By Chris Dunlavy
LET’S hear it for 2016, a year that brought us a Premier League fairytale, a national debacle (the Euros, not Brexit) and a slew of stars for the future.
Who, last Christmas, had heard of Marcus Rashford? Who thought Burnley’s Michael Keane would make the England squad? And who’d have dreamt that our international hopes would hang on a 20-year-old kid nurtured by MK Dons?
Talented youngsters are everywhere, just waiting to be unearthed. As Jamie Vardy and Charlie Austin prove, the EFL is full of them.
So, as we enter the seventh year of the decade, here are seven Football League starlets set to shine in 2017.
Jackson Irvine – Burton Age: 23
BURTON broke their transfer record to snatch the Aussie midfielder from Ross County in the summer – and what a bargain that £330,000 looks now.
The flaxen-haired 23-year-old has scored seven times in his 23 games this term – a third of the Brewers’ total – and been branded “magnificent” by the usually under-stated Nigel Clough.
“There’s a lot of money sloshing about in the Championship and we haven’t got much of it,” said the former England striker. “A quarter of million was a lot for us, but Jackson has been superb.”
Like a modern-day Gus Poyet, the ex-Celtic trainee is an expert at arriving late to fling himself at crosses. Three of his goals were headers and the others close-range strikes.
He won’t beat a man and he’s no pass master but, when it comes to delivering at the business end, Irvine has ice in his veins. It would be a surprise to see him at Burton beyond the summer.
Harry Smith – Millwall Age: 21
THIS time last year, 6ft 5ins striker Smith was plying his trade in the Ryman League for Folkestone Invicta.
Today, the 21-year-old is developing into one of the hottest prospects in League One.
A double on his debut in November’s EFL Trophy win against Luton put down a marker. A goal on his first league start swiftly followed. And, when Smith then blasted a hat-trick against Braintree in the FA Cup, everybody sat up and took notice.
“Harry has had to adapt, having never been a pro,” said Lions boss Neil Harris, who made Smith wait three months for his debut.
“He has had to catch up fitness-wise and learn what it means to be a good professional footballer – getting in early and staying late, doing the gym work as well as enjoying yourself on the training pitch. It takes time but he’s getting there.”
Six goals in eight games suggests he has arrived.
Ethan Ampadu – Exeter City Age: 16
IT’S easy to over-hype precocious young players, especially when they debut at 15. The tragic story of Sonny Pike is testament to how quickly it can all go wrong.
But this boy is the real deal. Technically adept, physically imposing, mature beyond his years. “I look at Ethan and he plays like he’s 35,” said Grecians boss Paul Tisdale. “He’s a fabulous young talent.”
Nominally a centre-back, Ampadu can play anywhere across the back four or in midfield, where his passing range and cannonball shots can wreak havoc.
Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool – all have inquired, though Arsenal, where his dad Kwame is an academy coach, are likely to win the race. That is likely to be sooner rather than later, so catch him while you can.
Sam Gallagher – Blackburn Age: 21
IN a season largely bereft of hope, the goals of Southampton loanee Gallagher have brought a glimmer of light to the darkness enveloping Ewood Park.
Perhaps because he has rarely scored in bursts, or because Rovers are struggling at the ugly end of the division, his efforts have largely gone unheralded. But nine goals in 23 matches – only five players have netted more – is no mean feat, especially in a struggling side.
With Charlie Austin injured and goals in short supply on the south coast, fans are clamouring for the 6ft 4ins powerhouse to be recalled from his season-long deal. That would be a disaster for Rovers and, in truth, little use to Gallagher. Thankfully, it seems Saints boss Claude Puel is of the same opinion.
George Cooper – Crewe Age: 20
NAMED League One apprentice of the year in 2015, leggy midfielder Cooper is now the master of Crewe’s midfield.
After a strong pre-season, manager Steve Davis challenged him to add consistency to the technique and athleticism that yielded a first-team debut at 17. His response is hugely impressive.
Several man-of-the-match displays have been capped by five goals in 28 games, surpassing his tally for the previous two seasons combined. Throw in four assists, increasing savvy and a combative edge and you’ve got a player who, nurtured correctly, could follow in the footsteps of Crewe alumni David Platt and Danny Murphy.
Liam Moore – Reading Age: 23
AS Leicester stormed to the Championship title in 2014, home-grown centre-half Moore was being hailed as the future of Leicester’s defence.
“He’s done fantastically,” said coach Steve Walsh. “He reads the game very well and is quick with a good spring. He will get better on the ball as he gets more experienced and starts to come out and play. He has great passion and drive. He’s a great prospect.”
Yet, at the start of this campaign, the 23-year-old didn’t have a squad number and was training with the Under-21s. Claudio Ranieri seemed unconvinced of his Premier League class.
Since Moore joined Reading on August 20, the Royals have kept seven clean sheets in 17 games. Of their five defeats this term, two came before Moore arrived and he watched their heaviest loss, a 5-0 thrashing at Fulham, from the stands while serving a one-game ban.
Moore was unlucky at Leicester. Given only 11 Premier League games, he was supplanted by Robert Huth and forgotten amid the euphoria of what followed. But he always had the ability. Now, under the tutelage of a former star centre-half in Jaap Stam, he’s showing it.
Liam Mandeville – Doncaster Age: 19
ACCUSED by gaffer Darren Ferguson of failing to seize his chance in early November, teenage striker Mandeville has delivered the perfect riposte.
A sensational free-kick against Grimsby was the academy graduate’s seventh goal in his last nine games, a run that put Donny top of League Two.
Strong, unselfish and already entrusted with penalty duties, it is easy to see why November’s EFL player of the month is being eyed so enviously.