Not long after lunchtime yesterday afternoon, Jonathan Obika slotted home his third goal of the day to ensure Spurs’ Under-21 side progressed with three points against their Manchester United counterparts in a surprisingly comfortable 3-1 victory.
“…why has it been so long since Spurs produced a homegrown striking star?”
It was yet another fine goal scoring performance from Obika who has now scored nine times in his previous five appearances for the Under-21 and Development sides. Such goal scoring form would be sure to catch the eye of any club manager browsing through their youth team set-up, but this may not be the case this time around.
For starters Obika can now hardly be classed as a youth. At 22 years of age Obika has served his education through the academy ranks with the club, maintaining an impressive goal scoring record whenever he has stepped out against peers of his own age. However eight loan spells in four years at league clubs including Millwall, Crystal Palace and Yeovil (Four times!) have proven uninspiring and for the majority, without success. In todays game the rare opportunities to perform at league level have to be taken to prove to your parent club that you are able and capable of impacting on the first team.
Opportunities have been limited at Spurs with appearances occurring in a few Europa League games and more recently a cameo appearance against Leeds in the FA Cup defeat. That 15 minute showing included a key chance to equalise late on but dawdling on the ball cost Obika and Spurs the necessary goal to stay in the cup. Sadly for Obika, barring a string of unfortunate injuries, this could have proven a pivotal moment in his Spurs career for all the wrong reasons. Because for all of his ability at youth level, there remains a clear mental block that seems to impede his progress when stepping up to the next level.
He is not unique in showing talent as a young striker rising through the Spurs academy yet joining a long list of players who failed to reach their potential.
The drought of strikers breaking through began back at the turn of the millennium with John Sutton. Brother of Chris Sutton, John looked set for a promising Spurs career, scoring at a rate of nearly a goal a game for the youth side. A loan spell at Carlisle followed in 2002 but upon return to the club it was decided that Sutton was not capable of making the step up, released at the age of 18. He’s since carved up a reasonably successful career in Scotland, though has arguably underachieved based on his early promise.
The next batch of young strikers arrived in the form of the duo of Jamie Slabber and Lee Barnard. Both players scored with deadly regularity, in particular Barnard, and were soon beginning to catch the eye of first team managers Glenn Hoddle and Martin Jol. Slabber made his debut in 2003 against Liverpool for the final ten minutes of a 3-2 defeat but ultimately it would prove to be his final game for the club too. Barnard meanwhile went two steps further picking up a total of three appearances for the first team before it was decided his services were no longer needed. Since their departures from the club, Barnard and Slabber’s careers have shown contrasting fortunes. Whilst Barnard managed to work his way back up the leagues with Southampton, albeit now back on loan at Oldham in League One, Slabber descended down the leagues, now plying his trade in the Conference South with Chelmsford City.
For others rising through bad luck proved their downfall as injuries hit Terry Dixon and Simon Dawkins.
Dixon looked to be one of the most promising strikers to have featured for the Spurs youth level sides. Disappointingly a recurring knee problem forced Spurs to terminate the association as Dixon retired just 18 years of age. Fortunately the youngster managed to return to action within a year in 2009 with West Ham. The year out of the game seemed to affect Dixon however and he slowly began to fall back down the league ladder eventually leading to Dover Athletic where at last he seems settled having played for the south coast side for the last two years.
Meanwhile Simon Dawkins’ tale is even more extraordinary. Seen as a promising young player in the Tottenham academy, his career was curtailed by injury. Released by Spurs in 2009, he maintained contact with the club whilst recuperating eventually proving himself to management and impressing enough with is attitude to offer him a contract to rejoin the club. A spell in the States with San Jose Earthquakes has offered Dawkins’ career a revival where he established himself as an attacking midfielder instead of his previous striking role. Now on loan at Villa there is a chance that Dawkins Spurs career could jump back on track though at 25, chances may be slim.
Then we reach the current batch. Alongside Obika, Harry Kane has relieved the goal scoring pressure in the youth ranks, attaining an excellent strike rate whilst capturing the attentions of Harry Redknapp and Villas-Boas. Although his appearances for the side have proven largely disappointing to date, there remains an underlying promise in Kane’s abilities and his attitude means persistence is likely.
Other current striking options in the youth ranks include Cameron Lancaster and Shaquille Coulthirst, both players not afraid of the goal. Lancaster has suffered recently with injury misfortune though has time on his side, a player many will want to see more of based on his ten minute cameo against Wigan at the Lane last season. Coulthirst meanwhile has been performing excellently for the under 18′s and NextGen side, impressing many with his eye for goal. It’s too early to make a complete judgement but signs are good.
So why has it been so long since Spurs produced a homegrown striking star? As has already been established, the youngsters that have represented at youth level possessed the ability to succeed and more often than not, the hard work ethic required. Nevertheless in today’s pressure cooked environment, the reasons for potential remaining unfulfilled appear evident.
At senior level it goes without saying that pressure on players is immense. Fans pay the high, perhaps extortionate, prices to get in and want to see success. That in turn transmits to the boardroom where success on the pitch brings success on the balance sheet. Attaining success is a risk, more so when using unproven players, so the tendency has always been to buy rather than promote. It’s easy to blame the manager but ultimately their hand is forced if they want a greater chance of holding on to their jobs.
This means players have a limited window of opportunity and each fifteen minute appearance must display a strong rounded set of attributes, a tough task in a short period of time, especially when teammates around you are getting tired and the service is perhaps not as strong as it would normally be.
All the same chances need to be taken and Obika’s missed opportunity against Leeds could indicate the beginning of the end. Nobody can question his record at youth level, but barring a stroke of luck we may be adding Obika’s name to the long list of unfulfilled striking talent.
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Premier League Table
# MP Team G P 1 34 Liverpool +51 77 2 34 Chelsea +42 75 3 33 Manchester City +54 71 4 34 Arsenal +18 67 5 34 Everton +21 66 6 34 Tottenham Hotspur +0 60 7 33 Manchester United +18 57 8 34 Southampton +5 48 9 34 Newcastle United -14 46 10 34 Stoke City -10 43 11 34 Crystal Palace -14 40 12 34 West Ham United -9 37 13 33 Hull City -6 36 14 33 Aston Villa -14 34 15 34 Swansea City -5 33 16 33 West Bromwich Albion -11 33 17 34 Norwich City -27 32 18 34 Fulham -40 30 19 34 Cardiff City -34 29 20 33 Sunderland -25 26