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