Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa's England Schoolboys Reunited - Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?

This golden generation of child superstars were the cream of the nation’s crop. Some made it pro with Liverpool, Everton and Villa but most are now off the footballing radar…
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This golden generation of child superstars were the cream of the nation’s crop. Some made it pro with Liverpool, Everton and Villa but most are now off the footballing radar…

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Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa's England Schoolboys Reunited - Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?

It was to be the culmination of their schoolboy international careers, one last opportunity for the class of ‘97 to don the Three Lions on their chests – and to enhance their glowing reputations – before they finished school, signed trainee contracts, and embarked on the unpredictable world of professional football. So, while June 7th 1997 is not widely remembered as one of the more esteemed occasions at the old Wembley Stadium, it was more than significant in the lives of a handful of talented spotty teenagers dressed in white, and me, a spotty ballboy with footballing aspirations of my own.

After a successful Victory Shield campaign against the home nations earlier that year, this summer date saw England’s much-heralded under-16s welcome their ruthless German counterparts – world champions no less – for what was billed as an end-of-season grudge match; Europe’s two schoolboy superpowers going head to head.

As a ballboy, I was stationed on the halfway line that day at Wembley, and remember much of the game like it was yesterday – the beaming sunshine; the imposing twin towers casting dark shadows across the lush turf; the Walkers Crisps kit; the Adidas Predator boots; and the constant choruses of Baddiel and Skinner’s ThreeLions.

I also remember the maturity with which the England players went about their business. The calm and patient build-up play, mixed with bamboozling technical skill, boundless energy and inter-changing movement in the final third. It was like watching mini replica versions of Terry Venables’ entertaining England team of Euro ’96; Gazza, McManaman, Sheringham and Shearer had carved open defences on the same pitch 12 months previously, and this new generation were determined to emulate them.

The mini replicas did their heroes proud this June afternoon in 1997, with a comfortable 2-1 victory that left Wembley buzzing and scouts licking their lips with anticipation. The prodigious individuals that constituted the class of ’97 then went their separate ways as equals, with the world at their feet. For some, fame, fortune and acclaim was just around the corner, but for others, June 7th 1997 was as good as it would get.

Over the years I’ve kept tabs on certain members of that team, and wondered after the others. This year, 14 years on, I decided to try and track down the Class of ‘97, and in doing so I discovered stark contrasts in what football’s rocky career road has thrown up: from Bentley-driving millionaires to clinical scientists, via career-ending shootings, law degrees and lower league ITV Digital heartache…

It was like watching mini replica versions of Terry Venables’ entertaining England team of Euro ’96; Gazza, McManaman, Sheringham and Shearer

“No matter how good a team is at 16 years of age, you can never expect them all to make it to the big time,” says John Owens, the England U16s manager between 1995-1997, who now oversees the next generation of talent on Merseyside in his role as Liverpool FC’s Academy Manager.

“I looked at that England Schoolboys team of ‘97 and could’ve picked out five or six who I thought would play in the Premier League, but inevitably lads fall by the wayside.”

We’ve all heard the damning stats regarding aspiring young footballers – there are 150 centres of excellence in this country registering up to 1,000 boys each, yet there are barely 2,300 professional contracts up for grabs. That’s a success rate of less than one per cent.

That said, this crop of lads were meant to be the one per cent, the elite few. Many were residents at the FA’s now defunct National School at Lilleshall, in Shropshire. They’d emerged from a veritable gauntlet of school, district, county, regional and national trials. They were the 11 best 16-year-olds in the country, bar none. And they all walked into professional contracts after their sparkling display at Wembley against the Germans.

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All of this had led me to believe it would be fairly easy to track down the class of ‘97. After all, they were already semi-famous schoolboy internationals with the world at their feet. They all turned 30 last year, an age often referred to as a footballer’s twilight peak. So surely, I thought, with the help of Google and a host of informative websites covering all 92 league clubs, it would be a doddle...

My first port of call is Owens, who invites me for a cup of tea inside his plush office at Liverpool FC’s state of the art academy in Kirkby, on the outskirts of the city.

