With Tottenham's $30 million acquisition of David Bentley yesterday from Blackburn, it would appear that the meaningful tenure of Aaron Lennon, who was a boy wonder and the next big thing in English soccer just a few years ago, at White Hart Lane is over.
At 14, Lennon signed a cleat-sponsorship contract with Adidas, becoming the youngest player in Premiership history ever to do so. Lennon then became the youngest player to appear in a Premiership game -- 16 years, 129 days old -- when he entered as a substitute for Leeds, ironically at White Hart Lane against Tottenham in August 2003, right at the end of the West Yorkshire club's glory days. By the age of 18, Lennon had already played in 38 league games for Leeds, and it seemed like the sky was the limit for the speedy right winger.
Leeds then struggled with the most high-profile financial difficulties I've seen in any professional sport in a long, long time. A club that was a regular participant in European competitions and top-five team in England for most of the 1990's and into the early years of this decade suffered a dramatic fall from grace at the hands of inept ownership. The club was forced to sell a slew of quality players, most of whom were bought originally with money it didn't have, instead using loans to finance the deals, to pay off mounting debts, including Rio Ferdinand, Paul Robinson, Mark Viduka, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, James Milner, Scott Carson, Robbie Keane, and Alan Smith.
Lennon was sold during this period as well, as Leeds made a $2 million profit by moving the youngster to Tottenham in June 2005. He had a solid, if not great, year in his first season with Spurs, evidenced by the nomination by his fellow players for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, which was eventually won by Wayne Rooney. In October of '05, Lennon earned a call-up to the England U-21 team and after just three appearances for head coach Peter Taylor, he was picked in May for the 2006 World Cup squad by Sven-Göran Eriksson, despite having not even earned one senior cap at that point. The 19-year-old Lennon came off the bench twice in that World Cup, acquitting himself well for his age.
Lennon had another good year in 2006-2007, again being nominated for the Young Player of the Year award, although he again did not win. Tottenham obviously believed he was a big part of their future, signing him in January to a new contract that ran through 2012, replacing the first contract extension he'd inked in March of '06. At the end of the '06-'07 season, Lennon had established himself as a first-team regular under Jol, playing in 53 league games and 17 more in domestic cup competitions and the UEFA Cup combined.
He had it all: blindingly quick feet, a place in the England setup, a prominent role on a London-based club, good looks, and plenty of money. He was still very young, and although his skills were still raw, the vast potential was patently obvious. People were talking about him as the successor to David Beckham on England's right wing. He was playing for a club that was the best of the rest outside the "Big Four". With his slight stature (5'5", one of the smallest players in Premiership history) and build, he did have some difficulty staying injury-free in such a physical league, but when he was healthy, he was very good.
Then, as I talked about in yesterday's post, Jol was fired unceremoniously and replaced by Juande Ramos, who is the polar opposite of the player-friendly Dutchman. Ramos brought changes to North London immediately, making it clear that it was his way or the highway. He replaced England's starting goalkeeper and obviously a shoo-in starter under Jol, Paul Robinson, with longtime backup Radek Černý. He brought in a dietary and fitness staff to improve the poor consumption habits of the largely English roster and get them into top physical shape. He tried to put an end to the drinking culture that was and is a big part of the lives of British players.
His strict régime brought out the best in some players on the field, particularly Jermaine Jenas and Tom Huddlestone, but seems to have had a negative effect on others, like Lennon. After Spurs' Carling Cup final triumph over Chelsea on February 24, a group of players, including Lennon, went out to a nightclub and partied until the late hours of the next morning. Pictures of the players in various states of drunkenness and belligerence immediately surfaced in the media, and Ramos was not happy. From that point on, Lennon seemed to figure less and less into Ramos' plans, and his poor on-field performances and continued problems staying fit didn't help matters either.
Lennon's development has stalled considerably under Ramos, and now that David Bentley is in the mix, one would expect that Lennon may be on the way out. Ramos didn't spend big money on Bentley to sit him on the bench. He can't play two right wingers at the same time, and with the return from injury of Gareth Bale, who can play either left back or left midfield, and Giovani Dos Santos and Luka Modrić now on the roster, it's unlikely that Lennon would move to the left.
He's still only 21, so the potential is still there. He's got some mileage on his legs now, though, and most of the teams in the running for UEFA Cup places (Aston Villa, Portsmouth, Everton, West Ham) already have starters at Lennon's position. There seems to be an opening at Manchester City, another UEFA Cup contender, but it's unclear whether new manager Mark Hughes would be interested. This guy was a star-in-the-making and he's going to catch on somewhere, but he's probably going to have to take a step backwards in the short term to advance his career in the long term. For a player rated so highly as a youngster, it's fascinating how quickly his career seems to have regressed.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Yours truly will be on the airwaves again, this time joining my good buddy Johnathan Starling, host of The Third Half, to preview teams A-F in the Premiership. We recorded a couple solid segments yesterday afternoon, and the podcast will become available for download on iTunes at some point later today after its first airing on CSRN. You can also, of course, listen to the show on CSRN, and on Sports Byline.
It's a weekly, hour-long show devoted primarily to MLS and the Premiership, and I encourage everyone to have a listen to any of the first nine episodes that John has put out so far. I'm honored to be his first guest; it meant a lot that he asked me to come on. My spot comes towards the end of the hour, so keep your ears peeled for that, but enjoy the rest of the show as well.
I'll be back on The Third Half again next week, and possibly the week after, to talk about several more clubs as we get closer and closer to the start of the Premiership season. As I wrote here on Monday, my full previews start tomorrow here at English Soccer Talk, and I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback on the show and my team capsules.