Premier League academies are notoriously sink-or-swim environments, such is the dense hotbed of talent accumulated by those looking to unearth the next Curtis Jones, 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.
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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 fifth-highest scorer and, perhaps the most pertinent point: he is the all-time highest scorer in competitive North London derbies, with 11 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”.
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 32, 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.
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 22-year-old has featured in every single Premier League second under Patrick Vieira this season, playing with a top-flight maturity that belies his years, as he continues to consolidate his grip on the left-back berth.
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 30, the uncompromising centre-back is now Bournemouth’s captain and plays with his heart on his sleeve. He would have formed a robust, hard-hitting partnership with Lewis Dunk had he stuck around.
Academy regret: Josh Benson
In truth there will be little regrets for Burnley, but that may be more of a damning indictment on their part, as there are few notable academy graduates to write home about. Jay Rodriguez is a good example of the club using their academy facilities well, but in terms of regrets, Josh Benson may be one to come back and bite them. A tidy midfield operator for Barnsley, Benson has all the tools to shine in the Championship and may push on in the years to come.
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From the Chelsea academy to the final at #EURO2020.
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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’. He’s even captaining the side in the absence of Mark Noble (which is often in his dotage years), and now Chelsea continue to be linked with a move for his signature… but it will cost them dearly.
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 has been a regular fixture for Newcastle this term, appearing in their opening four Premier League matches, a reward for his exceptional showings between the sticks on loan at Swansea City last season, where he earned the Championships’ Golden Glove accolade.
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.
Academy regret: Alex Mowatt
Not so much an ‘academy regret’ as Mowatt went on to thrive at Elland Road, in which he won the club’s ‘Player of the Year’ award in 2014/15, but unfortunately he was sold to Barnsley just a year before Marcelo Bielsa joined the club. He is exactly the sort of technically-superb operator who would really thrive under the paternalistic predilections of the Argentinian. He shone at Barnsley and is now doing so at Championship high-flyers West Brom, where his creative genius continues to turn heads.
Academy regret: Izzy Brown
When he made his debut for West Brom in 2013, Brown became the second-youngest player in Premier League history at the age of 16 years and 117 days. Two months later Chelsea signed him, where he went on to get caught in the club’s notorious revolving door; enduring seven separate loan spells before signing permanently with Preston this summer. A once precocious wunderkind, Brown initially started out at Leicester, and you can’t help but think that had he been given the same chance as Ben Chilwell, Harvey Barnes et al, then he may still be in the starting XI today. Stability can go a long way in a player’s development, not several random loan spells.
Academy regret: Jack Harrison
Jurgen Klopp loves direct, goal-hungry ‘wingers’ and Jack Harrison is cut from that same Mohamed Salah-Sadio Mane 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.
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 in the 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.
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 has flourished at a club not necessarily renowned for its policy on youth development. However, McNeil’s visceral talents could not go unnoticed and he has since been blooded in by Dyche, having been released by Man Utd at the age of 14.
Academy regret: Shola Shoretire
The 17-year-old has already racked up two 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 last season, 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 Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Paul Scholes among others.
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Academy regret: Angus Gunn
Gunn started out with his hometown club Norwich, but Man City paid a whopping £250,000 for his signature when he was just 15. The former England U21 international has shown flashes of quality and prompted Southampton to pay £13.5m for him in 2018 from City. That move didn’t work out and he’s now back at Norwich, having joined in the summer, but had Gunn stayed put in the first place, he may have broken in at Carrow Road and established a first-team berth from the off.
Academy regret: Ben White
Southampton has been one of football’s more productive hotbeds for wonderkids since the turn of the century, and White is another who was once on the books at St Mary’s. He was released by the club at 16, snapped up by Brighton, loaned to Leeds, and recently purchased by Arsenal for £50m. A costly release by the Saints.
Academy regret: Noni Madueke
Madueke is absolutely tearing up the Eredivisie with PSV, and has been tipped to return to the Premier League in the not too distant future for a huge fee. The double-jointed winger is unpredictable, oozes skill and boasts a breakneck precision; three traits that would really invigorate an exceptionally pedestrian Spurs side at the minute, who have looked all at sea and out of sorts under Nuno Espirito Santo recently.
Academy regret: Bukayo Saka
A fully-fledged international star and Arsenal poster boy, Saka has world-class potential and could go on to reach the very pinnacle of the sport. At 20 he has already established himself as a first-teamer for both England and the Gunners, but it could have been a different story had he not traded Vicarage Road for Hale End during his (very) early years in the sport.
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. Given West Ham do not currently have a recognised striker on the books (Michail Antonio being a converted forward… and injury prone), Martinez would have been a very handy player to have around, instead of shoehorning Jarrod Bowen up top whenever Antonio is out.
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.