Rocky road to suc­cess

JONATHAN SHEIKH-MILLER ex­plains why Eng­land’s ex­cit­ing young­sters should keep their feet on the ground…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

There are no guar­an­tees

LAST month, as a mul­ti­tude of foot­ballers were busy burn­ing off those ex­tra Ibiza ice creams on the train­ing pitch,Wim­ble­don of­fered up its an­nual spec­ta­cle of Hen­man Hill, a lot of straw­ber­ries and Cliff Richard wear­ing blaz­ers seem­ingly made out of 1970s sofa up­hol­stery. So here’s a topi­cal ques­tion…

In 2001, the ver­dant lawn ten­nis courts of Wim­ble­don were graced by a cer­tain Swiss teenager, who, as one of the lead­ing ju­niors in the game, swept aside all be­fore him to be crowned Boys’ Sin­gles cham­pion.

As a mea­sure of this young­ster’s po­ten­tial, his beaten ri­val in the fi­nal was Lux­em­bourger Gilles Muller, who him­self has gone on to earn mil­lions of dol­lars in a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional ca­reer.

And this tal­ented boy’s name? It be­gins with an “R”.

Ro­man Va­lent. That’s right. Ro­man Va­lent, not to be con­fused with slightly bet­ter known fel­low Swiss player Roger Fed­erer, reached the lofty heights of num­ber 300 in the world and in his en­tire ca­reer earned less than what a de­cent elec­tri­cian might make in a year.

In ten­nis, just like the beau­ti­ful game it­self, the jour­ney from be­ing the next big thing to, well, ac­tu­ally be­ing it, is fraught with un­cer­tainty. Growth spurts, or lack of them, in­juries, confi- dence and com­mit­ment can all play their part.

Flick­ing through the dozens of names on rolls of hon­our of the past shows how chal­leng­ing the route to the very top can be. For ev­ery Roger Fed­erer, there are nu­mer­ous Ro­man Va­lents.

As Cen­tre Court re­sounded to the sum­mery sound of ball on racket, Eng­land’s Un­der-19 foot­ball team were hard at work in far­away Ge­or­gia win­ning the Euro­pean Un­der-19 Cham­pi­onship, beat­ing Por­tu­gal 2-1 in the fi­nal, thanks to a win­ner from Manch­ester City’s Lukas Nmecha.

It was the third time this cen­tury the Eng­land young­sters had made the fi­nal. The tri­umph is a notable achieve­ment for these young play­ers, but when one looks at the squads com­pris­ing the tour­na­ments of the past, the plain fact is that glit­ter­ing, in­ter­na­tional star­dom is un­likely for most of them. In 2005, Eng­land bat­tled out of their group thanks to a 3-2 win against Nor­way, their win­ning goal scored by for­mer Mid­dles­brough and cur­rent Bolton Wan­der­ers cen­tre-back David Wheater, who last sea­son was named in the EFL League One Team of the Year as the Trot­ters won pro­mo­tion back to the Cham­pi­onship. Eng­land made the fi­nal thanks to a hat-trick from Matty Fry­att, freed by Not­ting­ham For­est at the end of last sea­son after an in­jury-plagued stay at the City Ground, as they de­feated Ser­bia and Mon­tene­gro 3-1. The striker is best known for his goals in the Cham­pi­onship and League One for Le­ices­ter City and Wal­sall. In the fi­nal, de­spite Ex­eter City winger Lee Holmes giv­ing Eng­land the lead, France were too strong and came through to claim the tro­phy 3-1. Eng­land’s squad at the time con­tained sev­eral play­ers who are now ei­ther in­ac­tive or in NonLeague foot­ball.

For­mer Manch­ester United mid­fielder Ritchie Jones left FC Ed­mon­ton of the North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League, the level be­low the MLS, in 2016, while Philip Ifil, once of Spurs, last turned out for Ket­ter­ing Town in 2012.