“I can’t say I’ve bumped into many of the boys over the years,” he says. “Obviously you’d have to have spent the last decade in outer space not to know what Joe Cole has been up to, but other than him, Leon Osman and Stephen Warnock, I’m not sure where the other lads are playing these days, or if they’re even playing at all.”

John’s right to be skeptical. An initial scan of Google shows that only a handful are still plying their trade in the professional game, let alone in the Premier League, where Cole, Osman (Everton)  and Warnock (Aston Villa) have been regulars. The lower leagues are as scarcely represented, but it is where the class of ‘97’s goalkeeper has spent the intervening years.

Rhys Evans was an athletic shot-stopper who represented a new breed of modern goalie ­– he claimed crosses confidently, commanded his area and dealt with the ball as comfortably with his feet as he did his hands. Evans was ahead of his time and tipped for the top; an England number one in waiting; the natural successor to David Seaman. But when I catch up with him, the 30-year-old, released by Southend last summer and now playing part time for Staines Town, is first to allude to his unfulfilled potential.

“I signed for Chelsea shortly after my 16th birthday and everything was going great,” he recalls. “It was around the time that Vialli was in charge. It was awesome training with Gullit, Zola, Desailly, Laudrup on a daily basis, and I was really progressing.

“But the main goalie, Ed De Goey, was a Dutch international, so I kept getting sent out on loan to keep playing, all the time thinking that one day I’d be Chelsea’s number one.”

Unlike many of his schoolboy teammates, 7th June 1997 wasn’t the end of Evans’ international career. He represented England U21s alongside the likes of Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe while impressing in The Championship at his home-town club, Swindon Town, in 2003. But it is the nature of his departure from Chelsea, after six years as a pro at Stamford Bridge, that he regards as his toughest career blow.

“When Claudio Ranieri came in everything changed. He brought his own goalkeeping coach who had his own shall we say ‘continental’ ideas. He wanted me to punch everything, stay on my line and roll everything to the full-backs. It was a direct contradiction to what I’d been taught my whole life, and it rocked my confidence. It’s one thing being talented enough to be a top footballer, but it’s quite another coping with the physical and psychological pressures.”

Next up, a member of the team for whom coping with pressure has seldom been an issue. Britpop was in its pomp in the summer of 1997 and Joe Cole, a scrawny 5ft prodigy from Camden, was an Oasis disciple to the core, with the Liam Gallagher haircut to prove it. But it was the playmaker’s on-pitch swagger – and not his indie Barnet – that caught the attention against Germany.

There are 150 centres of excellence in this country registering up to 1,000 boys each, yet there are barely 2,300 professional contracts up for grabs. That’s a success rate of less than one per cent.

“Joe was exemplary that day,” remembers team manager John Owens. “He was as close as I’d seen to Paul Gascoigne – a magician with the ball.”

Cole had scored seven of England’s eight goals in a thrashing of Spain at Under-14 level a couple of years earlier, and was football’s worst kept secret in scouting circles. One headline in the following day’s national broadsheets read: ‘Cole Inspires England to Senior Style’, and although he didn’t score himself, his midfield wizardry was indeed inspirational.

“Joe’s skills were on another level,” remembers Leon Mike, Cole’s room-mate at Lilleshall. “He was undoubtedly the star of the show.”

Despite interest from many of Europe’s superpowers, and intense approaches from his local team, Arsenal, Cole chose to sign for West Ham, and went on to win the FA Youth Cup in 1999. He then made light work of his Premier League initiation, and became the first of this particular crop of likely lads to gain full international honours when he made his England debut against Mexico in 2001, before trotting out against Sweden in Saitama, Japan, in the World Cup in June 2002, exactly five years to the day since his Schoolboys swansong at Wembley.

Undeniably the most successful of this crop, Cole has won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups. He’s also earned over 50 full international caps and has been on the plane to three World Cups. But his face still lights up at the very thought of the day he tore apart Germany Schoolboys at Wembley.

