TWO goals. That’s all it took to turn Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj from teenage prospect to future superstar.
Unleashed against Sunderland last weekend, the Belgian’s dynamic double has already seen him tipped as the new Ronaldo and even had the FA investigating his eligibility for England.
“With a talent like that you only have to watch him once to realise it,” said former United youth team coach Eric Harrison, who helped bring through David Beckham and Ryan Giggs.
“Everybody at the club knows that he is definitely one for the future. He’s going to be a big asset to the club.”
Yet the 18-year-old isn’t the only unknown to shoot to prominence this year. Outside the rarefied air of the top flight, Football League clubs are unearthing diamonds on a monthly basis.
Gems like Callum Wilson, the Coventry striker. Though he made his debut as a teenager in 2009, injuries cost Wilson almost two years of his career. By the time this summer rolled round, he was almost completely off the radar.
Now he is the top scorer in League One with nine goals in his first 12 games, his power, pace and deadly finishing earning a raft of glowing reviews and – inevitably – talk of interest from above. Talk about coming out of the (Sky) blue.
“At the beginning of the season it was hit-or-miss whether I was going to get a contract or not,” admits the 21-year-old.
“Thankfully I did and hopefully I’m proving it was the right decision.
“For me, it’s just great to be getting minutes, to be scoring. I had a few injuries which really set me back.
“Realistically, you can probably take two years off my age and that’s my ‘football age’ in terms of development.”
So, not bad for a 19-year-old. What’s more, at a time when youth development at the highest levels is under serious scrutiny, Coventry are proving that giving young Brits a chance can bring success.
Though partly a matter of necessity – the club’s ongoing financial problems mean they are under a transfer embargo – the Sky Blues are regularly fielding several home-grown youngsters, with Wilson, Jordan Clarke and Cyrus Christie all Coventry natives.
The result has been spectacular, with the kids’ camaraderie yielding goals galore and six wins from ten games that have erased a ten-point deduction.
“There are about five or six of us in the changing room who are good friends outside of football as well,” says Wilson.
“We’ve lived around Coventry, grown up together.
“I knew Jordan and Christie from years back. We all played Sunday League. Coming here, we all got closer as friends.
“As a player, it naturally goes that your football friends become your main friends. They are the ones who have the same dreams and aspirations. Who have to make the same sacrifices. It makes sense to surround yourself with people who want to achieve the same things as you.
“As a kid, you always wanted to play with your friends. To be able to do that as an adult for a job is fantastic. And having your mates on the pitch helps you come out of your shell a bit more.”
Also key in Wilson’s development were spells on loan at non league sides Kettering and Tamworth, both managed by Marcus Law.
“Marcus had a big influence on my career,” adds Wilson. “Yeah, it was non league football. But I was a kid playing against men who’ll think nothing of kicking hell out of you. It’s good to get that at 18. It roughed me up, turned me into a man. Made me see the other side of the game. It was a big help.”
And it is that side of the game that Wilson will have to get used to again. Goalless in his last three, the striker is finding he is now a marked man.
“Teams will be watching how we’ve been scoring our goals,” he said. “And they’ll see who has been scoring them.
“I saw a stat and I think I’ve been involved in 55 per cent of our goals, so it goes without saying they’ll want to stop me. Managers will be studying my strengths and how to negate them.
“In the last couple of games, I’ve been brought down twice when I was through on goal. But for that, I’d have added to my tally.
“But it’s up to me to counteract that. For me now, it’s about seeing what’s going on out on the pitch and reacting to it appropriately. It’s about proving that even if you know what I can do, it doesn’t mean you can stop it. That’s all part of developing as a player.”
YOUNG AND TALENTED
Cameron Howieson – Burnley
FOR most 18-year-olds, first-team football is a distant dream. But not only does Burnley’s Kiwi starlet have two Clarets appearances to his name – he’s also a regular for his country.
Spotted playing in an Under-14s tournament in his native New Zealand, the attacking midfielder scored twice in a trial game and hasn’t looked back.
Since then he has helped Burnley reach the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup, bagging a vital double in the quarter-final victory over Fulham and attracting scouts from the likes of Newcastle, Stoke and Liverpool.
Barely 17 when he made his debut in a Championship match against Birmingham, he became the Clarets’ youngest player for 25 years.
Though progress has stalled in recent months – largely caused by near-constant call-ups from New Zealand – Howieson is a big talent with a big future.
Jed Wallace – Portsmouth
THIS time last year, Jed Wallace was still an unknown youngster awaiting a first start for Pompey. Today, he is one of League Two’s most sought-after players, an England Under-19 international with top-flight scouts watching every move.
On loan at non league Whitehawk, the attacking midfielder had netted 13 goals in 14 games – including several screamers – when Guy Whittingham summoned him back.
And he picked up where he left off, netting one on his debut, another the following week and racking up six in 22 games by the end of the season.
Bigger and stronger with each passing week, the 19-year-old is a genuine all-round midfielder whose eye for goal sets him apart. Pompey have offered a new contract but they’ll be incredibly lucky if he signs it.
George Long – Sheffield United
Most keepers have to wait until their mid-20s to get a sniff of first-team football. At 19, Long has played an entire season as first choice for Sheffield United, won a League One player of the month award and been called up by England Under-21s.
Tall, strong and vocal, the teenager got his break when regular stopper Mark Howard was injured in October 2012. Long proceeded to keep four clean sheets in his first five games as a pro and clocked up another six before the season was out, keeping both Howard and Danny Coyne on the bench into the bargain.
Will Hughes – Derby
OK, so he’s hardly unknown. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s still at Derby. Hughes hadn’t even finished his GCSEs when he was tipped for stardom and two years on he is recognised one of the Championship’s finest players – at barely 18!
With his waif-like build, unruly blonde hair and baby face, the diminutive midfielder looks little more than fodder for the nearest clogger.
But don’t be fooled. His lack of strength is more than compensated by the sublime balance and technique that sees Hughes glide through challenges like a scooner in high seas.
Pair it with vision, touch and technique and you have a lad who will be playing in the Premier League before 2014 is out.
Paul Digby – Barnsley
BUT for a serious injury, we might be mentioning 18-year-old Digby in the same breath as Hughes.
A debutant at 16, the midfielder was highly rated by Barnsley’s academy staff and seen by Keith Hill as the perfect replacement for the departed Jacob Butterfield.
Blessed with a fine touch and a blistering shot – not to mention a 6ft 5ins frame – the teenager looked ready to take the Championship by storm.
Sadly, hip and groin injuries cost him the whole of last season, meaning a year of development missed.
An operation in the USA seems to have cured the problem and if Digby ran return to fulfil his previous promise then he will be one to watch.
Tagged Adnan Januzaj, Barnsley, Burnley, Callum Wilson, Cameron Howieson, Coventry City, Derby County, George Long, Jed Wallace, Manchester United, Paul Digby, Portsmouth, Sheffield United, Will Hughes