Nothing is more evocative of modern football’s ruined soul than its damaged youth. Those gauche, gifted young players who comet-burst into first teams and have the future pinned upon their shoulders, only to flame out or fade away. The Next Big Thing compiles the stories of 15 of these never-quite-made-its, with author Ryan Baldi evidently aiming to mine from them higher truths and deeper meanings about both professional sport and human frailties.
At best, Baldi’s is an engaging, affecting book and a sad one, too. That much is dependent on how high and far its protagonists rise up and then fall. There is a cruel symmetry to the tales of Ally Dick and Matt Murray. A fleet-footed winger, Dick shone for Scotland Under-16s, picked Spurs over a host of suitors and was subsequently signed by the great Johan Cruyff for Ajax. A niggling injury caused him to miss out on the Dutch club’s Cup-Winners Cup final victory over Lokomotive Leipzig in 1987, setting the tone for the rest of his career. Blighted by knee and ankle ailments, Dick tumbled down the ladder of the game, ending up signing for Alloa Athletic at 32. On his debut for Alloa he tore ankle ligaments, hastening his retirement. Today, at the age of 54, his wrecked joints keep him from walking distances, with one leg so stiff he is unable to bend it to tie his shoelaces.
Murray’s football life was much the same, but even more constricted. Widely hailed as one of the outstanding goalkeepers of his generation and an England schoolboy international by the time he broke into the Wolves first team as a 21-year-old in 2002, Murray had endured several surgeries on his suspect knees. Altogether, he was able to manage just two full seasons of professional football, forced into retirement in 2008 after suffering yet another tendon tear while out on loan at non-League Hereford. Murray tells Baldi how he cried in the ambulance that fateful November afternoon. “They said, ‘Do you want gas and air?’ I said, ‘I’m not in pain. I’m just gutted.’”
From Ben Thornley at Manchester United to such relatively lower-wattage footballers as Stefan Moore at Aston Villa and Lionel Morgan at Wimbledon, The Next Big Thing packs an emotional punch through the sense it conveys of gifted young men being betrayed by their bodies, of having something stolen from them. That is not nearly so forceful in regard to the declines endured by Danny Cadamarteri and Andy van der Meyde, both of them more typically self-inflicted. Baldi also doesn’t probe far enough into the mental wounds that have surely been inflicted upon his “wonderkids”, and which would have given his book even greater heft. Like its subjects, then, this is the nearest of misses.