The Championship is famed for its gruelling schedule, lengthy campaign and a physicality which truly tests the limits of any player. It’s not unusual for goalkeepers or experienced centre backs to have played every minute of every game, with the likes of Alex Smithies, Ben Gibson and Curtis Davies all clocking up 2,340 minutes of action thus far. More impressively, Sheffield United’s Adam Reach has also started – and completed – each of his 26 games from left midfield, establishing himself as one of the second tier’s best players.
George Saville of Millwall, Chris Gunter of Reading and Jake Bidwell of QPR have over 2,300 minutes to their names as well, but one player who shares that accolade when you might expect otherwise is 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon. The teenager has played the most minutes of any Fulham player so far this season and, according to his manager Slavisa Jokanovic, will not be rested any time soon. Found either at left-back or left-wing, Sessegnon has directly contributed to 30% of his team’s goals (in the form of goals and assists) and is currently being watched by Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Young players need minutes, and undoubtedly, at the top level, they are not being given the chance to prove themselves. But in the case of Sessegnon – when is too much, too much?
In the last decade alone, there are numerous examples of exciting young talents breaking through in England and fading away, both physically and mentally, before reaching their peak. Joe Cole was the nation’s brightest hope after shining at West Ham but constantly found himself hampered by muscle injuries. Watching Michael Owen breeze past a no-nonsense Argentine defence in 1998 and you’d be crazy not to imagine him breaking goalscoring records. But despite playing for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United, his potential was never fulfilled and throughout the course of his career was subject to 837 days on the treatment table. Jermaine Jenas was another bright prospect to suffer a similar fate.
Looking closer to the present day, Wayne Rooney signed for United as an 18-year-old and featured regularly for club and country ever since. Unlike those listed above, Rooney enjoyed success and an impressive peak in his mid-twenties, but slowed down significantly as he touched his thirties which resulted in a deeper positional change into midfield. A far cry from his relentless, dogged style we’d become so used to watching.
Jack Wilshere was brought through by Arsene Wenger as a 17-year-old and played with a maturity found in players ten years his senior, however, being battered and bruised by grown men has taken its toll on his body. He has strung a decent run together recently, but the silence is telling every time he goes down clutching his ankle. Even Daniel Sturridge looks to be fighting a losing battle – breaking down every time he returns to full fitness. He too was relied on as a teenager at Manchester City.
You could certainly point to the individuals and simply denote that they are injury prone players, but the correlation between them playing at the highest level (whilst still developing) and suffering with consistent problems later on is transparent.
Moving away from the physical aspect, research conducted by Dr Andrew Hill – lecturer in sports and exercise science at the University of Leeds – said that young people who are thrust into extremely high-pressure situations are more likely to show signs of chronic stress, fatigue and disillusion within their sport. He found that up to a quarter of boys reported experiencing symptoms of burnout due to external pressures from others, a fear of making mistakes and concerns over their futures.
“What we see among the athletes showing symptoms of burnout is emotional and physical exhaustion, a sense that they are not achieving and a sense of devaluation of the sport. Even though they might originally enjoy their sport and be emotionally invested in it, they eventually become disaffected. Participation can be very stressful” Dr Hill said.
There is no outstanding evidence to suggest that Sessegnon will experience a similar experience to those above, but the precedent has been set. The Wandsworth-born winger has both the technical and physical attributes to make a Bale-esque transformation and should be managed carefully over this transitional phase. There is a common phrase in football that reads ‘if you are good enough, you are old enough’ which to an extent is true, but even if the talent is there, at 17 years of age the body and mind may not be.
It’s rare to find a teenager with such conviction in his own technique and ability, but those managing him at domestic and international level have a huge role to play here. Knowing when to take him out of the spotlight may cost you short term, but preserving, and more importantly maximising, a long-term career will always be priceless.