Every football fan remembers those prodigies they pinned their future dreams on only for their apparent potential to never be realised. As an Ireland fan, I was overly excited when Anthony Stokes scored nine goals in just four games for Falkirk and again when 16 year old Terry Dixon was called up to the senior Ireland squad. Even now I can’t resist getting giddy at the potential of young strikers Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly all of whom I’ve barely seen play yet whom I am certain will be world beaters.
So while we are all familiar with the hope, hype and unrealised dreams, little consideration is given by most to the fact the the young men who don’t make the big time have to find a way to get on with their lives. The Next Big Thing tells the stories of 15 highly-touted players who never quite reached the levels that was once predicted for them. Some enjoyed decent careers, others were out of the game by the end of their teens. The book covers a fascinating mix of players including Championship Manager legend Cherno Samba, Dutch international winger Andy Van der Mede and one time Beckham-rival Ben Thornley.
Baldi conducted interviews with the 15 players profiled and many others who knew them or coached them during their formative years. Each one brings an interesting perspective as to why they didn’t quite make it at the highest (or in some cases, any) level. The reasons range from injuries to changing managers, from ill-advised transfers to simple bad luck, from addiction to poor attitude. Each player is fairly forthright and honest in accounting for their failures (to the extent that not making it against ridiculously long odds can actually be considered a failure!). There may be some self-selection to this – those willing to talk to the author for a book like this may be those who have best been able to come to terms with how their career panned out.
Each chapter would work well as a stand-alone article as each is an entertaining and interesting story in its own right.. The book broadly lets the stories stand on their own with some attempt to tie the pieces together in the concluding chapter. If, like me, you read the book over a very short space of time it can get a little repetitive but that in itself is indicative of how similar the players’ stories ultimately are. It think it may work best as a book to dip in an out of and read a chapter at a time.
The book ultimately serves as a reminder of the perils of forgetting that young footballers are children or young adults first and footballers second. It also suggests that, while improvements have definitely been made over time in how clubs treat their youngsters, a lot of care is needed to ensure that the end of professional football career does not result in significant life problems. Overall, The Next Big Thing is well written, well researched and a welcome addition the English football library.