He was trumpeted as a star at ten, but is now drifting around the Ryman League at 20. Gavin Willacy traces the career of a player for whom it all happened way, way too soon
On a fans’ internet forum last November, someone calling themself Spankyplugs posed the question: “Sonny Pike – anyone remember him? Some little kid with an afro; they would periodically have him on Blue Peter or the Big Breakfast and yap on about how he will play for England, just because he was in the Ajax youth team. He must be old enough now, so where is he?”
None of Spankyplugs’ fellow web chatters could help. Nor could Guardian readers when the question was posed two years ago. Some, quite reasonably, asked who on earth was Sonny Pike anyway, apart from sounding like a keen angler from Miami Vice.
A decade ago, Pike was one of the best known young footballers in Britain. And we’re talking young here. Still in junior school, the ten-year-old was a mass of Leo Sayer curls, Donny Osmond smiles and Johan Cruyff turns as he weaved his way around his school playground in north London. How do we know? Well the TV cameras were following him. Why? Because someone was encouraging them to. Why? Because we live in a crazy, sad world.
Just as Sky were taking over the English game and transforming it into a riot of fireworks, dancing girls and Monday Night Football, Sonny Pike was showing himself to be an extremely gifted little boy. His dad, Mickey, was so infatuated with the possibilities his son’s skills offered that he got him a high-profile agent and allowed his boy to be touted around the game’s media, relishing in him being courted as England’s No 10 in waiting: the next Maradona. Or, more appropriately, Gazza.
The boy was good, but he was ten years old. Originally on Leyton Orient’s schoolboy books, he was – controversially – filmed training with Chelsea. Then there was the Ajax episode, when Sonny was supposedly being flown there to train every week – a period of his life he is reluctant to talk about now.
It isn’t every day that a British player is wanted by one of Europe’s finest, let alone a pre-pubescent, so the media lapped it up. The BBC did a series on child prodigies, Touched With Fire, featuring a 13-year-old Pike in Amsterdam; he appeared as a special guest on stage at Sky’s nouveau riche-fest of an awards night, with Ian Wright, and he was the talk of every football magazine and tabloid.
There were issues of child protection, let alone educational welfare. Pike, never the brightest academically but a nice enough lad according to his teachers in Enfield, was not gaining many positive experiences. Home life became extremely unsettled as little Pike became a rather large fish in a miniscule pond – and a former class-mate recalls that he wasn’t even the best player in the school team...
Ninety-odd per cent of English boys get released by pro clubs before they can sign scholarship forms at 16. Pike was one of them. Four years after being with Ajax, he was training with a college academy in north London. Dealing with the drop in status from famous footballer to everyman is tough enough in your 30s, let alone as a teenager, especially without wealth, illustrious colleagues or glorious memories to fall back on. Every day Pike is having to come to terms with the reality that he is almost certainly not going to make it as a professional player and that he needs to find another avenue in life.
He still had skill and relished being the star turn in games, but then again he was playing for London Colney reserves. “He had a lot of skill, could pass it and was a nice player, but he lacked pace,” said a former coach. “He was a yard too slow.” That’s something difficult to foresee in a ten-year-old.
Now a tall, athletic 20-year-old, Pike spent some of last season playing with a former Chelsea striker, another from Fulham, an ex-Newcastle United midfielder and defenders from Spurs and Charlton. But you almost certainly won’t have seen him in action because after brief spells with Stevenage Borough, Barnet and Enfield, Pike had signed for local club Waltham Forest, of the Ryman League Division One North.
Now he’s left there too, but he’s keeping his next port of call under wraps. Not that Ryman League fans, used to the mighty falling onto their patch, would have even realised they had a Nineties TV star in their midst. Sonny has changed his name too. Being Luke Pike is unlikely to draw too much attention from opposing centre-backs, especially in the reserves.
From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month