Giggs, Beckham, Rice…Dier: Every Premier League club has an academy player who got away

Dave Tickner
Ryan Giggs and David Beckham

These are players that were in current Premier League clubs’ academies but played none or just a baby’s handful of games before going on to great (your greatness levels may vary) things elsewhere…


ARSENAL: Andy Cole
This is what Paul Merson said about George Graham’s decision to sell a striker who would win the Golden Boot with Newcastle and five Premier League titles with Manchester United after just two substitute appearances for Arsenal: “It was out of him and Kevin Campbell. It was out of them two and George chose Kevin, who still did brilliantly at Arsenal. He let Andy go. He went to Bristol City, where he ripped it up; then Newcastle, ripped it up; then Man Utd, ripped it up. I thought it was a bad decision. I thought he was a better player than Kevin Campbell if I’m being honest.”


ASTON VILLA: Daniel Sturridge
“Please don’t take your son, he’s happy here,” is what former Aston Villa chief Bryan Jones said to the 13-year-old Daniel Sturridge’s father when he left the club to take up a scouting role at Coventry. Of course he took his son with him and Villa took Coventry to the Premier League’s ‘poaching committee’ but found them unsympathetic. “It was extremely frustrating because Daniel was outstanding,” remembered Jones years later. He really was.


Spotted by a Southampton scout in September 2000, Saints handed their south-coast rivals a total of £18,000 for Adam Lallana who, at 12, had already mastered the Cruyff turn. The Cherries received approximately £4m 14 years later when the midfielder completed his move to Liverpool. Talk about playing the long game.


BRENTFORD: Tyrick Mitchell
Proof that even a club with a system and development plan as good and successful as Brentford’s can still drop a great big massive bollock when it comes to the thorny task of working out which 16-year-olds are going to end up real good at football. Closing the Academy did not come without its tricky moments.


BRIGHTON: Gareth Barry
This one still smarts. Hastings-born Barry had trained for six years with Brighton but then refused to sign a YTS deal after being approached by Aston Villa along with Michael Standing. A tribunal ordered Villa to pay £150,000 immediately, rising to a maximum £1.025 million if he made 60 first-team appearances and was capped by England, along with 50% of any sell-on fee. It’s fair to say that those clauses were met.


CHELSEA: Declan Rice
“I was released by Chelsea at 14 years old. I remember it, a Tuesday night. On the Wednesday I was training with Fulham, five minutes from my house, and then on the Thursday I was training with West Ham. After one session at both clubs they both wanted me. There was interest from other clubs as well but I made the switch to West Ham. I had to change house, change school, so it was a massive decision – and it’s paid off.” And now daft buggers Chelsea are just one of a whole bunch of clubs who’d very much like to sign him this summer for a huge amount of cash.


Having been brought to England from Ireland by Steve Coppell, Hunt was then rejected by his Palace successor Alan Smith. “I’d won my first Republic of Ireland Under-21 cap the previous night,” Hunt told the Guardian. “I flew into Gatwick, got a taxi to Palace’s training ground and I was buzzing. Then Alan Smith said he wanted to see me and, bang, within 10 minutes I’d been released. I hated him for a long time after that.” Hunt was driven to prove Smith wrong and played five full seasons in the Premier League for Reading, Hull and Wolves.


EVERTON: Eric Dier
“If I am completely honest, I absolutely… I didn’t hate it but, at the time, I just thought: ‘Get me out of here.’ It was so different to what I was used to. The lifestyle, the weather, the place, the people…even the language was a factor. The scouse accent was tough for me. And, in football terms, it was a lot more aggressive,” said Eric Dier, who nevertheless signed on for an extra 12 months in Everton’s Under-18 and reserve sides after being sent to Merseyside by his father for a “kick up the backside”. Academy boss Alan Irvine liked him. Manager David Moyes liked him. But the “50% Portuguese” Dier returned to Sporting Lisbon before finally returning to English football with Spurs, where he will apparently remain until the seas boil and claim us all.


FULHAM: Eberechi Eze
Left Fulham’s youth set-up at 15 for Reading and was also on Millwall’s books before his breakthrough at QPR and Premier League move to Palace. Given he was also at Arsenal as a tiny child, appears determined to tick off all the London clubs before his career is done. It’s a tall order, but you have to admire the man for giving it a red-hot crack. Also explains why he spent such a short time at far-flung Reading.

Crystal Palace attacker Eberechi Eze.

Would he get in Leicester’s midfield now? Absolutely not. But Leicester would surely have liked a slice of the £15m paid by Swansea to Hull for the midfielder after an impressive first season in the Premier League. But the Foxes had released him at the age of 16 because he was too short. As he is now 6ft 2ins, that seems in hindsight like an error. As does spending £15m on a distinctly average midfielder, to be fair.