“For a long time that was my favourite memory as a player,” he says. “It was in front of 40,000 fans and against Germany, who had a big reputation, but we went and beat them. I can picture it all now – the whole experience was brilliant. It was the first time I’d played in front of a huge crowd and so it was a big, proud day for my family. It was blinding. If you look at the team we had that day, off the top of my head I can only think of Stevie Warnock, Leon Osman and Chris McCready, who’s at Morecambe, as the only ones who came through. We would have all thought we were going to be playing for England at Wembley again, but I think I’m the only one who has.”

Fully aware of how things haven’t worked out for many of his former team mates, Cole counts his blessings. So much so, that he organised a lavish England Schoolboys reunion in London a few years back.

“It was really good of Joe to go to so much trouble,” remembers Rhys Evans. “It was just before he went off to the 2006 World Cup, and he didn’t let us put our hands in our pockets at all. He put us up in the Chelsea Hotel and took us out for dinner. Although everyone had gone down different career paths, nobody had changed who they are.”

My next port of call was Chris Mccready, the towering centre-half who snuffed out many of Germany’s attacks. A ball winner with a cool head in possession, he was brought up on Dario Gradi’s ever-fruitful production line at Crewe, but after two spells at Gresty Road and an ill-fated move to Northampton, he’s now back in the North-West at League Two Morecambe.

McCready has racked up hundreds of appearances in more than a decade of lower league service, but he’s under no illusions as to why he never made the grade at a higher level.

“I was very good for a 16-year-old, and playing at Wembley was an incredible achievement that I’ll cherish forever,” he tells me when we meet in his home town of Heswall, on the Wirral, Merseyside.

“But once you’ve left Lilleshall and signed a YTS, you’re suddenly competing for a place in the team – and for a contract – against everyone else at the club, including wily old pros who’ve seen it and done it before. Your past counts for nothing and it doesn’t take long for people to catch you out.”

Leon Osman, who opened the scoring against Germany, suffered a similar fate when he turned professional at Everton, and could easily have been tossed on the scrapheap like so many of his contemporaries. But, contrary to football’s standard cut-throat transfer agenda, the Goodison Park coaching staff groomed Osman for longer than is afforded to most, way beyond his three-year apprenticeship.

He finally established himself in the first team at 24, and hasn’t looked back since. As he celebrates his 300th first team appearance, Leon is one of the few of the Class of ‘97 currently at his peak. But that’s not to suggest he will ever forget his Wembley heyday.

“That was a great game against Germany,” Osman remembers. “Me and another lad from Skelmersdale, (Ian Armstrong) got the goals which made it all the more special. I didn’t make it back to Wembley again until the 2009 FA Cup final against Chelsea. But they’d knocked it down and rebuilt it by then!”

Michael Standing, the class of ‘97’s ball-playing holding midfielder, has been back to Wembley a number of times over the last few years, but not with his football kit in tow. Instead, he’s been to many an England home game supporting best mate Gareth Barry.

Standing played an instrumental role in the Germany victory before joining Aston Villa alongside fellow Sussex-born star Barry in 1997, but it was Standing who was regarded as the more exciting prospect.

“Me and Gareth signed for Villa on the same day from Brighton,” Standing remembers. “We moved up to Birmingham and stayed in digs together. I’d played for England but Gareth hadn’t made it past the county trial stage, yet it was him who broke into the first team and I was always on the periphery. After a while I decided to move to Bradford City in the Championship because I wanted to play games, but it was around the time of the ITV Digital collapse and they soon went into administration. In hindsight I should’ve been more patient at Villa. Who knows, I could’ve established myself in the Premier League like Gareth.”

Standing later spent time on the books of Walsall, Bournemouth and Chesterfield before retiring two summers ago after a season back in Sussex at non-league Lewes.

Another ex-England Schoolboy already long-retired is Mancunian striker Leon Mike. After his time at Lilleshall, the powerful forward burst onto the scene at Manchester City and made an impact in the first team at Maine Road. However. Things were soon to turn sour.

“When Kevin Keegan came in, the first thing he did was say that us young players were on too much money. Then he brought a young French lad in and paid him five times what I was getting, yet I was in the first team ahead of him! I was never in it for the money, but that didn’t make sense to me. Keegan was an unbelievable coach, but I didn’t fancy his management skills.”

