Youth prospects and building a young homegrown team is always the dream scenario for fans of any football club in the modern game.
Ultimately, there is nothing more likeable than a team your club has built from the ground up. But the reality is that not every player in the academy can make it at the top level, no matter how good they might look in the reserves. It’s a rarity and a luxury when a club can get a lengthy career out of an academy star, and a trope that needs appreciating.
90min has identified each of every 2021/22 Premier League clubs’ greatest academy graduate.
Starting in Barcelona’s La Masia, Arsenal poached a young Fabregas at 16, and what a coup it turned out to be.
Fabregas was a hit for the Gunners and progressed through the youth levels with ease, before getting a full debut in 2003 aged 16. The Spaniard blossomed into one of Europe’s most graceful yet efficient midfielders and was club captain by 2008.
Joining the club as a six-year-old, Villa knew they had struck gold with Grealish from early on.
He made his debut in 2013 as a substitute against Manchester City, and would quickly turn into the club’s most technically gifted players. Villa fought off interest as they declined and kept hold of Grealish, allowing him to mature into a player worthy of a British record transfer fee, having brought them back to the Premier League in 2020.
A one club man is a serious rarity; Brentford struck gold with O’Connor.
Capable of playing just about every position from midfield to full back, O’Connor joined as a schoolboy in 1995 and would go on to become Brentford’s longest serving player in 2015, captaining the Bees over 200 times. Everything you could ever wish for from an academy graduate.
With the work Graham Potter has done since joining Brighton in 2019, expect this name to change in the coming years.
A club that has recently put a greater push on youth progression, the man symbolising that in the side is Dunk. He signed at under-12 level and has blossomed into the club’s captain, guiding them in their ascent to Premier League football and becoming an England international in the process.
Known best for his historic spell with Arsenal – and insufferable commentary lines in FIFA 21 – Dixon actually started in the north of England.
He joined Burnley as an apprentice in 1980 and would turn pro for the club, spending two years in the first team but rarely appearing before moving on. Humble beginnings for the Gunners’ trophy-winning full back.
While not every youth academy star can make it, Chelsea ought to be doing a little better considering just how much talent they produce.
In the midst of their spending and success, though, John Terry was the local lad setting the standard. He joined Chelsea from West Ham aged 14 and would debut in 1998. That debut led to a 19 year career, where Terry captained the Blues and developed into one of the world’s best defenders.
You know you’re a special talent when Sir Alex Ferguson makes you his final signing at Manchester United before his retirement.
And while it didn’t work out in Manchester for Zaha, it didn’t reflect on his abilities. He re-signed for Crystal Palace and has since worked towards club legend status, adding flair and technical excellence to a minnow side. He’s often been priced out of a second big move, but that hasn’t tainted his ability.
Coupling aggression and the fearlessness of youth with an unrelenting technical flair and street ability, Everton had a star on their hands in a debuting 16-year-old Rooney.
That 2002 debut saw him develop into a ruthless goal getter over two years before Manchester United came calling. Now United and England’s top scorer, Everton birthed arguably the nation’s greatest ever player.
While Milner has hardly ever been deemed one of Britain’s most exciting footballers, his legacy is supremely underrated.
Stints at title-winning Liverpool and Manchester City as a key player were preceded by a humble beginning early in his career. Milner rose through the ranks at Leeds and became the youngest Premier League scorer for the club in 2002, serving as the beacon of hope before their 2004 relegation.
Honourable mention to Andy King, who stuck with Leicester and saw them go from the Championship to Premier League winners, but Lineker takes top prize.
While Lineker didn’t win a top division league title with the Foxes, he did bag goals for fun and helped them back into the top flight in 1982/83, before eventually moving onto Everton for an £800,000 fee in 1985.
While the Premier League evaded him during his career, nothing limits Gerrard from being a legend at Liverpool.
The local lad that signed professional terms at 17 and debuted in 1998, Gerrard grew into Mr. Liverpool and was captain by 2003, lifting the Champions League with his boyhood side two years later and becoming one of the best midfielders in the world.
After pumping significant investment into their academy complex, Manchester City finally have a youth system proving fruitful.
The head boy of that is Foden, who has looked nailed on to become England’s next footballing star ever since his 2017 breakthrough. The local lad with all the talent in the world, City have one of their own to truly throw all of their support at while at the top level.
The red side of Manchester has built its storied reputation on having such a rich and successful history of relying on its youth academy, making this one hard to narrow down to one.
Giggs takes top spot, just. The Welshman is one of football’s most decorated players and spent 23 years in the first team after signing on his 14th birthday in 1987. Ferguson marvelled about Giggs’ endless abilities, as he became key to United’s prolonged legacy of success throughout the 90s and 2000s.
In the eyes of so many, Gascoigne still holds the title of English football’s greatest ever player. And Newcastle is where it started.
The local lad with endless amounts of talent and promise, Gazza debuted for the Magpies in 1985 after impressing in the youth ranks, and soon became their star player, holding any Newcastle hopes on his shoulders.
Before that incident at the 2010 World Cup, Green’s stock was always rather high. And if you can look beyond the gaffe, he’s actually had a more than respectable career.
The 12-time England international started at Norwich and had become a key figure as the first choice by 2003. Green kept 18 clean sheets as the Canaries won promotion to the Premier League, and moved to West Ham to stay in the Premier League in 2006.
Before becoming a multi-time Champions League winner and ripping apart the Premier League with Tottenham, Bale started quietly with Southampton.
He debuted for the club aged just 16 in 2006 and quickly gained a reputation for being a young, attacking left back who could bang a free-kick when called upon. He earned his move to Spurs in 2007, and did alright in the following years.
Kane signed scholarship terms with Spurs at 16 but had to bide his time to explode into England’s most prolific scorer.
Learning the trade through the loan system, he had broken into Tottenham’s XI by 2014/15 and finished with 21 league goals in his first full Premier League season. Spurs have since seen him develop into one of the world’s most complete forwards, although trophies continue to evade him.
While Young is remembered mostly for his time at Manchester United following success at Aston Villa, it all started at Watford.
Young joined Watford aged ten and stayed on as part-timer having not been offered a scholarship in 2001 in order to force a way into the side. He earned a pro deal and debuted aged 18 in 2003, blossoming into a tricky winger with bags of technique and, eventually, a league title winner in two countries.
Harsh on Mark Noble who is considered ‘Mr West Ham‘ for his service, but Rice looks set to succeed his legacy in fine fashion, be it with the Hammers or elsewhere.
Since breaking through in 2017, Rice has developed into a captain and leader for West Ham. Combining that local lad feeling with genuine bags of talent, Rice has a huge career ahead of him and has already shown glimpses of becoming one of England’s great midfielders.
The Republic of Ireland’s leading scorer and appearance maker, Robbie Keane’s striking exploits are overlooked too often.
Before heading stateside and becoming an MLS talisman, Keane started life in the Midlands with Wolves, signing aged 15 and scoring twice on his debut by 17. Keane lit up the First Division with his goals and, with Wolves struggling financially, he was sold in 1999 for a British record fee for a teenager.