Football Features

Every Premier League club’s biggest academy ‘dropout’ regret

By Ben Green

Every Premier League club's biggest academy 'dropout' regret

Published: 15:20, 29 November 2022

Premier League academies are notoriously sink-or-swim environments, such is the dense hotbed of talent accumulated by those looking to unearth the next big thing, and that often means only a fraction ‘make it’.

Some flourish, most falter, and that uncompromising policy can often mean that even the best fall through the cracks. Roy Keane once had a trial cancelled at Brighton because he was deemed ‘too small’; Antoine Griezmann was snubbed by a host of French clubs; while Harry Kane was dubbed “a bit chubby” for Arsenal.

With that we’ve had a look at every Premier League club’s biggest academy regret, those who were once on the books during their formative years but didn’t make the grade for one reason or another, only to come back and fulfil their potential.

Arsenal

Academy regret: Harry Kane

This one is not really a surprise. Other shouts in this category could include Serge Gnabry and Eberechi Eze, but Kane is a three-time Golden Boot winner, England’s second-highest scorer and, perhaps the most pertinent point: he is the all-time highest scorer in competitive North London derbies, with 14 goals.

It will certainly come as no surprise that Kane relishes match-ups against the Gunners, as he has admitted in the past to having a “chip on his shoulder” after being released by the club. According to Arsenal’s former academy director Liam Brady, Kane was snubbed because he was “a bit chubby” and “not very athletic”.

Aston Villa

Academy regret: Daniel Sturridge

Sturridge’s career trajectory may have nosedived in recent years, but there will always be a feeling of ‘what-if’ at Villa Park had he stuck around. Still only 33, the once burgeoning Brummie could still be playing at the highest echelon of the sport were his recent career not buffeted by persistent injury problems.

There was a time where Sturridge was bracketed with the very best forwards in the game. His cold-eyed calculation in the final third flourished alongside Luis Suarez as Liverpool came within a photo-finish of winning the Premier League. Unfortunately, Villa fans were not afforded the luxury of seeing their academy jewel in action, as he left the club for Coventry City at the age of 11.

Bournemouth

Academy regret: Alex Dobre

Maybe a name not familiar to many, Alexandru Dobre made just one cup appearance for the Cherries during his time at the club, instead spending most of his existence in England out on loan. He subsequently joined Dijon in 2020 and the five-capped Romania Olympic international scored a quite impressive nine goals in Ligue 2 last season which is certainly not to be sniffed at.

Brentford

Academy regret: Tyrick Mitchell

When Brentford shut down their academy in 2016 in favour of launching a more cost-effective B team, their financial issues left them ripe for poachers, and Mitchell ultimately ended up joining Crystal Palace, where he is starting to have an Aaron Wan-Bissaka-esque impact at Selhurst Park. The 23-year-old missed just two Premier League matches under Patrick Vieira last season, playing with a top-flight maturity that belies his years, and he was recently handed his first caps for England. He was unfortunate to miss out on the World Cup after Ben Chilwell’s injury.

Brighton

Academy regret: Steve Cook

Cook made his Brighton debut against Manchester City in the League Cup in 2008 before the Citizens transformed the Premier League landscape, but he would only go on to make seven appearances for the club, then in League One and the Championship, before he left for Bournemouth. Having joined the Cherries in League One, Cook was there through every division as they climbed up the footballing ladder and made it to the Premier League. Still only 31, the uncompromising centre-back is now back in the Premier League having helped guide Nottingham Forest back up to the top flight. He would have formed a robust, hard-hitting partnership with Lewis Dunk on the South Coast, though, had he stuck around.

Chelsea

Academy regret: Declan Rice

“He bolted up to his bedroom. He was broken-hearted, crying,” said Declan’s father, Sean, after he just told his 14-year-old son that Chelsea were letting him go. It was a heart-rending moment for Rice, the feeling that he would never represent his boyhood club, but if anything, that rejection stoked the flames of motivation within him. He would go on to join West Ham, where he has gone from strength to strength since breaking into the first team, subsequently earning the nickname ‘Basmati Busquets’. At 23 he is already the club’s captain and continues to shine for England. Chelsea will need to reach deep into the transfer kitty to lure him back.

Crystal Palace

Academy regret: Freddie Woodman

The Crystal Palace academy link is strong in Freddie’s family. His father, Andy, honed his craft with the Eagles as a youngster in the late 80s/early 90s, while his godfather, none other than England manager Gareth Southgate, also earned his corn as a teenager at Selhurst Park. Woodman Jr started as Newcastle’s No.1 goalkeeper last season before injury dropped him out of the team, and he is now at Preston. Nevertheless, he has shown his worth between the sticks, winning the Championship’s Golden Glove accolade in 2020/21 while on loan at Swansea City.


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Everton

Academy regret: Eric Dier

Born in Cheltenham, raised in Portugal, Dier has not had the most conventional of routes in football. He progressed through the Sporting CP academy in Lisbon, but spent a year as a teenager at Everton, though he ultimately returned to the Estadio Jose Alvalade and went on to break through in green and white. Such were Dier’s performances in Portugal that Tottenham eventually moved for his signature, and he has been a mainstay in north London ever since.