Mike left City after a handful of games and ventured north of the border to Aberdeen, and a chance to play in the UEFA Cup. But after becoming disillusioned ‘with the politics that surround the game’, he left Pittodrie under a cloud in 2003 and never played another professional game. Now 30, he hasn’t kicked a ball in five years and currently works at a music label in Manchester.

“It was great to see all the Lilleshall boys at the reunion Joe organized a few years back,” says Mike.  “Those who have made it in the game deserve everything they get, I’m happy for them. There are no sour grapes on my part – we all had the same opportunity at the end of the day,” he admits.

One Lilleshall graduate of ‘97 who didn’t make it down to London for Cole’s 2006 reunion is Scouser Ian Armstrong. Rated by many as on a par with Cole in terms of potential, Armstrong scored the winner against Germany at Wembley. But after losing his place in the Liverpool youth team to a lad one year younger than him – one Steven Gerrard – he struggled with injury during four years – and just 88 appearances – at Port Vale. Sadly, Armstrong was lost to the game after his Vale Park release at the tender age of 23, and all my attempts to track down the striker were in vain. Even his ex-team mates are none the wiser as to his whereabouts.

“I’ve not seen or heard from Armie for years,” admits Chris McCready. “I know Joe called his mum to invite him down to the reunion, but she said that he doesn’t want anything to do with football anymore.”

While football never brought Armstrong the notoriety he may have envisaged, he was thrust unexpectedly into the limelight in 2009, when it emerged he shared a father with loudmouthed ex-crooner Kerry Katona. Ian appeared briefly on TV as he was united with his half sister on her MTV reality show, but there was no mention of his footballing past.

Centre back Ronnie Wright isn’t one to bang on about his footballing past either. But then there isn’t much time for small talk in his current job, as a biomedical scientist.

“After Lilleshall, I did my YTS at Preston North End,” he says when we catch up on his lunch break at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool.

“I just didn’t progress like the others. I’d always been quick and clever, but not big or strong and that counted against me when it came to adult football. David Moyes released me before I’d even made a first team appearance at Preston and after that I fell out of love with the game to be honest. It was then that I went off to university and studied hard.”

After a period out of football, Ronnie is genuinely happy to be playing again, this time back where it started, on a muddy pitch with his mates on a Sunday morning in Southport.

Of the rest of those who have fallen by football’s wayside, the class of ‘97’s captain Mark Maley has been perhaps the most unfortunate. He hit the headlines in 2002 when, aged 22 and on the verge of the Sunderland first team, his career was halted in dramatic fashion.

The Geordie defender was mucking around in a field after training, when then Black Cats team-mate, John Oster, inadvertently shot him in the eye with an air gun. The exact details of the incident have been closely guarded following an out of court settlement between Oster and Maley, who was forced to retire as a result of the injuries he suffered. And after extensive research that stopped just short of hiring a private detective, I’ve been unable to locate him.

So, in conclusion, tracking down the class of ’97 hasn’t been a doddle by any means. But that is not to say that any of the lads I met along the way were difficult; quite the opposite. What I encountered was an engaging group of 30-year-old men, who may have had the ultimate start in life – in footballing terms, at least – but are testament to, and accepting of, the exhilarating peaks and sobering troughs that the beautiful game can throw at you.

If I was playing for England at Wembley aged 16, I’d feel like I was destined for fame and fortune, like I had the world at my feet. But, as I found out on this journey across the country via Google, Facebook and Soccerbase, the stark reality is very different.

When you look at the full team profiled below, it makes you realise how well the likes of Chris McCready and Rhys Evans have done to defy the statistics by forging a living out of the game they love, but has seldom loved them back.

Because while Joe Cole, Leon Osman and Stephen Warnock are doing very well for themselves, they have avoided a myriad of obstacles in cutting the Premier League mustard. Obstacles that no doubt constitute the reasons why Ian Armstrong no longer wants to pick up the phone to anyone from football.

THE CLASS OF ‘97:

1: RHYS EVANS:

Then: Imposing England goalkeeper tipped for the very top. Resident at Lilleshall and on the books at Chelsea.

Now: Released by Southend last term, was then back training at his home-town club, Swindon. However, after being told he won’t be offered a deal by Paolo Di Canio, he’s now at Blue Square South division strugglers Staines Town.

