Anthem for Doomed Youth: Arsenal’s Young Guns Ten Years On

Posted on July 22, 2011 by


Nothing gives me the same sense of time rapidly slipping away as football. When Wayne Rooney – who was born the same year as me – burst onto the scene as a teenager, I knew my chances of ever being a professional footballer were well and truly over. I was never ever even remotely good at playing football, but it was still representative of the fact that a door had slammed shut behind me, and at a time when I didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do yet. Fast-forward to 2011 and I’m now listening to pundits endlessly debate whether stadiums will be too hot for players during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. When that tournament kicks off I’ll be 36 years old: around retirement age for a footballer.

Likewise, the seasons go on and on almost without pause, until you suddenly realise that yesterday’s “hot prospects” are now approaching the end of their careers. Some have in fact already retired from the game. In fact, I’ve found few things serve as more bitter-sweet elegies to yesterday’s forgotten promise than the starting line-ups of former FA Youth Cup champions.

The only FA Youth Cup final I remember watching with any clarity was the two-legged decider between Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers (a side that included Neil Danns and Jon Walters) at the end of the 2000-2001 season. The tie ended 6-3 to Arsenal after Don Howe’s young Gunners romped to an eye-catching 5-0 victory at Highbury – then heralded as proof that Jermaine Pennant, masquerading as a striker, was the new Pele (The Telegraph wrote: “At £1 million, Jermaine Pennant might yet go from being the country’s most expensive teenager to the biggest bargain in modern football”) .

When those victorious young Gunners held the trophy aloft they must have felt closer than ever to their childhood fantasies of winning the World Cup, not to mention a guaranteed multi-millionaire lifestyle. Yet, at the time of writing, not a single member of that squad has played senior international football. In fact, in the ten years since, only half of them have gone on to play much first-team football at any professional level.

Now in its 59th year, the FA Youth Cup has been lifted by the likes of Michael Owen or Manchester United’s famed team of 91-92 – not to mention Jack Wilshere and David Wheater more recently. But however close young players might seem to be to having “made it” when they join that list of past winners, a look at the career of a player like, say, Congolese forward Carlin Itonga provides a more common story. In his short career, Itonga played a handful of games in spells at various semi-professional clubs, culminating at Fisher Athletic where he called time on his playing career in 2004 at the age of 24.

Itonga replaced Pennant late in the first leg and benefited from Wenger decision to call the in-form winger up to the first team for David Seaman’s testimonial against Barcelona, starting the second match (a 3-1 defeat at Ewood Park) alongside Jeremie Aliadiere – scorer of two goals in the first leg and four in the semi-final against Ipswich. Next to Itonga, the Clairefontaine-bred Frenchman’s subsequent career seems impressive and he was in reality the only member of this squad to trouble the fringes of the senior side in any realistic sense – with even future Liverpool, Zaragoza and Stoke City winger Pennant struggling to make the jump up into what was a fantastic, later “Invincible”, Arsenal team. Yet Aliadiere, a Premier League winner’s medal recipient in 03-04, has endured a less than stellar career at the highest level.

Deemed surplus to requirements at Arsenal, with Henry, Van Persie and Adebayor ahead of him in Arsene Wenger’s reckoning, Aliadiere left the club in 2007 to pursue a disappointing spell with freshly-beaten UEFA Cup finalists Middlesbrough, eventually getting relegated in 2009. Declining a contract extension with the Championship side in summer 2010, he spent the entirety of last season without a club – though he has recently signed for Lorient in France. Good times may yet come for the Frenchman as, fitness-pending, the 28 year old could flourish in Ligue 1. However, the same turnaround of fortunes seems unlikely for many of his one-time team-mates.

Right-back Moritz Volz has endured a frustrating, injury-plagued spell on the sidelines at St. Pauli in his native Germany since a stop-start spell at Fulham came to an end in 2009. Whilst the big, versatile Dane Sebastian Svärd, who played both legs against Blackburn as a defender in 2001, enjoyed a slightly better time in the Bundesliga, during four years with Borussia Mönchengladbach, though the former Stoke City loanee has found playing time limited in the Netherlands since joining Roda JC last year.

Perhaps the most colourful and altogether baffling career path for one of the class of 2001 has been that of pacey midfield schemer Rohan Ricketts. The wideman seemed to be on his way to the top after making a terrific start to his post-Arsenal career at Tottenham, after quietly moving across North London a season after the Youth Cup triumph (making 24 appearances and scoring one goal in03-04), but found himself shunted out of the team unceremoniously with the departure of Glenn Hoddle. After a decent spell at Wolves (again under Hoddle), Ricketts faded into relative obscurity, since becoming a somewhat determined journeyman: plying his trade at small clubs in Germany (SV Wilhelmshaven), Hungary (Diósgyőri VTK) and Moldova (Dacia Chişinău) in recent seasons.

He may be best remembered for his time at Canadian soccer franchise Toronto FC, after rapper 50 Cent was snapped wearing “Ricketts 10” on a replica jersey during the player’s time in MLS. These days Ricketts occasionally works as a pundit and runs his own online magazine called Column 10. He has recently been on trial with Southend.

By contrast, the careers of fellow midfielders Steve Sidwell and Jerome Thomas (both goalscorers against Blackburn) have been pretty solid without either quite setting the world alight. Sidwell has turned out for Reading, Chelsea, Aston Villa and, lately, Fulham since moving on – though he’s struggled to get games for long periods. Meanwhile, Thomas has become something of an unsung hero with consistent performances in the ranks of Charlton and now West Brom.

Also making consistent performances at senior level is the side’s skipper Ben Chorley, though his career in the lower echelons of the football league seems an underwhelming return for a player once dubbed the next Tony Adams within the halls of Highbury. Chorley missed the first leg of the Youth Cup final because of suspension, but went straight back into the team for the return fixture and scored Arsenal’s only goal in the 3-1 loss. Now with Leyton Orient, the centre-half counts the MK Dons and Tranmere among his former employers.

Another promising defender was Ryan Garry, whose career has to some extent been wrecked by injury, with almost four years out of action following the Youth Cup win. Though when he was fit, Wenger selected him for the starting eleven in the Premier League – giving him 90 minutes in a 6-0 win over Southampton in 2003 (incidentally also the only meaningful first-team game of Pennant’s Arsenal career, as he joined Robert Pires in netting a hat-trick). Garry next played for Bournemouth where injury curtailed his opportunities further, with the centre-back playing in just 10 league games last season, though I’m told he still looked a very fine player when he did take to the field. He retired from the game at the age of 27 last week.

Of the rest? Well, goalkeeper Craig Holloway flirted with various non-league sides and now works as a goalkeeping coach in Kent, substitute forward Jermaine Brown played at Aldershot Town via a spell at Lewes before hanging up his boots in 2006 and Nicky Nicolau enjoyed his most productive first-team spell at Barnet between 2006-9 and now turns out for Lincoln. Right-back Alex Bailey, who was preferred by Howe in both fixtures to the young Justin Hoyte (another promising youth teamer who never quite made the cut for Wenger), has been without a club since leaving St Albans City in 2010.

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