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

Comments (3)
Comment by el gato negro 2010-10-18 15:17:26

Whatever happened to the "brands-in-the making" of Leeds Uni­ted’s Jamie McMaster and Manchester United’s Luke Shields?

Comment by Velvet Android 2010-10-19 16:04:26

Yes, whatever did happen to "Leeds United"?

Oh, I see... Well, apparently Australian prodigy McMaster (who had joined fellow Aussies Mark Viduka and Robbie Keane at Elland Road) committed his international future to England at the time and was capped at under-18 and under-20 level, but nevertheless failed to trouble the attention of Sven or his successors. His only notable incident in his whole time at Leeds was when the club suspended him for allegedly exposing himself at a Christmas party in 2004. He was loaned out to Coventry City, Chesterfield, Swindon Town and Peterborough Utd, until, upset with being loaned out so much, he was transferred to Aarhus in 2005 after playing a handful of games for Leeds immediately after their relegation to the second flight. He only managed 5 games in Denmark, after which he'd still played just 39 professional games in seven years and scored only 3 goals - for an "attacking midfielder" hardly prolific. At this point he returned Down Under with Central Coast Mariners, who he at least managed 25 games for in 2006/07; the 08/09 season was his best, scoring 8 in 21 games for APIA Leichhardt Tigers, and since then he's managed just 4 games in the 09/10 for Wollongong CFC and is now at Bonnyrigg White Eagles.

Luke Shields appears to have dropped completely off the radar, unless he's the same person currently playing for Brockworth Albion thirds...

Comment by coyotl666 2010-10-21 00:16:27

robbie keane, aussie?

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