From the archive ~ Three England youth stars who never lived up to expectations

Playing for England at youth level doesn’t always herald a glittering future. In June 2003 we looked at the stuttering careers of Kevin Gallen, Stephen Hughes and Darren Caskey

Kevin Gallen
European U18s winner, 1993; four U21 caps

“I dropped down a league to come back to QPR because I love the club – it’s where I’m from. I would definitely still love to have another crack at the Premiership. But I started going to QPR around the time of the team that reached the FA Cup final in 1982 and got promoted under Terry Venables the season after. Then when I got older there were players like Ray Wilkins, Roy Wegerle and Les Ferdinand, whom I ended up playing with.

I played for England when we won the European Under-18 Championship. A memory that stays with me is when we played France and Robbie Fowler and I were subs. It was 0-0 and we both got sent on with 20 minutes to go. I scored and then he scored. And that was just a great feeling, coming on and kick-starting the whole tournament.

I played again the following year and France beat us that time. Maybe they had a better youth set-up at that age level. I know we’re trying to catch up with them now, with the academy system based on theirs. The next game we beat Holland. They had some great players – Kluivert and Seedorf were playing – and we beat them 4-1 and I scored again. It was all on TV – it’s what you dream about when you’re a kid.

At that time Robbie Fowler really stood out, though we had a good team all round. Sol Campbell was playing, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes. David Beckham didn’t make the final squad, although he’d been in squads before. Darren Caskey was a very good ball player. I played against him when QPR played Notts County a few months ago and he’s still a very skilful player with a great touch.

But just because a team wins a youth cup doesn’t mean all those players are going to play in the first team further down the line. It’s going to be just one or two players who stand out and are good enough. If you get that, the youth system is doing its job.

When I first started making headlines, it was difficult. There was a lot of attention on me – people always talking to me and so on – but when you’re a kid all you want to do is train and play. But of course there’s an upside, because you’re playing against Manchester United and Liverpool.

Every young lad does silly things, and I’ve done loads, don’t worry about that. They’re saying Michael Owen has gambled £40,000. But when you’re earning two and a half million a year, it’s all relative. Someone said that was one percent of his earnings. I don’t think Michael Owen’s got a problem. I think he’s got a hobby.

Making my debut at Man United was very special, although I wish now that I could remember it better. At the time I took it for granted. We were a good Premiership club at the time, and you think it’s never going to end. Scoring on my home debut was a great feeling and a great relief too, I suppose. There was a lot of expectation among the QPR supporters as I’d broken the youth scoring record. It felt like a big step up at the time, from youth-team level to the first team. I’d never played a long stint in the reserves, just the odd game here and there.

I had a great first season, in partnership with Les Ferdinand, but the following year, we didn’t start off too well and I hadn’t scored, and the papers were giving us some stick, and maybe I was taking it too personally. It’s when things stop going well for you, that you get a chance to stop and think, that you might feel the pressure more. It is difficult for young lads in the game today. Wayne Rooney’s got a lot of pressure on him. The papers are building him up, and as soon as he does something wrong they’ll just knock him down again. There’s a lot of pressure on him at Everton particularly with him being an Everton supporter. When you’re a supporter too, sometimes you can want to do too much.

With me living locally, every time you walk down the street and bump into someone all the talk is about the club. It’s not about me, it’s about what I’m doing as a football player. It can add a lot of pressure. It can get you into trouble, too. If I lived further away and I went out no one’s going to say anything. If people are fans and they see you out just having a drink, they ask why you’re out enjoying yourself, and you want to say: ‘Just get lost and leave me alone.’” Kevin Gallen in conversation with Barney Ronay

Stephen Hughes
England U15s, U20s and eight U21 caps

People got pretty excited about young Stephen Hughes. For a youth system that manufactured almost an entire double-winning team in the late 1960s and the likes of Liam Brady, David O’Leary and Tony Adams in its wake, the 1990s were an embarrassing barren spell for Arsenal. While rivals were carefully hatching out the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand, the Arsenal footballer factory was fine-tuning Ian Selley – a Toploader to your U2, if you like.

Highbury had been waiting impatiently for some homegrown talent to shout about when tufty-haired Hughes debuted against Aston Villa on Boxing Day 1994. An FA Youth Cup winner, the fearless 18-year-old had represented England Under-15s and later became an Under-21 regular. In January 1997 he scored at Roker Park in the FA Cup and made 14 league appearances that season, showing attacking urgency, good passing skills, a classy, careful dead-ball delivery and a vicious shot. Just because you’re a left-footed midfielder doesn’t make you the new Liam Brady, but Hughes was more than just another Ian Selley.

During the 1997-98 double triumph Hughes played an important bit part with 27 appearances. In a crucial 2-0 win over Chelsea and namesake Mark, he bagged both goals, prompting Arsenal fans into a predictable yet pertinent round of “There’s only one Hughes in London”. John Barnes claimed Hughes had an outside chance of making Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad. From that moment onwards, however, Hughes’s story is one of false starts and frustration.

David Lacey in the Guardian proclaimed him the answer to England’s eternally problematic left side, but Arsenal central midfield incumbents Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit had made themselves immovable by winning the World Cup and during the next season Hughes was seen by some to epitomise the plight of prodigious English talent suffocated by foreign imports. He could have improved most Premiership midfields at that point and, more importantly, he knew it. Perhaps it was this attitude that meant his opportunities to impress weren’t always taken; the would-be playmaker made just four league starts in 1998-99.

