Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Teen sensations should heed the tale of Michael Woods

Besides being born seven years apart, Oluwaseyi Ojo and Michael Woods have plenty in common.  Both were hailed as the future of English football after starring for their respective youth teams and attracted the attention of Chelsea’s scouts.

But while 14-year-old MK Dons midfielder Ojo is on the verge of moving to Stamford Bridge (for a deal that could eventually be worth up to £2 million if you believe the newspapers), Woods is now contemplating a future away from football after being forced to retire at the tender age of 21.

The midfielder is the grandson of former Tottenham, Swansea and York player Alan who, along with current Carlisle United defender Tom Taiwo, famously turned down a scholarship with Leeds United in 2006 to move to Chelsea at the age of 16. Roman Abramovic eventually had to pay around £5 million in compensation for the duo in one of the biggest deals involving teenagers in British football history.

A few months later at the age of 16 and 275 days, Woods became the fourth youngest player ever to play for Chelsea but subsequently found his route to the first-team blocked by injury and lack of opportunity. While Taiwo went out on loan and eventually joined Carlisle in January 2010, Woods stuck it out in the reserves until his contract ran out in the summer.

Moves to Brighton and Aberdeen fell through due to persistent fitness problems, as did a last-ditch trial with League One Walsall last month. Now Woods has decided to officially announce his retirement from the game and is reportedly concentrating his efforts on a Sports Science degree in Glasgow.

His story shows Ojo just how fickle the game of football can be but Woods is certainly not the first highly-rated teenager who has failed to live up to his billing. Liverpool fans of a certain age may remember Wayne Harrison, who became the most expensive teenager in the world when he was signed from Oldham for a fee of £250,000 in 1985 and then never made a first-team appearance.

Then there’s Nii Lamptey, the Ghanaian protégé who starred for Anderlecht before suffering a series of flops across the European leagues. Or what about Freddy Adu, another player of Ghanaian heritage who was born in the USA and became a favourite of the Championship Manager generation but never really fulfilled his massive potential?

Of course, as Gareth Bale, Jermain Defoe, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wayne Rooney have proved, there are those who have not cracked under the pressure of a huge price-tag. But the experiences of of John Bostock (Crystal Palace – Spurs up to £1.25 million), Sloban Rajkovic (OFK Beograd – Chelsea £3.8 million) and Scott Sinclair (Bristol Rovers to Chelsea £1 million before being sold to Swansea City for £750,000) act as a warning to the next generation of super-kids.

Ojo may be the youngest of the current crop but there are plenty more youngsters in the academy system with massive price-tags already around their necks. Raheem Sterling joined Liverpool from QPR in February last year for a deal that could eventually be worth £5 million, while Bradford City’s George Green signed a deal to join Everton next season for a reported £2 million.

Chelsea have lured Somali-born but Scottish-raised Islam Feruz from Celtic, with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur also having spent big on John Cofie and Dean Parrett respectively. Only time will tell whether it has been money well spent but they would all be wise to learn from the experience of Michael Woods.

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