Fulham

Academy regret: Eberechi Eze

As mentioned, Eze could have also made it onto Arsenal’s list having been released by the club in his early teenage years, but it’s perhaps Fulham who will regret his release the most. The Londoner turned out for the Cottagers between 2011 and 2013 before eventually going on to join Reading, Millwall and then QPR, making it at the latter, who earned nearly £20m for his signature from Crystal Palace.

Leeds United

Academy regret: Tom Cairney

Released by Leeds United at 16 for being ‘too small’, Tom Cairney has gone on to become a fully-fledged Scotland international and captained Fulham back to the Premier League where, last season, he boasted a 91.99% passing accuracy, the second-best of any midfielder in either the Premier League or Championship with at least 900 minutes played.


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Leicester City

Academy regret: Calvin Bassey

Born in Italy, Calvin Bassey joined Leicester City’s youth set-up at the age of 15 after a succesful trial and rose through the academy ranks, appearing regularly for the U18s and U23s. However, in June 2020, Bassey signed a pre-contract with Rangers having never appeared for the Foxes, and just two years later, the 22-year-old has emerged as one of the game’s leading full-backs, completing a £20m move to Ajax in the summer after helping the Gers reach last season’s Europa League final.

Liverpool

Academy regret: Jack Harrison

Jurgen Klopp loves direct, goal-hungry ‘wingers’ and Jack Harrison is cut from that same Mohamed Salah cloth, in terms of playing style. The Leeds inside forward started out at the Liverpool academy, but moved across to Manchester United just a year later, before jumping the pond and establishing a name for himself stateside.

Manchester City

Academy regret: Jadon Sancho

Sancho’s story is well-documented. Unsure whether Pep Guardiola would afford him playing time given the wealth of talent at his disposal, Sancho gambled and relocated to the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund. For the Westphalians, the England international enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence and eventually encouraged Man Utd to offer a king’s ransom for his signature last summer. Perhaps a cautionary tale, Guardiola ensured the crown prince of City’s expensively recalibrated academy, Phil Foden, would not up sticks in a similar fashion, and the buzz-cut gem is now a key member of the English champions.

Manchester United

Academy regret: Dwight McNeil

At this point McNeil’s call-up to the England set-up seems inevitable. Under the gravel-voiced tactical musings of Sean Dyche, McNeil flourished at a club not necessarily renowned for its policy on youth development. However, McNeil’s visceral talents could not go unnoticed and he was eventually blooded in by Dyche, having been released by Man Utd at the age of 14. He now turns out for Everton after a summer move.

Newcastle United

Academy regret: Shola Shoretire

The 18-year-old has already racked up three Premier League appearances for Man Utd and is the club’s youngest player to make an appearance in a European competition, having come on against Real Sociedad in 2020/21, subsequently beating Norman Whiteside’s record set nearly 40 years prior. He also won 2020/21’s illustrious ‘Jimmy Murphy Young Player’ award, which has famously been collected by the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Scholes among others.


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Nottingham Forest

Academy regret: Patrick Bamford

Patrick Bamford joined the Forest academy at the age of eight and even managed to rise up to first-team level, making two Championship appearances for the club in 2011/12. That naturally alerted Chelsea to his talents, and the west Londoners paid £1.5m for his services. Unable to break into the first team at Stamford Bridge, Bamford became a victim of Chelsea’s infamous loan revolving door, before eventually finding his way to Leeds United, where he has gone on to establish himself as a Premier League household name and an England international.

Southampton

Academy regret: Jamal Musiala

Southampton has been one of football’s more productive hotbeds for wonderkids since the turn of the century, and Musiala is another who was once on the books at St Mary’s. The teenage sensation seems destined for a future Ballon d’Or having risen to prominence at Bayern Munich and the Germany national team, but in a parallel universe he’s wearing the colours of Southampton and representing England.

Having moved to England with his family at the age of seven, Musiala joined the Southampton academy but only lasted a year before Chelsea swooped in. He would represent The Three Lions at U15, U16, U17 and U21 level, but eventually opted for Germany at senior level. Oh what could have been.

A special mention to Ben White, as well. He was released by the club at 16, snapped up by Brighton, loaned to Leeds, and purchased by Arsenal for £50m last summer. A costly release by the Saints.

Tottenham

Academy regret: Marcus Edwards

Marcus Edwards was once likened to Lionel Messi by former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. There was no disputing the raw talent. However, he couldn’t quite nudge his way to the front of the queue in north London and eventually left for Portugal in 2019, first with Vitoria de Guimaraes and now Sporting, where he recently scored against Spurs in this season’s Champions League. Talk about biting the hand that once fed you.

West Ham

Academy regret: Toni Martinez

There was something very exotic about Martinez’s name cropping up in the West Ham academy, particularly as he joined from Valencia’s youth ranks with a promising reputation as a prolific goal-getter. As such there was clamour for Martinez to get minutes, which inevitably didn’t transpire, and he eventually left for Famalicao, where many expected him to fade. However, he smashed his maiden campaign in the Braga District and European giants Porto snapped him up, where he continues to impress (in spells).

Wolves

Academy regret: Scott Malone

A solidly consistent left-back who has plied most of his trade in the Championship, Malone would have been a gem to have around when Wolves were slogging it out in the second tier and trying to get back into the Premier League. With the injury issues Jonny has had in recent times, Malone would have also been a good back-up to have around these days, and given his attacking credentials, he would certainly suit the club’s wing-back system.

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