But what about the PFA Young Player of the Year award (YPY)? The honour, open to players who are aged 23 or under at the beginning of the season, has seen some prestigious winners in its history: Hoddle, Rush, Gascoigne, Le Tissier, Giggs, Fowler, Gerrard, Ronaldo. But can any of the Premier League’s current crop of young talent really hold a candle to these past winners?
Two players in the under 23 bracket are at similar standard to the names listed above; Gareth Bale and Sergio Aguero. However, they are not promising up-and-comers, they are already fully established stars. Bale, 22, won the adult PFA award last year while Aguero, 23, was a marquee signing by City last summer for a not so paltry £38 million. As such they will more likely be considered for senior awards rather than youth awards. If we disregard these two, the options are fairly limited, indicating a Premier League currently lacking in outstanding young talent.
That’s not to say that there are no gifted youngsters in the premiership. Juan Mata, 23, has looked the real deal since signing from Valencia. Unfortunately, the Spaniards displays have been overshadowed by Chelsea’s on and off the field debacles this season and he will probably miss out on the YPY award as a result.
Micah Richards has had an impressive year proving an integral part of a mean Man City defence. Yet amazingly the 23 year old often struggles to get into England squad. Like Aguero and Bale, Richards seems to have been around for ages. But this is his first involvement in a sustained title challenge and so far he’s dealt with the pressure admirably. Physically the man is a beast, and he contributes equally well in attack as he does in defence.
Junior Hoilett, the Canadian born winger, has been a revelation this season. A product of Blackburn’s academy, Hoilett had brief spells at German clubs before returning to the Rovers’ first team. He’s been a shining light in an otherwise dismal year for the Lancashire club, showing pace, skill and a knack for scoring. Even if Kean manages to keep Blackburn up, it seems very unlikely that the 21 year old will still be plying his trade at Ewood next year, with Spurs and Arsenal both apparently interested. The winner of the YPY award usually comes from a team near the top of the league, rather than one fighting relegation, so his chances are slim.
Balotelli, at just 21, is already a supremely talented footballer. However, his occasionally lethargic performances combined with his childish, but rarely malicious, off-field antics will probably see him miss out on the prize.
Liverpool have received very little return on their investment in youth this season. Carroll, 23, and Henderson, 21, were hotly tipped by many a year ago but Dalglish’s £55 million outlay on the pair from the North East has returned disappointing results so far. At Arsenal, Oxlade Chamberlain, just 18, has looked like one for the future but hasn’t started enough league games to merit consideration while England’s great hope, 20 year old Jack Wilshere, has been sidelined all season with persistent injuries.
Phil Jones probably has the most potential of the current generation of youngsters. Starting the season at the tender age of 19, the England capped defender seems a better candidate for a youth award than a 23 year old of equivalent talent. Due to United’s dearth of midfielders this season, particularly prior to Scholes’s return, Jones has had to play a jack of all trades role. Yet, despite being out of position for large parts of the season, he’s never looked out of place and his marauding runs towards goal have made him an instant fan-favourite. He’s probably the frontrunner for YPY.
Smalling is another talented young defender at Ferguson’s disposal. Signed from Fulham in 2010, he has shown great pace, is growing in confidence and exhibits a defensive intelligence that belies his age. However, he may miss out due to starting too few games. A less successful young signing by Ferguson, however, is David de Gea, who has so far struggled to deal with the physical nature of the English game. The 21 year old Spaniard may well come good, but at the moment his performances are in stark contrast to Newcastle’s Tim Krul. The Dutch keeper deserves to be in contention for the YPY award for some heroic displays this season.
Daniel Sturridge seemed a real contender for the award a few months ago. His goal scoring put teammates Torres and Drogba to shame and his all round play was impressive. Recently though, he seems to be sulking like the rest of the team and the standard of his performances have dropped considerably. He may miss out as a consequence. Like current YPY holder Wilshere, Sturridge, now 22, benefitted greatly from a loan spell at Bolton. Wenger will be hoping the Bolton gold dust also rubs off on his young hopeful Ryo Miyaichi, currently on loan from Arsenal to the trotters. The 19 year old from Japan has looked impressive during his spell with at The reebok, but he’s played too rarely this year to warrant contention for the YPY award.
If we look at the last three winners: Wilshere, Milner, Young, and then the winners from the three years before that: Fabregas, Ronaldo and Rooney, we can see a definite gulf in class. The former three are all top class footballers with Wilshere in particular looking very promising. But, they’re not quite in the same league as the latter three. Does this reflect an overall decline in exciting young talent, or is it simply a result of recent FA and UEFA regulations implemented to ensure ‘home grown’ youth takes precedence over imported youngsters. It would appear to be the latter.
The last three winners have been English (the previous ten years had only yielded five English winners) and it would be surprising if the winner is not English this year as well. This focus on breeding home grown talent, rather than scouting for the cream of the world’s academies, has had the initial effect of weakening the young talent pool in the Premier League. But the FA hope, with home-grown regulations in place, England will soon begin producing the standard of young talent generated by the likes of Spain, Germany, Portugal and Argentina. Until this policy comes to fruition, however, we will likely see a repeat of this season in which the old boys like Bellamy, Scholes and Giggs have outshone their more youthful Premier League counterparts.