“The key to our senior team being successful lies in what goes on from the age of 21 downwards, what experience of tournaments and winning they’re getting. Then they know what it’s like to win together and they take that with them into the seniors. I think we’re missing a trick by not doing it. In my mind, that’s what’s going to unlock us being successful at the top end.” – Stuart Peace talking about the importance of U21 International Football and its tournaments.
On 28th February, 18 year old Marcus Rashford scored a brace against Arsenal for Manchester United on his premier league debut. He grabbed all the headlines; but was it too soon for the teenager? Is the publicity that Marcus Rashford is going to receive in the next three weeks going to go straight to his head? To really understand this we must look at previous examples of teenage footballers being exposed to the football world at an incredibly young age.
The most obvious place to start is right where Rashford is quickly making his name, Manchester United. The youngest player ever to start of Manchester United is Federico Macheda at 17 years and 254 days when he faced Middlesbrough in May 2009. However Macheda was a household name earlier in 2009 when he had become United’s super-sub, scoring twice against Aston Villa when Manchester United were 2-1 down. Macheda was destined for great things; the cameras were shoved in his face and headlines showed his name. He was hailed the new “Michael Owen” by BBC and many likened him to a young Wayne Rooney who was his senior at this point. Federico Macheda made a few more appearances for United during the next season; but he fell off the pace, faces such as Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov were added to bolster the squad and Macheda was forgotten. An amazing young talent; forgotten with just a few Premier League goals as his legacy. He currently plays for Cardiff City but can hardly gain a starting spot in their Championship team. Did the fame get to his head? Or was he just a young kid whose adrenaline made him perform ingeniously for a few matches, but really he did not have the talent to survive with some of the best players in the world? Thirdly and what I would argue is that Macheda being thrown into the limelight at just 17 ruined his career; he was rushed into making lifelong decisions with sums of money he could only have wished for. I know, being 17 myself, however much I would like to be playing and scoring for Manchester United that being in that spotlight in front of millions of people is a daunting prospect.
This failure to reach their full potential is not only true of Macheda; in 2005 James Vaughan became the youngest ever Premier League goalscorer at the age of just 16 when he played for Everton against Crystal Palace. Vaughan went on to play just 47 games (11 starts) for Everton in 7 years at the club and he now plays for Birmingham City (on loan from Huddersfield), his 6th club in the same amount of years. Vaughan, like Macheda, was destined for greatness but had a harsh fall from grace. Is there a link between being exposed to Premier League football at a young age and not living up to your potential?
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Theo Walcott, to name a few. However I feel that all of these star players broke out when money was not at the centre of every action in football. John Terry was given the chance to develop at Chelsea and was not forced to choose whether or not to sign a multi-million pound contract whilst he was still a teenager. Since the start of the decade, money has just continued to grow as the most important factor in football every day. With the new TV deal for Premier League clubs costing billions of pounds, every single club is willing to risk all to survive in the Premier League and keep the money afloat. No young talented football player can be expected to develop properly in an environment dominated by money. The Class of 92′ were allowed to slowly force their way into Manchester United’s starting eleven; now Marcus Rashford has been forced into a club struck by poor form and injury crisis. Rashford, undoubtedly, has quality beyond anything I will ever achieve but being just 17 puts him in a weak position going forward. It will be interesting to see if Rashford can cement a starting eleven spot when eventually Louis Van Gaal leaves the club or if Rashford will be another academy player who ends up playing average football in the lower leagues of England.
If I was going to go fully in depth, this article might go on for thousands of words; there are millions of statistics that one could pull into this discussion. However in my personal opinion, the materialistic environment that dominates football at the moment is not a good place for a young talent to fully develop. Maybe if Rashford was 10-15 years younger, he would have been given the right time to flourish. However the demands surrounding the game, especially in England at this present moment, means that unfortunately Rashford will probably never be given the right time to become the player he should become. This does not only have an impact on Manchester United but also the national team; English players are being thrown into Premier League squads because they are English and young; however we need to learn from the past and see that the team that nearly got to the final in 90′ was not a team full of youngsters who had played a few games scoring a few goals for their respective clubs; it was a team full of mostly experienced players who had earned the right to shine in the World Cup. It is why Germany and France are always competitive at these competitions, they allow players to grow in their youth teams. This is what England needs to follow going forward and throwing players like Rashford into the spotlight at such a young age can only be of detrimental value in the future.