Football Features

Where are they now? Every Football League Young Player of the Year winner

By CJ Smith

Published: 16:00, 24 April 2023

It might not be the most prestigious accolade on the planet but the EFL’s Young Player of the Year award has been held by some absolute gems over the years. 

Sure, not every player to be recognised as the EFL’s best young talent goes on to have a glittering career, with some settling into lower-league comfort while others can perhaps look back on what might have been.

But for a select few, Champions League glory and international caps have followed, while one such player even had his number retired!

The award officially ended last year and made way for individual accolades for each division, so from 2022 onwards we’ve included the Championship’s Young Player of the Season. Read on to see what happened to every other EFL Young Player of the Year award winner.

2006: David Nugent

Age: 37

Played for: Preston North End

Current club: Retired

At the time, David Nugent was becoming a more and more consistent goalscorer in the second tier and, just a year after picking up his EFL Young Player of the Year award, was rewarded with a move to Premier League side Portsmouth. The Preston North End striker even picked up a cap for England against Andorra in 2007, scoring in the process.

2007: Gareth Bale

Age: 33

Played for: Southampton

Current club: Retired

Without question the most successful player on this list, Gareth Bale has gone on to have a career few could even dream of following his EFL Young Player of the Year award.

First, Bale moved to Tottenham and after finally converting from full-back to winger, became Spurs‘ most-feared attacker. A hat-trick against Inter in 2010/11 and a 21-goal Premier League season in 2012/13 were undoubted high points and eventually, he made an £85.3m-move to Real Madrid in 2013.

Although not always a fan-favourite during his time with Los Blancos, he played a huge role in the Spanish giants lifting three La Liga titles, five Champions Leagues and a Copa del Rey crown during his time there.

He carried that success to MLS winning the MLS Cup with LAFC, scoring a dramatic late equaliser which took the game to penalties. After finally featuring for Wales at a World Cup, Bale decided it was time to bring his playing career to an end.

“From my very first touch at Southampton to my last with LAFC and everything in between, shaped a club carer that I have an immense pride and gratitude for,” he wrote in his retirement announcement.

“Playing for and captaining by country 111 times has truly been a dream come true.”

2008: Michael Kightly

Age: 37

Played for: Wolves

Current club: Retired

A rapidly developing winger, things really seemed to be coming to a head for Michael Kightly in 2008. The former Southend United man had earned his move to Wolves a couple of years previous, picked up the EFL Young Player of the Year award and was getting capped for England at U-21 level.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get that much better for Kightly and although he did play in the Premier League with Wolves, Stoke and Burnley, he never truly left his mark on the top flight. The 36-year-old retired from the game in 2019 after a two-year spell back at Southend, before returning to action with Southern League side, Rushall Olympic — and then definitively calling time on his career in 2021.

2009: Fabian Delph

Age: 33

Played for: Leeds United

Current club: Retired

Given his exploits with Aston Villa, Manchester City and England — and a subsequent transfer to Everton — it’s easy to forget that it all began at Leeds United for Fabian Delph.

The 20-time England international was given his debut for the Whites on the final day of the 2006/07 season and from there, went on to play 54 times for Leeds — mostly in League One — before securing a move to the Premier League with Aston Villa as the reigning EFL Young Player of the Year.

Injury problems hampered Delph’s career at Everton — leaving the club last summer as a result and later retiring — but he was certainly a valued squad member in Pep Guardiola‘s title-winning Manchester City sides.

2010: Nathaniel Clyne

Age: 32

Played for: Crystal Palace

Current club: Crystal Palace

Another one whose recent exploits have involved more time in the physio room than on the pitch, Nathaniel Clyne showed plenty of promise while coming through at Crystal Palace. The right-back was the EFL Young Player of the Year in 2010 and followed that up by becoming Crystal Palace‘s Player of the Year and the youngest player in the Football League to play every single match of the 2010/11 campaign — enough to earn him a move to the Premier League with Southampton.

104 appearances at St Mary’s saw him do enough to join the deluge of Saints players leaving for Liverpool in 2015 but though his early performances were promising, those aforementioned injuries stopped him in his tracks.