Ever­ton’s Lau­rence Wilson is now at Ban­gor City, while Nor­wich City’s Ryan Jarvis is still in Nor­folk, at King’s Lynn Town.

The same scru­tiny can be ap­plied to other squads, too. The ‘Golden Player’ of the en­tire 2005 Euro­pean Un­der-19 Cham­pi­onship was French­man Ab­doulaye Balde, who joined Vendée Luçon in the third tier of French foot­ball in 2015. The va­garies of foot­ball are laid bare when one re­alises that Balde beat the likes of Hugo Lloris,Younes Kaboul, Moussa Sow and Yo­han Cabaye to the award.

Mean­while, the tour­na­ment’s top scorer, Borko Ve­seli­novic, still plies his trade in the Ser­bian Su­perLiga.

In 2009, Eng­land were once again los­ing fi­nal­ists, go­ing down 2-0 to Ukraine, with the tour­na­ment hot­shot be­ing Nathan Delfouneso, presently in the tan­ger­ine of Black­pool and who helped fire them to pro­mo­tion from League Two last term.

Kyrylo Petrov, that year’s ‘Golden Player’, can now be found in the Azer­bai­jan Premier League.

But this is not a gra­tu­itous foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion of the vari­able ca­reer paths of these foot­ballers.

In many senses, their sto­ries should help guide and in­form the new wave of tal­ented young English foot­ballers com­ing through.

This sum­mer, it is not only the Un­der-19s who have ex­celled. Eng­land im­pres­sively tri­umphed in the Un­der-20 World Cup fi­nal, beat­ing Venezuela 1-0, while a team mainly aged 19 or un­der re­tained the sil­ver­ware at the Toulon Tour­na­ment.

All signs sug­gest that youth foot­ball in Eng­land is con­sis­tently on the up and con­se­quently more of these as­pir­ing play­ers should make the grade and ful­fil their un­doubted po­ten­tial.

Many head­lines and col­umn inches are hope­fully to be writ­ten about the likes of Lukas Nmecha, Ryan Sesseg­non, Dominic CalvertLewin and Dominic Solanke, who are just a few of Eng­land’s tal­ented young bri­gade, but as they set out on their foot­balling adventure, they could do worse than look at the likes of David Wheater, Matty Fry­att, Nathan Delfouneso and Lee Holmes.

They have forged suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional ca­reers de­spite en­coun­ter­ing ups and downs along the way, while play­ers such as Ryan Jarvis, go­ing strong in the South­ern League Premier Di­vi­sion, are an in­spi­ra­tion and demon­strate how foot­ball can be re­ward­ing much fur­ther down the pyra­mid.

In the 2009 Euro­pean Un­der-19 Cham­pi­onship fi­nal against Ukraine, Eng­land’s start­ing full-backs were a cer­tain Kyle Walker, who re­cently be­came one of the world’s most ex­pen­sive foot­ballers, and Matt Briggs, re­leased this sum­mer by League Two Colch­ester United.

A for­mer Eng­land Un­der-21 in­ter­na­tional and then a full Guyanese in­ter­na­tional, Briggs has played in all four di­vi­sions, in­clud­ing a num­ber of games in the Premier League for Ful­ham, clock­ing up al­most 100 league ap­pear­ances in to­tal.

Whether Briggs hooks up with an­other league side, drops into Non-League foot­ball or looks for an en­tirely dif­fer­ent chal­lenge, he has had a re­spectable ca­reer last­ing al­most a decade and which he can re­flect upon with con­sid­er­able pride.

Pro­fes­sional foot­ball nat­u­rally com­prises many more Matt Briggs’s than it does Kyle Walk­ers.

As for Ro­man Va­lent, he may not have had the tra­jec­tory of his il­lus­tri­ous coun­try­man, but as a Ju­nior Wim­ble­don cham­pion, he was surely some ten­nis player.

False dawn: Ro­man Va­lent

On top of the world: Eng­land Un­der 20s

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