Following the media frenzy over Wayne Rooney, Barney Ronay looks at teenage players who have acquired star status without even stepping on to the pitch
“Just 16, with brutal power and terrifying pace. The man-boy has nerves of steel and fears no one. He is Wayne Rooney. He is… A PHENOMENON”
With typical restraint the Daily Mirror welcomed promising youngster Wayne Rooney to the Premiership, even before his celebrated goal against Arsenal. Rooney starred for the Everton side that reached the final of last year’s FA Youth Cup and has scored one goal in ten Premiership games (seven as a sub) at the time of writing. Not a bad start for a 16-year-old, you might think, particularly one afflicted with “man-boy” status (some kind of feral, elfin figure springs to mind, a cross between Tarzan and Mozart).
But the emergence of a talent such as Rooney, whose 17th birthday was itself a news story, tends to generate a peculiar kind of hysteria. There are column inches to be filled and fortunes to be made. Precocious youth is a proven unit-shifter. Rooney had already signed a lucrative long-term sponsorship deal with Umbro, similar to that offered to Michael Owen at the same age, even before moving to the seriously businesslike Proactive Sports Group agency.
Garnering a string of commercial contracts prior to wearing a first team shirt is a common feat among Premiership youngsters. Besides looking after the interests of David Beckham and Michael Owen – for whom managing director John Holmes predicts career endorsement earnings of “over £100 million” – the marketing juggernaut SFX Sports also includes on its roster Newcastle United’s Michael Chopra, Leeds United’s Jamie McMaster and Manchester United’s Luke Shields.
Relative unknowns perhaps, but these are the next generation of clotheshorses; brands-in-the-making with one important thing in common – between them they have yet to start a single first team game.
Arsenal’s Jermaine Pennant is the archetype of this particular line of tomorrow’s men. Once almost as much of a teenage sensation as Rooney is now, Pennant was famously lured away from Notts County as a 16-year-old. At the time Arsène Wenger compared his new signing’s skills to those of the Brazilian legend Garrincha, and Arsenal were later ordered to pay a £2 million transfer fee for the Nottingham-born prodigy.
Pennant wears white boots, boasts spectacular tattoos on both arms and has his hair cut in the style of a garage MC. He recently signed a new five-year deal with the Gunners – having earned a reputed £2 million in wages by the time he turned 18 – and is a regular presence in the pages of the glossy sporting press. In the midst of which it seems almost irrelevant that by the end of October he had only appeared in two Premiership games (both as a sub), had never scored a goal for the Gunners, never picked up a medal, never even been booked. Pennant is surely one of the most postmodern young men on the planet. He is a famous footballer who doesn’t play football. More to the point, no one really has any idea how good he is, or whether he’ll even make it past the stage of promising reserve.
But he certainly looks the part. Pennant is showbiz. In the current PopStars argot he has that elusive “X” factor, the kind of commercial charisma that the likes of Ray Parlour and Lauren – currently keeping young Jermaine out of the Arsenal first team – are missing from their make-up. In these terms Pennant is Gareth Gates, Parlour a warbling sub-karaoke Village People impersonator (in itself an arresting image).
Nevertheless, Parlour, another former Arsenal trainee, has played over 400 games for his only club and given sterling service. And while Pennant may be brilliantly marketed and absurdly well known for a player with an almost total lack of first team experience, the feeling remains that his career could still go either way.
When he moved to Arsenal Pennant was already a member of the Adidas/PFA “Platinum Group”, a selection of the country’s brightest young talent singled out in their teens to endorse Adidas merchandise in exchange for a few free pairs of boots, a sprinkling of stardust and a helping hand from the players’ union. But being told that you’re the next big thing from the age of 16 can’t be very good for anyone, and rumours have circulated outside Highbury that Wenger has informed his young star that a certain lack of focus has so far prevented him breaking into the first team.
One thing Pennant doesn’t lack is confidence in his own ability. “I’m a flexible player,” he revealed last year in a rare public outpouring. “I can play up front, in the middle or on both wings. My best position is probably on the right of midfield. I can play on the left instead of Pires, or on the right when there’s no Ljungberg, or the boss could push me up behind the front two.”
Not the kind of talk you’d expect from the average teenager, but Pennant is far from average. He remains extravagantly talented, and how much he achieves would seem to be entirely up to him. However, Arsenal’s reserve right-winger will soon turn 20. Ryan Giggs was a Premiership regular before he’d left his teens; Michael Owen had scored 30 first-team goals; Joe Cole had played for England. Time, while not exactly marching on, is catching up with Pennant. He is no longer precocious; he’s just on the bench.
It will be fascinating to see how long he remains a saleable commodity. Boyish looks recede and Under-21 squads quickly turn into “overage players”. While the image of a paunchy Pennant desperately bartering for a boot deal – eyebags lifted, cheeks pinned back behind his ears, thinning hair plastered unconvincingly across his pate – may be some way off, as a comparison with the fates of child stars in other fields of entertainment that tend to fetishise the young, it’s not an entirely absurd analogy.
None of which is intended to cast a shadow over the future of the indisputably talented and apparently level-headed Rooney, who even in his short career to date has had to run the gamut of a wildly expectant media. Clips of two fantastic strikes in the Youth Cup last year were continually replayed on Sky Sports’ Soccer AM, until they were eclipsed by the real Premiership thing. They are testimony to the teenager’s precocious skills, but also likely to foster slightly unreal levels of expectation. “Go on,” you feel like saying every time he plays, “do it again – score from 30 yards out like you’re supposed to.”
Football clubs will always be full of talk of some young so-and-so who’s quicker than Owen, more skilful than George Best and taller than Peter Crouch and Ian Ormondroyd put together. Whether it becomes harder for talented young players to progress despite rather than because of the rewards heaped upon them remains to be seen.
Jorge Valdano once said: “Poverty is good for nothing, except for playing football.” How to motivate a teenage millionaire presents another kind of problem, and the success of the likes of Pennant and Rooney seems particularly important right now. If not money or fame, what are they playing for exactly? Other things perhaps, like glory and ambition and love of the game. Football needs them to care enough to succeed.
From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month