult that surrounds the magic and joy of youth breaking through into senior football.
Besides the obvious tragedy that stole them from the game, that’s why players such as Duncan Edwards and The Busby Babes are remembered, cherished and missed. There’s something very special about watching the development of a young player before the eyes of a football stadium. It almost feels like a privilege to witness the opening chapters to a living story being written.
Let’s hope this year allows the league’s most talent young scribes to power out more than a few new pages over the season to come.
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