Clyne managed just 20 appearances for the Reds and on loan at Bournemouth combined in 2018/19 and sat out the whole of 2019/20 injured before being released from the then Premier League champions. Clyne returned to Crystal Palace in 2020 and has featured sporadically.

2011: Connor Wickham

Age: 29

Played for: Ipswich Town

Current club: Cardiff City

A giant of a striker, Connor Wickham turned some serious heads during his formative years at Ipswich, leading the line for the Tractor Boys and scoring plenty of goals at youth level for England.

Wickham did get his Premier League move with Sunderland, and played a huge roll in them staying up in 2013/14, but has never quite been able to cut it in the top-flight. A spell at Crystal Palace followed shortly after but he went on a tour of the lower leagues, enjoying a stint at MK Dons last season and featuring briefly for Forest Green Rovers in the first half of 2022/23. Wickham is back in the Championship with Cardiff City, signing until the end of the 2022/23 campaign.

2012: Wilfried Zaha

Age: 30

Played for: Crystal Palace

Current club: Crystal Palace

Sticking with Crystal Palace, 2012’s winner of this award ranks very highly among the list of success stories.

Wilfried Zaha played 50 games across all competitions in 2012/13 as the Eagles secured promotion to the Premier League via the Championship playoffs, enough to earn him a move to Manchester United.

Zaha famously failed there — spending time out on loan with Cardiff and back at Palace — but is one of only a handful of players that spring to mind who have failed at an elite club, but still managed to become one of the Premier League‘s most renowned players, thanks to his second spell at Selhurst Park.

2013: Tom Ince

Age: 31

Played for: Blackpool

Current club: Reading

While Zaha recovered brilliantly from his setbacks, Tom Ince will likely look back on his career with a hint of regret.

An incredibly fast and skilful winger, Ince seemed to be all set up for stardom but will be most remembered for walking away from Liverpool and spurning chances to join Inter Milan and Monaco.

Nowadays, the 31-year-old plies his trade in the Championship with Reading.

2014: Will Hughes

Age: 28

Played for: Derby County

Current club: Crystal Palace

Will Hughes was a key member of the Derby County side which finished third in the Championship and only missed out on promotion thanks to a 1-0 playoff final defeat to QPR in 2013/14. Having been named in the Championship Team of the Year, it was little surprise to see him pick up the Young Player of the Year award as well.

Things have gone relatively well for Hughes since then, with the midfielder spending another three years at Derby before going on to make 77 Premier League appearances across three seasons with Watford, and now turning out for Crystal Palace. However, he has been much more of a squad player at Selhurst Park.

2015: Dele Alli

Age: 27

Played for: MK Dons

Current club: Everton

Right up there with the likes of Zaha and Bale as one of the success stories of this award, Dele Alli scored 16 League One goals for MK Dons during the 2014/15 campaign, helping the club earn promotion to the Championship — and alerting Tottenham Hotspur to his talents.

After joining Spurs in 2015, Alli went on to make 269 appearances for the Lilywhites, scoring 67 goals, while he has also been capped 37 times at senior level for England — including as part of Gareth Southgate’s 2018 World Cup semi-finalists, where he scored the second goal in a 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden.

Unfortunately, the 27-year-old’s career has nosedived in recent seasons. He joined Everton in January of last year but scarcely featured towards the backend of 2021/22, prompting a loan move to Besiktas for this present season. However, that has since been cut short, further underlying the problems surrounding Alli’s career in recent years.

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2016: Lewis Cook

Age: 26

Played for: Leeds United

Current club: Bournemouth

A serious midfield talent when fit, Cook rose to meteoric prominence at Elland Road during his formative years and subsequently earned a move to Premier League side Bournemouth in 2016. His form on the South Coast was such, that in 2018, he earned a cap for England. Unfortunately, Cook is another who has never really been able to kick on and fulfil his potential because of injury problems, though he certainly played a key role for the Cherries last season as they earned Premier League promotion.