Impatient, Hughes was soon on the transfer list and then on loan to First Division Fulham with a view to a move, but the three months agreed shrank to four games as he was apparently upset at being sub. Injuries didn’t help, but Hughes featured in just two further league games for Arsenal before Walter Smith rescued him in March. He went straight into the Everton team, putting in some solid if unspectacular performances.

Hughes started 2000-01 brightly but, in a struggling team, form dipped, accompanied by rumours. Everton outcast Alex Nyarko later revealed that amid a “poisonous” dressing-room atmosphere the youngster came to blows with coach Archie Knox during half-time at Valley Parade. Hughes wanted out and the feeling was mutual.

The homesick southerner seemed set for a move to Upton Park had Harry Redknapp not been sacked. When his contract wasn’t renewed Hughes returned to the capital, joining fellow Arsenal evacuees Paolo Vernazza and David Noble as part of Gianluca Vialli’s ill-fated Watford joyride.

Watford should have provided an ideal jump-start to Hughes’s faltering career. After three and a half months, however, Hughes made his last appearance for the club, falling victim to an unusually diligent groin injury which rendered him inactive for the next 13 months. Amid the post-Vialli cost-cutting operation a financial settlement enabled Watford to release a player who had become invisible at Vicarage Road.

Now without a contract, Hughes turned out for West Ham reserves last December. When the transfer window swung open in January, Fulham and Middlesbrough were also sniffing about. It seems he’s still highly rated – but no takers. In March he played on trial for a Charlton XI in a behind-closed-doors friendly.

At 26, just three months younger than Vieira, the midfielder is effectively unwanted, on the football scrap heap. It seems Stephen Hughes is either a classic case of “too much too young” or has the unenviable knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Damian Hall

Darren Caskey
Captain of European U18 winning side, 1993

Every season at Spurs, there is talk of a young player being touted as “the new Glenn Hoddle”. The names may change but the hopeful expectation remains the same – that there is a hidden talent in the White Hart Lane nursery who will burst into the first team and provide Tottenham with the ready-made superstar they sorely need.

It was Darren Caskey’s misfortune to be one of those great hopes, saddled with expectations he couldn’t possibly live up to. He did better than most, in that he actually made the first team and captained the England youth squad, scoring the winning penalty in the final of the European Under-18 Championship in 1993. But his career since then has been one of frustration, punctuated by indifferent form, questionable career moves and plain bad luck.

Basildon-born and a Tottenham fan, Caskey joined the club in 1990 as a trainee, in a youth side that also included fellow FA School of Excellence old boys Nick Barmby and Sol Campbell. Caskey was reckoned to be among the best of the lot and bore all the hallmarks of a home-grown Tottenham player: balance, a sureness of touch and an ability to use the ball intelligently rather than aimlessly lump it, as was the wont of many of his contemporaries.

Unfortunately, Caskey also possessed the same negative traits that seem to mark players that come through the White Hart Lane nursery, chiefly a tendency to go missing when the going gets rough. It was to become a familiar failing.

Caskey started well enough at Spurs, making his debut against Arsenal in 1993 and two months later scoring the winner in a thrilling 3-2 comeback win against Everton that he largely inspired.

Broadcast live on Sky, the Everton game appeared to announce Caskey as one of Tottenham’s brightest prospects, but it proved to be the zenith of his career in north London. Caskey soon discovered that opponents would not obligingly allow young players time and space to do the fancy stuff, and his form suffered.

Neither did the turmoil at Spurs help. In just six years at the club, Caskey saw four managers arrive and had to convince each that he was worth a place. Given the pressure on each managerial incumbent and their tendency to bring in players of their own choosing rather than rely on existing juniors, first-team opportunities were limited. After a short loan spell at Watford, Caskey rejected the offer of a new contract and moved down a division to Reading for £700,000 in 1996.

Once again, however, managerial instability cost Caskey dear. Reading went through four management teams in as many years and Caskey struggled to make a mark in an inconsistent side. The 1999-2000 season did at least show what he was capable of, as he drove his side’s push for a promotion place, finishing as top scorer with a remarkable 23 goals from central midfield. Such success proved to be transitory, however, and with the Royals losing out in the Second Division play-off final, Caskey’s stay at the Madejski Stadium lasted just one more season.

It’s still not clear as to the exact circumstances surrounding his departure from Reading after 200-odd games. The club suggested high wage demands as a decisive factor, but given that Caskey dropped further down the league for a place at Notts County, it’s difficult to imagine he left for a better contract. Now ploughing an unremarkable furrow in the Second Division, Caskey is living proof that early promise means little. Nearing 30, he has expressed an interest in going into management and perhaps his thoughtful approach will be suited to a coaching role.

But in terms of Caskey the player, the assessment of the Watford fanzine Blind, Desperate and Stupid might provide a harsh but revealing appraisal: “Caskey was (and is) a class player, capable of providing quality passes from the midfield to the strikers. He’s also a lazy poser, who couldn’t be arsed most of the time he was playing for us.” Adam Powley

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This article first appeared in WSC 196, June 2003. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here