Can England get beyond Sonny Pike syndrome?

Fans blogger Dave Hennessy discusses England's youth talent and asks, given past experience with hyped up wonderkids, whether it is in crisis. 

Fans blogger Dave Hennessy discusses England's youth talent and asks, given past experience with hyped up wonderkids, whether it is in crisis.

 
England’s stars disappointed in South Africa by not disappointing more gallantly.

The lack of a penalty shootout heartbreak was heart breaking in itself as Fabio Capello’s team of experienced Premiership stars was well beaten by a younger German side with few, if any familiar names.

Neither Bryan Robson nor Tony Adams were to be seen at last summer’s big tournament and neither was their spirit as none of England’s key players really stepped up to lift the team. The Three Lions exited the competition prematurely with a whimper rather than a roar.

England’s manager famously commented after the African debacle that David Beckham was now “too old” to play for his country. At 35, you would have to see the point. Not that Beckham is good only for the knacker’s yard, I think he can still make a contribution, but we also need a long term replacement. In fact, good, young blood is exactly what England need in all positions.

Beckham was part of a crop of “kids” that burst onto the scene at Manchester United and slotted into a team with established names like Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane and won trophies - even though Alan Hansen and others wrote them off. Such a crop has not come along since.

The face of English football was different then. The Premiership had players like Robbie Fowler and Chris Sutton, in-form strikers, who couldn’t get a game for their country. Arsenal had an all English back four ( Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Keown or Bould ) in front of an English goalkeeper, Seaman. Although they were a ready made unit, that won 200 international caps between them, they were never cut and pasted straight into the England line up like they could have and maybe should have been done. It seems unthinkable now that a top English side would field such an amount of home grown talent.

Last week, England’s Italian manager called up 33 year-old Bolton striker Kevin Davies. It may be a deserved and even overdue call up but why now select a player who cannot look much further than the European championships in 2012? It was the Italian who decided Beckham, with all his international experience, was out of the frame at 35. Yet he calls upon Davies who has been internationally ignored his whole career. Are Fabio’s options so limited?

Media hype has often told us of bright England heroes that we have yet to see. Capello controversially chose to leave our brightest young player Theo Walcott at home for this year’s excursion to the Southern hemisphere. The decision was wrong in some people’s opinions as they felt Walcott possessed the spark of creativity and imagination that England needed to unlock defences. How much of a difference he would have made is debatable as Joe Cole, with similar flair, got precious little time on the pitch.

Walcott made headlines in 2005 as football history’s most expensive teenager when he transferred to Arsenal from Southampton. Sven surprised all by taking him to the 2006 World Cup despite his absolute lack of Premiership experience at the time. Having nothing to do with last summer’s disgrace won’t hurt him and Theo is as safe a bet as there can be to go to Brazil in 2014.

Before Walcott, there was Jermaine Pennant. Again there was Arsenal and again there were headlines. Arsenal bought Pennant from Notts County making him the game‘s first £2 million teenager. Despite his initial hype, Pennant made little impact at the Gunners and was sold on. He later turned out for Liverpool before a move to Spanish side Real Zaragoza. Few have won more under- 21 caps than him, but he has yet to get a senior international call up, now aged twenty seven. He is currently on loan to Stoke City.

Once England’s number ten in waiting was Luke "Sonny" Pike. At the age of seven he was spotted by Ajax and taken to their Academy of Excellence that has produced such greats as Cruyff, Van Basten and Davids. The media absolutely loved the concept of a youngster with European skills yet with a British passport. Television and tabloids hailed him as the next Diego Maradona. At ten the kid from North London needed a high profile agent. Sky were turning football from a working class game to the glamorous industry it is now and Sonny was a child star.

Like MacCauley Culkin, the bubble burst and Sonny suffered a nervous breakdown, caused by pressure from all around.

"I couldn't take it, and I got ill, really screwed up," he revealed. His relationship with the club that took his childhood turned sour, the kid everyone expected so much from played non-league football with teams like Stevenage Borough and Barnet before quitting the game.

The phrase “too much, too young” never seemed more apt than in the case of Sonny Pike. His career collapse has been used as a warning to other young prodigies.

Also from North London was Kiyan Prince. The QPR youth player was nicknamed “bullet” for his speed and tipped to play for England. As well as being a prolific goal scorer, he had a quality that lifted players around him.

Kiyan was fatally stabbed outside his school in 2006 while trying to protect one of his friends. He was only 15.

QPR manager Gary Waddock said: "The whole club is mourning the loss of one of our own. Kiyan was certainly one for the future."

Waddock and QPR had planned to sign him as a professional. The youth who stabbed him was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kiyan’s father Mark Prince has set up the Kiyan Prince Foundation that works with young people to eliminate knife crime from our streets. Kiyan would be just 20 years old if he was alive today.

You have to go back to 2002 for the last time another home nation joined England at a major tournament when Mick McCarthy steered the Republic of Ireland to the second round of their only finals in sixteen years. A player who was sure to make the trip with the Irish squad was Millwall’s Richard Sadlier.

Sadlier actually turned down the South London club’s first approach, wanting to stay in Dublin to do his leaving cert exams, but with the qualifications attained, made his Millwall debut aged just sixteen. Richard became a firm fans’ favourite at the Den before he earned his Irish call up. Unfortunately a hip injury ended his World Cup dream and he didn’t travel to the land of the rising sun. The battling Dubliner was brave and worked hard but sadly, never sustained a comeback to football and in 2004 he retired. A promising career was over at the tender age of 24. Now an insightful football columnist, Richard was writing about the tournament in South Africa.

It seems the days when the Republic of Ireland and Scotland would be fancied in qualifying for any tournament are long gone. Gone also are the days when both would have a healthy number of first team players in England’s top flight. More alarming for Jocks: fewer and fewer Scots are turning out for Glasgow‘s big two sides.

Last Friday’s internationals saw Ireland, Scotland and Wales all lose. North London favourites Pavlyuchenko and Arshavin’s Russia were victorious in Dublin, Bulgaria didn’t need Berbatov to see off Wales and Scotland lost out to Rosicky and the Czech Republic.

The Premiership is attracting the best players in the world, there is no question, but our own players have been suffering for a long time.

The most frustrating thing for me as an Irish supporter is Stephen Ireland, arguably our best player, refusing to play for his country.

The young Corkman scored four times in six appearances for Ireland but says he doesn’t see himself playing for his country again, at 24. Very sad considering he is one of only a handful of impressive Irish premiership players.

Speaking before the World Cup, Rio Ferdinand told of how, as a kid playing in the Peckham streets, he recreated Maradona’s incredible solo goal against England in 1986. Steven Gerrard revealed, watching at home, he cried nearly as much as heartbroken Gazza in 1990. Inspired by Michael Owen’s Trojan run against Argentina in France 1998, Wayne Rooney dreamed of scoring such a goal on such a stage. Inspired by great World Cup performances, each of them has now represented England at the event themselves. But what was there to inspire young English lads from this World Cup?

The most exciting thing England fans have seen lately has to be the performances of Jack Wilshire for Arsenal.

The 18 year-old plays with sublime skill and does not look out of place beside Fabregas in stylish and multi-national Arsenal. With tricks that look like they could be from Europe and a passport that is definitely British, Wilshire could be the England playmaker we hoped Ajax would nurture for us.

There is still young English talent, it is just that it must compete with talent from all over the world to break into our strongest sides. If our youngsters cannot be better than these imports from Europe and South America to play in their local teams, how can we expect them to beat the European and South American sides when playing for the national team?

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