THIS time last year, Dele Alli was turning out for MK Dons against Notts County in front of 3,000 supporters. Now, the teenage midfielder is an England regular and Spurs superstar.
The Football League is full of glittering gems like Alli, just waiting to be unearthed and buffed to greatness. And each new year brings fresh seams of stars to the surface.
So if 2015 was the year of Alli, who will shine brightest in 2016? Here are a few of the contenders.
Lewis Cook – Leeds United
Cook’s talent is hardly a secret. The 18-year-old midfielder has played for England at every level up to U19, while his performances at the back end of last season won him the young player of the year award and kept Leeds in the Championship.
“He’s the best junior I’ve seen by a mile,” said former Leeds gaffer Neil Redfearn, who nurtured Cook through the youth ranks at Elland Road. “What an immense talent he is. He’s only a teenager but he’s got this presence, this power and this drive about him. And the kid can play.”
What Cook has lacked is a foil – a midfielder anchor who can do the dirty work and allow him to dictate play.
But with Liam Bridcutt, arguably the Championship’s finest defensive midfielder, now signed on loan from Sunderland, Cook is already starting to show his class. If the pair click, it could be a very happy new year for Leeds.
Romaine Sawyers – Walsall
Last season, Dean Smith described Sawyers as an “unsung hero”.
“Romaine does a great job for the team without the ball which sometimes goes unnoticed,” he said. “But everybody here notices it alright.”
This season, everybody else has, too. Enigmatic and energetic before, the
24-year-old has added consistency and goals to his game, netting six times so far to fire the Saddlers’ unexpected promotion charge.
With his contract set to expire in the summer and scouts packing the Bescot, it’s hard to imagine the former West Brom trainee being around next season. The question is, can Walsall fend off Championship interest in January?
Viv Solomon-Otabor – Birmingham City
Rejected by Crystal Palace three years ago, the 19-year-old winger has been tipped for greatness by Blues boss Gary Rowett.
“If he can piece it all together, he’s going to be another Demarai Gray,” said Rowett. “He’s probably stronger than Demarai. He’s quicker than Demarai. He doesn’t take on players like Demarai, but he’s got two really good feet.
“He can smash a ball with both his left and his right, and he’s a really humble lad, who works incredibly hard.”
Hugely impressive with a virtuoso goal against Fulham and string of eye-catching performances off the bench, Solomon-Otabor made his first start in this week’s 1-0 victory over MK Dons. Expect to see much more of him.
George Thorne – Derby County
Why are the Rams so much more solid this year?
The return of Jason Shackell is a big factor, as are the tactics of new gaffer Paul Clement. But the return of Thorne should not be underestimated.
Just 16 when he became West Brom’s youngest player in half a century, Thorne’s fledgling career has been wrecked by a string of serious knee injuries. Now 22, he has still to reach 100 appearances.
But the way he controls a midfield with his clever passing and intelligent organisation, you’d think he was a crusty veteran.
Whether it’s making tackles, screening his back four or starting counters from deep in midfield, Thorne oozes class and composure, allowing more attack-minded players like Bradley Johnson to go raiding.
The rumoured Premier League interest is no surprise; resisting it is key to Derby’s promotion ambitions.
Kemar Roofe – Oxford United
West Brom can certainly pump them out. Like Sawyers, Roofe is a product of the Baggies’ youth team, released in the summer after a succession of unspectacular loan spells.
Mind you, the last of them wasn’t too shabby. The 22-year-old scored six goals in 16 games for Michael Appleton’s Oxford, prompting the League Two U’s to sign him up on a permanent deal.
And Roofe has carried on right where he left off, forming a deadly partnership with Danny Hylton and hitting a further 12 as Oxford have stormed into the automatic promotion chase.
Capable of playing out wide, in the centre or behind the striker, it’s no surprise that Newcastle have spent the last month monitoring his progress.
Sam Clucas – Hull City
Three years ago, Clucas was plying his trade in the Conference. Before this season, he’d never even had a boot deal.
Yet come September, the 25-year-old could be a Premier League player.
And doesn’t he deserve it? Signed from Chesterfield for £1.3m in the summer, Clucas has outshone a host of established Premier League players at the KC, forming a deadly double-act with flying left-back Andy Robertson.
“Nobody wanted him,” said Hull boss Steve Bruce. “He went to Glenn Hoddle’s school. He was at Hereford, Mansfield, Chesterfield. Now he’s here and he’s been a terrific buy.
“He’s got that hunger. Sometimes, the big players from big academies don’t have that. It’s taken away from them. But Sam’s had to fight and scrap. He’s had to do it the hard way.
“You can see that in the way he plays. He’s not fazed by anything, he just gets on with it. He’s as tough as they come, works all day. He’s a delight to work with.”
James Maddison –Coventry City
Missing since August with damaged ankle ligaments, Maddison made his return last month and looks set to sparkle in 2015 – if the Sky Blues can keep hold of him.
Coventry have already rejected a bid from one Premier League club, whilst Arsenal and Liverpool have both watched the 19-year-old playmaker extensively.
Like fans and opponents, both have been bewitched by the rapier pace, intelligent passing and jinking feet of the diminutive playmaker.
Tony Mowbray, though, has urged his young starlet to stay put.
“James has only played something like 14 games in League One,” said the former West Brom and Celtic boss. “Here, he’ll be able to let his talent flourish where he is appreciated. If he moved to a big club, he isn’t going to get in their first team. He should stay in a place where he’ll enjoy his football and let the talent grow.”
Ainsley Maitland-Niles – Ipswich Town
Mick McCarthy had only seen his 18-year-old midfielder play a handful of times when he spoke to BBC Radio Suffolk in August.
“Wow, the talent of him,” said the former Wolves boss, who’d signed Maitland-Niles on loan from Arsenal in the summer. “I think he’s going to play for Arsenal, there’s no doubt in my mind. We are just so lucky to have him.”
The midfielder is undoubtedly raw. Spindly limbed and rarely able to complete 90 minutes, the first half of the season has been spent toughening up and acclimatising to the Championship.
But with a bit more muscle to complement his undoubted ability and supreme athleticism, Maitland-Niles could prove key to Ipswich’s play-off bid.
Conor Chaplin – Portsmouth
Pompey’s teenage supersub may struggle to get a start but, with seven goals in 19 appearances, his ratio of 93.29 minutes per goal is better than Jamie Vardy, Romelu Lukaku, Olivier Giroud and Riyad Mahrez.
The 18-year-old is stuck behind Caolan Lavery and Marc McNulty but – despite starting just seven times – is actually the League Two side’s top scorer.
“He is repetitively trying to practise, one of those players I have to drag off the training pitch physically sometimes,” said Pompey assistant Leam Richardson.
“I even had to take his boots off for him the other day so he didn’t kick any more balls! He’s a player who makes things happen.”
Paul Cook must be sorely tempted to see if more minutes will equal more goals.
Zach Clough – Bolton Wanderers
Tipped for stardom after an explosive debut season that yielded six goals in ten games, Clough’s ascent was stalled by a dislocated shoulder in September.
In his absence, the Trotters failed to win a single match and sank to what appears an inescapable position at the foot of the Championship.
Yet Clough’s comeback at the start of December sparked a return of five points from a possible 12 and the 20-year-old’s brace against Fulham showed what he was all about – pace, sleight of foot and a veteran’s eye for goal. Bolton look doomed, but Clough should at least give their fans something to shout about.
*All images included courtesy of Action Images