LEEDS: Denis Irwin
A left-back Sir Alex Ferguson rated as pound-for-pound his best bit of business as Manchester United manager, Irwin would end his career with seven Premier League titles, a few FA Cups, a Champions League medal and 19 pots and trinkets altogether. But it could all have been very different had Billy Bremner not decided after Irwin’s first two games for Leeds that he’d seen enough to let him leave for nowt. Oldham snapped him up and a few years later a mere £625,000 took him to Old Trafford, where he spent 12 wildly successful years, racking up over 500 appearances and winning the lot.


LIVERPOOL: Dave Watson
Everton stalwart Watson could have been playing for Liverpool had he not been sold at the age of 19 before he had played a single game for the Reds. Those of you wondering whether the determined but limited Watson would have ever had a career at Liverpool should think about the fact that Graeme Souness signed one Torben Piechnik. Oh and Dave Watson > Gary Ablett. And Conor Coady.


The young Ryan Giggs was playing for Manchester City’s youth sides as part of their Centre of Excellence when he was spotted and persuaded to join his boyhood heroes instead. “We always had a few scouts who claimed they were the one who discovered Giggsy,” Ferguson said years later. “They probably did, but they never acted on what they saw. It was actually a steward who first told me it was a disgrace that this Manchester United fan was training down the road at City.” Ferguson himself turned up at Giggs’ house on his 14th birthday with a two-year schoolboy deal. Happy birthday, Ryan. Bad luck City.


Paul Pogba poses a philosophical question here. Does it count as one that got away if you spend a world-record sum to bring them back, and then have that go kind of not great so in the end several years later you let him get away again to the exact same place he got away to last time? And if the answer is no – and we think it must, given he went on to play a very large number of games for United – is it still in fact worth keeping him in here because it’s better than having to put Dwight McNeil? We’re not putting Robbie Savage on a point of principle. By definition this should always be harder for the bigger clubs and at no point in history did United look around their squad and ruefully wish they had Robbie Savage around. There was, though, a brief time when doing a Pogba for McNeil wasn’t an entirely ludicrous concept.


It remains astonishing that Forster was on Newcastle’s books for seven years and never made a single appearance for the club, going on loan to play League One and then SPL football before leaving for Celtic for £2m. Two years later, he was sold to Southampton for £10m at a time when Newcastle were playing Jak Alnwick and Rob Eliot in goal. He has always spoken warmly about the opportunities handed him by Newcastle…but never actually playing for his boyhood club must hurt. Would he have been a better option than Loris Karius for the Carabao final? Based on Sheffield United’s winning goal against perennial trophy-dodgers Spurs, probably not.


NOTTINGHAM FOREST: Shaun Wright-Phillips
You can probably guess the reason Forest gave for releasing Ian Wright’s boy at 17. It’s the classic. As Wright-Phillips put it in a Barclays Football video: “They turned around and said ‘Sorry, we have kind of changed our mind. You’re basically too small and not good enough.’” Feels like just don’t mention the “too small” in there at all if you don’t think he’s good enough. That’s just needlessly putting the boot in. Anyway, pre-moneybags Manchester City took a punt, and he spent 13 years in the Premier League with City, Chelsea and QPR, won plenty, accrued 36 England caps and sauntered off to finish his career in America. It’s not a bad life, is it?


White was released at the age of 16 by the Saints, later admitting: “When I was at Southampton I didn’t have any confidence.” He definitely got that confidence at Brighton and eventually left there a £50m player and a potential title winner.


TOTTENHAM: David Beckham
“There was one young boy who turned up at Tottenham’s Academy – a floppy-haired youngster from Leytonstone – that all the coaches were particularly keen on. David, his name was,” said the Tottenham kit man in his book ‘Shirts, Shorts and Spurs’. That floppy-haired kid wore shirts and shorts but never played for Spurs as he left to sign for his beloved Manchester United when he was 14. He turned out okay. Went to the same school as Harry Kane as well, and two is a frankly mad amount of England football captains for one school in Chingford to have produced.


It’s hard to imagine Terry was not born wearing a Chelsea shirt and shin-pads but he actually grew up in a West Ham house and was part of Tony Carr’s Hammers Academy along with Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. “He left and it wasn’t because we wanted him to go,” Carr said many years later. “He was a young 14-year-old and a local lad. He was a midfield player back then. You didn’t have a contract like they do at the academies now. Chelsea courted him and John was the one that got away.”


WOLVES: Stan Collymore
“There was obviously an attitude problem,” said Graham Turner, who was manager of Wolves when a teenage Collymore was on their books. Despite being prolific for the reserves, Collymore was released and played non-league football for Stafford Rangers. Years later when at Forest, he scored against Turner’s Wolves and said: “I went over to Turner in an angry celebration just to let him know what I thought of his decision to offload me.” That told him.