With media attentions already turning back to their respective domestic leagues after a turgid World Cup affair, it seems scarcely possible that kick-off is only days away for the newly rebranded NPower Football League. Whilst I’m sure many onlookers view it as a competition to be avoided; full of journeymen, no-hopers and the unknown; remarkably 16 of Fabio Capello’s disparaged summer troops graced it at earlier points in their career and it remains the breeding ground for many of Englands’ starlets.
With the disappointment in South Africa signalling the end of many of the so-called golden generation’s chances of international success, emphasis has unsurprisingly turned to their potential replacements. Whilst still sulking about our mauling from Die Mannschaft and their talented youngsters; I began thinking about the talents we are developing on these very shores. Whilst many have touted the likes of Jack Wilshere, Jack Rodwell and Phil Jones to receive international recognition in coming years, if current trends persist many of these stars of the future may not come through the ranks at a Manchester United or an Arsenal, they may instead be the initial produce of a Leyton Orient or a Huddersfield Town.
Teenage prodigies like Londoners’ Jonjo Shelvey and Raheem Sterling have already put pen to paper on moves to Anfield from Charlton Athletic and Queens Park Rangers and I’m sure with the much-discussed ‘home-grown’ quota being implemented from this season onwards, plenty of others from academies around the country will be subjects of interest from the more established Premier League clubs. With the reputation of stock coming from the lower league steadily rising, I have chosen three youngsters from each division who might not be household names now but have the potential to propel themselves to future stardom. Starting today with League Two, keep an eye out for these names as the season pans out.
Tom Bradshaw (aged 18) – Shrewsbury Town. 6 appearances, 3 goals.
Saturday 10th April 2010 will be a date that forever sits proudly in the memory of then 17-year old Tom Bradshaw. Replacing veteran forward Jamie Cureton, the Shrewsbury-born teenager was given his first-team debut as a late substitute as his side led 1-0 at Crewe Alexandra; ironically the club widely admired for continuing to mould young professionals like Dean Ashton, Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy and countless others who would go on to become distinguished names. One way to describe Bradshaw’s introduction to the professional game would be to state that it wasn‘t uneventful. He rendered home spectators speechless by promptly sealing three points for Salop with not one but two goals, including a penetrating run on the counter accompanied by a fizzing thirty-yard screamer which left the home goalkeeper motionless. You would have had to admire a youth-team scholar for even having the audacity to attempt it, let alone a lad with the ability to pull it off. Bradshaw was quickly integrated into the first-team squad and during the summer signed his first professional contract with his home-town club.
His new manager Graham Turner has already stated that he is keen to see for himself exactly “what potential the boy has got” and tellingly that opportunity may come sooner rather than later. With the summer departure of the club’s leading frontman Dave Hibbert to Peterborough United, a lot more responsibility may fall onto the young shoulders of Bradshaw. The Daily Mail has already reported that West Ham have cast an admiring eye in his direction and if he manages to build upon his early exploits this season; they might end up wishing they’d have taken a gamble on the enthusiastic striker a lot sooner.
James Hanson (aged 22) – Bradford City. 39 appearances, 13 goals
It’d be fair to say that Bradford City fans won’t take a great deal of pleasure when looking back at their club’s record over the past few years. In fact, if you ever asked one to do so you’d probably be met with a fairly painful grimace. Their descent from a plucky Premier League outfit to a mid-table League Two one has been more of a freefall than a gentle slalom down the divisions and games against the powerhouses of English football will seem like a distant memory. However, with Bradford finally expected to reverse their slide under the stewardship of ex-England boss Peter Taylor, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a local boy turned good leading the bantams’ charge.
Given an opportunity with the Bantams by former manager Stuart McCall, James Hanson ended his first year of professional football by being voted the club’s player of the season and top goalscorer, belying any reservations about whether the ex-Guiseley powerhouse would be overawed at a higher level. Initially signed after a successful trial period, the young forward has recently signed an uncharacteristically long 4-year deal with the West Yorkshire side as they attempt to deter any potential admirers. As comfortable with his feet as he is in the air, the 6ft 4ins man is at best 34/1 with many bookmakers to finish the season on top of the divisional goalscoring charts. Having proved himself a successful gamble once already; he may be the man many punters will have their eyes and money on in League Two this season.
Chris Martin (aged 20) – Port Vale. 60 club appearances.
I know I know… you’ve read the name and you’re instantly thinking ‘that ugly bloke from Coldplay.’ If you’ve got an even more expansive knowledge, you might well believe I’m even referring to the lad who scored bags of goals as Norwich City returned to the Championship at the first time of asking. You’d be wrong on both accounts. This particular Chris Martin is a rookie, highly-regarded goalkeeper who is making a big impression in the black and white half of the Potteries.
Having started his Vale career as a back-up to Joe Anyon, Martin found himself thrust into the first team spotlight in Burslem as highly-rated Anyon’s career became decimated by a series of injuries culminating in a seriously broken leg. When he eventually returned to first team duties, Anyon found his previously ‘under-wraps’ “#1” shirt under threat from the youngster who eventually secured it at the slightly elder stopper’s expense, no doubt paving the way for the later’s summer exit to Lincoln City. Having been given the nod of approval by manager Mickey Adams, Martin went on to produce several stand-out performances ending the season with 47 first-team starts; his eye-catching displays helped galvanise a meandering Port Vale into genuine play-off contenders. Although the Valiants eventually failed in their challenge for a top seven place, Martin remains one of the reasons that Port Vale supporters have reason to be quietly confident ahead of their curtain raiser away at Bury.