Is the “Wonder Kid” tag a weight on the shoulders of young British footballers?
Last weekend, 21-year-old Gabriel Jesus stole the headlines with a brace as Manchester City dismantled Everton with relative ease. But watching the highlights on Match of the Day, it wasn’t the Manchester City wonder kid who caught my eye; instead I was drawn to a former young starlet in the dark blue of Everton.
Just before the hour mark, I was hit with a blast of nostalgia as Theo Walcott entered the fray. Suddenly, I was transported back to January 2006. Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Shayne Ward was flying high at the top of the charts and Woolworths still existed. But most importantly, a fresh-faced Theo Walcott was completing his move to Arsenal for a fee that could potentially rise to £12 million, a staggering amount of money at the time for a 16-year-old. Comparisons were already being made to Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney, despite the teenager only having a handful of Championship appearances for Southampton to his name.
Walcott was thrust into the spotlight straight away
Walcott was definitely going to be the next big thing in this country. Without question. Of course he was. Harry Redknapp told us so, which means it must have been true. He was so highly rated that in the summer of 2006, at the tender age of 17, Walcott was selected by Sven Goran Eriksson for England’s World Cup squad, despite not having made a Premiership appearance for Arsenal.
The Wonder Kid was picked at the expense of the highest scoring Englishman in the Premier League that season, Charlton Athletic goal machine Darren Bent. (Bent was also overlooked by Fabio Capello in 2010, despite only Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba scoring more Premier League goals than the Sunderland striker. The universally acknowledged list of greatest players to never play at a World Cup is: 1- George Best, 2- Ryan Giggs, 3- Darren Bent).
Eriksson defended the decision as he assured us that Walcott would be an England star for many years to come, and his taste of World Cup action (even though he remained an unused sub throughout the tournament) would be an invaluable experience. Sven made Walcott’s World Cup sound more like a German Exchange than an international football tournament.
Walcott’s “Wonder Kid” status was confirmed as he won Young Sports Personality of the Year in 2006. If all the hype was to be believed, Walcott was going to be something really special.
Internationally wise, it never quite worked out
Unfortunately, Walcott never needed to refer back to the notes he made during his school trip to the 2006 World Cup, because he was never selected for another. Walcott was omitted from the squad in 2010 (alongside poor old Darren Bent, #neverforget), injury cost him a place on the plane in 2014 and he was unable to worm his way back into Southgate’s 2018 side. An unforgettable hattrick against Croatia in 2008 is the obvious highlight in what has been an average international career for Walcott, but disappointing in comparison to the star quality we were promised back in 2006.
Similarly, his Arsenal career was good, but not outstanding. Two FA Cup triumphs and over 100 goals for the club is certainly impressive, but having been compared to Thierry Henry from the beginning of his career, he has certainly not reached the dizzy heights of the French great. Whilst Henry was rewarded with a dream move to Barcelona, Walcott’s final season with the Gunners fizzled out and was characterized by cameos and cup appearances.
Walcott has not had a bad career, not by any stretch of the imagination. He just hasn’t achieved the success that may have been expected of him as a 16-year-old Wonder Kid.
Not all world beaters are labelled as “Wonder Kids”
Another player to come through the ranks at Southampton and secure a move to the Premier League at a similar time to Walcott was Gareth Bale. However, the Welshman wasn’t afforded anywhere near the same hype as his Southampton teammate, potentially because he was a fullback when Tottenham paid £2 million for his services. Injuries plagued his first couple of seasons at White Heart Lane, meaning he wasn’t part of a winning Premier League starting eleven until January 2010, two and a half years since he signed for Spurs.
In the 2010/11 season, Bale was unrecognisable. His pace and power saw him attract plaudits in the Premier League and Europe as he was transformed into a world class winger. Three hugely successful seasons with Tottenham earnt him a record-breaking move to Real Madrid. The Welshman has won three Champions League titles with the European giants, and almost singlehandedly dragged Wales into the semi-finals of the 2014 European Championships. Not bad for a fullback who slipped under the radar somewhat. (However, Bale is yet to play in a World Cup, so he sits in fourth place, just behind Darren Bent in the list of greatest players to never feature at a World Cup.)
Jack Wilshere made his Arsenal debut at just 16, and was another young starlet hand-picked as a Wonder Kid. Despite having a superb first full season for the Gunners, a string of long-term injuries have prevented Wilshere from fulfilling his early promise. Fabio Capello described Wilshere as “the future”, but the midfielder has not played for England for over two years. This summer he left Arsenal after 17 years at the club.
But for every Jack Wilshere, there’s a Harry Kane
Harry Kane was loaned out by Tottenham on four occasions to four separate clubs. These were not remarkable loan spells either. It took a series of noteworthy Europa League performances (a competition where Tottenham tended to play a second-string side) before Kane eventually forced himself into the starting eleven in the Premier League. 117 goals in just 167 appearances later, Kane now has three Golden Boots and the England captain’s armband. Kane’s career has been built on sheer persistence and endeavour. It wasn’t until he was actually scoring goals week in, week out for club and country that people started to take notice. At the rate he is going, Kane could become one of the greatest English strikers to grace the Premier League.
There are countless examples of players who have failed to live up to the tag of Wonder Kid in this country. Ravel Morrison is another obvious choice; rated so highly by Sir Alex Ferguson, currently fading into obscurity on loan at Atlas in Mexico. And there are countless examples of players who were never hyped up, who have gone on to achieve great things. Very few people had even heard of Marcus Rashford until he netted a brace on his debut for Manchester United, and he has dazzled for club and country since.
It isn’t just Wonder Kids who fail to live up to expectations
A similar trend has been seen with the national team over the past 15 years. The illustrious “Golden Generation” were, on paper, one of the greatest England sides we have ever seen. Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Beckham, Owen and Terry at their peak, with a young, raw and fearless Wayne Rooney the icing on what should have been a world class cake. However, this side limped out in consecutive major tournament quarter-finals before failing to even qualify for Euro 2008. And there were such high hopes for Fabio Capello’s 2010 side, who had breezed through qualifying and boasted Wayne Rooney at the height of his powers. Yet they thoroughly underperformed, underachieved and underwhelmed at the South Africa World Cup.
And then in 2018, with a manager whose most notable managerial achievement was relegating Middlesbrough at the helm, and a squad severely lacking in superstars, England were terrific. Very little was expected from nice guy Southgate and his bang-average side, and yet England recorded their joint best World Cup showing since 66. We’d been singing “It’s Coming Home” ironically up until the semi-finals.
Being labelled as a Wonder Kid in this country doesn’t seem to do you any favours. Maybe it’s because of the media pressure or perhaps it’s the huge pay packages Wonder Kids are gifted at such a young age. Recently, great success stories seem to come from those who slip under the radar. And in the summer of 2018, Gareth Southgate managed to slip an entire squad of 23 (plus coaching staff) under the radar. And yet he still couldn’t find a place for Darren Bent.