2017: Ollie Watkins

Age: 27

Played for: Exeter City

Current club: Aston Villa

Ollie Watkins picked up the EFL Player of the Year award after scoring 26 Championship goals and bringing Brentford oh so close to Premier League promotion in 2020.

However, let’s not forget that he already had prior experience with EFL awards, winning the Young Player of the Year award in 2017 having scored 15 goals in 48 League Two appearances for Exeter City.

Although Brentford missed out on promotion with Watkins leading the line, he did get his move to the Premier League, joining Aston Villa in the summer of 2020, where he has gone on to establish himself as a prolific Premier League striker and picked up seven caps for England with two goals.

2018: Ryan Sessegnon

Age: 22

Played for: Fulham

Current club: Tottenham Hotspur

Few young Englishmen received as much acclaim in 2018 as Ryan Sessegnon, who had just scored 16 goals across all competitions for Fulham to help seal this award.

Sessegnon moved to Tottenham as a result, but he hasn’t been able to hold down a consistent starting berth in north London.

2019: Max Aarons

Age: 23

Played for: Norwich City

Current club: Norwich City

Max Aarons was one of a number of players to impress as an easy-on-the-eye Norwich City earned promotion to the Premier League in 2018/19 and although they have since been relegated back to the second tier, returned, and then dropped down again, Aarons continues to be linked with a cohort of upper-table top-flight clubs.

2020: Jude Bellingham

Age: 19

Played for: Birmingham City

Current club: Borussia Dortmund

Jude Bellingham has already had a remarkable career, and he’s still only 19!

The midfield maestro managed four goals and two assists in the Championship to help Birmingham City stave off relegation by just a single point in 2019/20. That was enough for none other than Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund to come knocking, signing Bellingham for around £25m.

Where things start to get bizarre is the fact that Birmingham City then saw fit to retire his number after just 44 senior appearances. But maybe they were ahead of the curve, with the teenager already transforming the England midfield and he is one of the first names on Gareth Southgate’s team sheet.

2021: Michael Olise

Age: 21

Played for: Reading

Current club: Crystal Palace

Michael Olise was sensational for Reading in 2020/21, registering 12 assists, which was bettered only by Emiliano Buendia (16). That playmaker form prompted Palace to pursue his signature and the France U21 international has shown plenty of promise in south London since relocating to the capital in 2021.

2022: Brennan Johnson

Age: 21

Played for: Nottingham Forest

Current club: Nottingham Forest

Brennan Johnson was sensational as Nottingham Forest made their long-awaited return to the top flight, scoring in both play-off semi-final matches against Sheffield United and putting in an impressive display from the flanks in the Wembley win over Huddersfield. Johnson has been one of the standout players for Forest in their Premier League return this season, though the club remain in the relegation zone and are in danger of dropping back down to the Championship.

2023: Alex Scott

Age: 19

Played for: Bristol City

Current club: Bristol City

Obviously we know where Alex Scott is right now as he is the most recent recipient of the award, winning it for the 2022/23 season. At the time of receiving the award, Scott had played 40 games for Bristol City in the Championship, a key part of their side despite being just a teenager. It’s his second full season as a first-team player for the Robins, three years after he first joined the club from non-league side Guernsey. Already tipped for big things, Scott has been compared to the likes of Steven Gerrard and Jack Grealish by Bristol City teammate Kal Naismith with regards to his playing style.

“A few clubs bid for him – he’s played every game for us – he won the Euros (U19s) with England in the summer. Centre mid, little old school, box-to-box,” Naismith told the Open Goal podcast earlier this year.

“Like a Gerrard kind of (player) – obviously I don’t want to make that comparison, he’s got a long way to go. He’s tall enough, he’s maybe six foot, he can run all day, he’s hard in the tackle, really good on the ball.

“He’s different class, he’s reminding me of when Grealish was in the Champ, he’s obviously more of a centre mid but see that way he takes the ball, lets people get tight to him and then runs away as if they weren’t even there. His past 5-6 games, he’s been tremendous. I can honestly see him going to a top four/five team in the Prem.”