2: MARK MALEY

Then: The class of ‘97’s ever-committed Geordie captain, who galloped forward with purpose.

Now: Signed pro at Sunderland and starred in the youth team. Just as he was on the verge of first team involvement his career was cruelly ended in a freak accident involving an air gun, and team mate John Oster. After an out of court settlement, Maley has not been seen in football circles since.

3: CHRISTIAN HANSON:

Then: A plucky left back who was being tracked by Middlesbrough.

Now: Signed for Boro, but never made the first team. Flopped at Port Vale and Leyton Orient among others. Sacked by Torquay in 2002 for drinking late on New Year’s Eve in the run up to a New Year’s day fixture. Left Whitby Town of the Unibond Premier Division in 2009. Now training to be a scaffolder.

4: MICHAEL STANDING

Then: A cultured deep-lying midfielder on the books at Brighton and Hove Albion, but being closely monitored by a number of Premier League clubs. Created the winning goal for Ian Armstrong against Germany.

Now: Handed in a transfer request at Aston Villa due to lack of first team football. Played for Bradford, Walsall and Oxford before retiring two years ago. He now splits his time between overseeing a property development company and professionally advising his best mate, Gareth Barry.

5: STEVEN FLITCROFT:

Then: The youngest of three footballing Flitcrofts, Steven was set to eclipse brothers David (Bury, Rochdale) and Garry (Man City, Blackburn.) in the pro ranks.

Now: Released by Blackburn and then by Accrington Stanley, he’s spent a decade as a semi-pro and still plays part time in the Unibond league.

6: CHRIS MCCREADY:

Then: Another Lilleshall resident, McCready was a highly rated ball-winning centre half who brought it out of defence with poise.

Now : Regular starter at League Two’s midtable Morecambe. Studying part time for a degree in Sport Science at Liverpool John Moores University.

7: LEON OSMAN:

Then: Smiley Scouse midfielder of Turkish descent, who opened the scoring against Germany.

Now: Hitting his peak as a goalscoring midfielder at Everton.

8: IAN ARMSTRONG:

Then: A fearsome forward or attacking midfielder, who was initially regarded as a better prospect than Steven Gerrard at Liverpool.

Now: Armstrong struggled with injury at Port Vale after his Anfield release. Retired seven years ago. Refuses to speak to football people now.

9: LEON MIKE:

Then: Quick, strong, direct and with an eye for goal, Mike was one of the jokers in the Lilleshall pack. Formed a potent attacking force with his room-mate Joe Cole.

Now: Played for Man City and Aberdeen but dropped into non-league football before hanging up his boots six years ago. After retiring, he studied for a law degree at university. Now works as an A & R man for an up and coming Manchester record label.

10: JOE COLE

Then: In the shadows of the old twin towers, and in front of a clambering British media, Wembley provided an ideal setting for the cocky cockney to announce himself on the international stage with a virtuoso display against Germany.

Now: Recently starred for French side Lille and perhaps a victim of an out of sight out of mind mentality as he missed out on the summer’s European Championships.

11: STEPHEN WARNOCK

Then: A dazzling left winger who beat his man and crossed well into dangerous areas.

Now: Signed terms with Liverpool in ‘97 but was let go by Rafa Benitez ten years later after less than 70 first team games. Now proving his worth in his revised role as a solid left back at Aston Villa and has full international caps. Went to the last World Cup with England.

SUB: RONNIE WRIGHT

Then: Composed and clever centre half signed by Preston North End, a resident at Lilleshall for two years between 14 and 16.

Now: University medical graduate working as a clinical scientist within the NHS. Pays subs of a fiver a week to play Sunday League with his mates in Southport.

MANAGER: JOHN OWENS:

Then: A maths teacher at Cowley High School in St Helens, who managed the England Schoolboys team unpaid in his spare time.

Now: Academy Manager at Liverpool FC. Has overseen the progression of Messers Carragher, Owen, Gerrard, Kelly and Spearing. One of the few English coaches to survive Rafael Benitez’s sea of change at Anfield and remains to this day.

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