From Rashford to Tielemans, we check in on the initial players to be chosen for our Next Generation project

In 2014 we decided that it would be interesting to pick the best young players from each Premier League club as well as 40 from around the world and follow them for five years to see how they progressed.

The idea was to try to get an idea of how difficult it is to become a professional footballer despite being one of the best in that country at the age of 16 or 17.

It has been a time-consuming project as we have checked in on the players every year of their journey, but it has been well worth it. We have now followed the first years picks for five years and it is time to summarise and let go of them.

So what kind of picture emerges? Out of our 20 players from the English top flight in that 2014-15 season, only three are playing at Premier League clubs now: Marcus Rashford, Dominic Solanke and Hamza Choudhury.

That may not sound very impressive but some others are at Premier League clubs but on loan in the Championship. Six of the 20 are playing second-tier football (five in England and one, Harley Willard, in Iceland) so nearly half are playing at a very high level. On the other hand, two of the 20 as far as we are aware are not playing football any more.

Three of 20

Many things can contribute towards whether a player makes it. Injuries can play a huge part, while the mental side of the game should not be underestimated. In addition, players develop at a different ages.

We recently asked our reporter in Portugal why Joo Felix was not picked for our 2016 edition and the reply was simple: because he wasnt among the best then.

In 2017, when Steven Gerrard was working as the Liverpool Under-18 coach, we interviewed him about what it takes to make it from the academy to the first team and this is what he said: I like streetwise footballers. I think all the top players come from the street, that type of player. The kids in our academy are coming into an unbelievable place to work, they are getting boss food, they are getting picked up and the full-time lads get a lot more money than we got when we started.

There is a case that they get a bit too much too soon. They get into a comfort zone of working in a lovely place and then it is a big shock for them when they have to move on or get released. Ive seen a lot of players come out of the academy with huge reputations and go into the Melwood dressing room. Then it is sink or swim and a lot of them sink.

Rashford leads way

The encouraging thing for these talented youngsters is that even if you sink on your first attempt with a first team there is normally a way back. In our worldwide list from 2014, Nikola Vlasic was one of our 40 players, but a 10m move to Everton from Hajduk Split in 2017 did not work out.

He made only 12 appearances, did not score a goal and was loaned to CSKA Moscow before joining the Russian club permanently this summer. These days he is a regular scorer in the Russian Premier League and a Croatia international. He scored his first goal for his country in a man-of-the-match performance against Slovakia in September and looks certain to move to one of the big five European leagues again. And he is only 22.

Youri Tielemans, Ousmane Dembl and Luka Jovic were three other picks that year and, whereas the first two made their breakthrough very early on, Jovic took a more circuitous route to the top, not being given a chance at Benfica and being loaned to Eintracht Frankfurt before a standout season in the Bundesliga and the Europa League earned him a summer move to Real Madrid.

Twenty-eight of the 40 are playing top-flight football and 16 have represented their country. Eleven of the players are in the top five European leagues. To clarify, Rashford was among our Premier League picks but not our world ones.


It is also important, however, to remind ourselves that life is extremely fragile and that one of our 40-strong selection and one of the most talented players of his generation, Abdelhak Appie Nouri, collapsed and suffered permanent brain damage during a friendly between Ajax and Werder Bremen in July 2015.

The world of football was stunned and, four years later, it is still difficult to come to terms with what happened to this hugely talented and tremendous young man. As Ryan Babel wrote: I will never understand why such horrible things actually happens to genuine people who are positive and have good intentions to make something with their lives.

Quick guide

Next Generation

Updates on our global classes of 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015and2014.

How our Premier League groups of 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 have fared.

Case study: what happened next to 2014 pick Harley Willard?



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