From teenage sensation to unemployed footballer is quite a journey for twenty year old Jose Baxter to have made. In footballing terms, few career progressions could so starkly illustrate the distance between potential and reality.
Just a few years ago, Jose Baxter was being dubbed the ‘New Wayne Rooney’, another star forward to emerge from the ranks of the Everton youth system. Right now, he is a player in search of a club, free from contract and actively aiming for a move much further down the football pyramid. From a supporters’ perspective, this is a useful lesson in how wary we should be in believing the hyperbolic bullshit put about by both the media and the clubs we follow.
Baxter certainly had potential. During his late teens, he broke goal scoring records at international youth level and even surpassed the records that Rooney had achieved at Academy level. But the leap from the youth system to the Premiership is one that even the most gifted of young footballers sometimes fail to make. And even those that do often emerge as mere shadows of the players that they once promised to become.
The reality is that at any club, from every generation of youngsters coming through, for every star there is a raft of talented young players who fail to fulfil their promise. Players like Rooney are the aberration, those rare few who seem able to meld their immense talent with the mental strength and inner-confidence necessary to really make it in the top flight.
The reality is that at any club, from every generation of youngsters coming through, for every star there is a raft of talented young players who fail to fulfil their promise.
When comparing Baxter’s initial forays into the first team with Rooney’s, it was always evident that the reality would probably not live up to the hype. Where Rooney imposed himself on a game, Baxter let the game overwhelm him; Rooney entered with a bang, Baxter with a whimper. This is why once introduced, Rooney became a first team fixture, whereas Baxter was consigned at first to the subs bench and then ultimately dispatched out on loan to Tranmere Rovers. His subsequent failure to set League One alight only seemed to cement the sense of disappointment that had begun to attach itself to his career.
But how much of his ultimate failure to fulfil his potential, of the failure of any comparable player at other clubs, is attributable to the immense pressure that we as supporters place on the shoulders of talented young players? After all, imagine stepping out onto the pitch aged sixteen (the age at which Baxter made his debut) and having forty-thousand fans expect greatness of you. When I was sixteen, that kind of pressure would have reduced me to a gibbering wreck. Like most people that age, I was a barely coherent lump of experimental hair, poor hygiene and surly indifference. The greatest stresses in my life were the fear of being asked for ID in a pub, my lack of confidence when talking to the opposite sex and my impending GCSE’s. If in the undertaking of any of these I would have had forty thousand scallies placing their hopes and dreams upon my success or failure, then there’s every likelihood that I would have shit-out and retreated to the comfort of my bed.
That we place too much pressure on these young players is, I think, a modern malady. There was a time, before the SKY-ification of the game, when football was a more relaxed affair. The often ridiculous levels of hype and manufactured drama that Sky Sports introduced into football have now become endemic, infecting the majority of sports journalism too. It’s meant that the speculation around certain young players has become rabid. This is in stark contrast to how things were in the past, when talented youngsters could arrive in the first-team relatively free from pressure; the views of the fans characterised by realism rather than over-optimistic, unjustifiable expectation.
After all, imagine stepping out onto the pitch aged sixteen (the age at which Baxter made his debut) and having forty-thousand fans expect greatness of you.
Before Baxter had appeared for the first team he had been likened to arguably the best forward England had produced for a generation, supposedly had Chelsea and Utd monitoring his progress and was seen as the answer to Everton’s paucity of options in attack. Now, does any of that seem grounded in realism, specifically for a player who had never even kicked a ball in the Premiership?
At the end of last season, Baxter was recalled to Everton from Tranmere and offered a new contract. To the surprise of many fans the two-year deal was rejected by the player, who stated his desire to leave the club in the search for regular first-team football, recently telling the BBC that, “I just wanted to get out and play. I'm a man now, not a little boy, and for me it is about playing every week. It was a massive decision because I had been at Everton since the age of six and the club have been absolutely brilliant to me. But I spoke to my dad and thought about what would benefit me. Reserve-team football is not what it was - the first teamers don't really play it anymore - and you don't actually play that often if you are on the bench for the first team.”
Baxter’s decision to reject Everton and go it alone in a search of regular football is an admirable one; illustrating that it’s a love of the game and not the prestige of being part of a big club that really motivates him. To date though, it’s a decision that hasn’t yielded success. Despite a month long trial with Crystal Palace in the summer and a current trial with Oldham Athletic, he remains a free agent, without a club or the immediate prospect of first team football.
Baxter’s decision to reject Everton and go it alone in a search of regular football is an admirable one
Baxter wasn’t the first player to fail to fulfil his promise and he won’t be the last. It’s the nature of the game. But maybe the next time a young lad comes through the youth system bristling with potential we should all take a moment, for his sake and ours, to block out the hype, see through the bullshit and drop the comparisons. Maybe then, one of these youngsters could really become the ‘New Wayne Rooney’ and not, as so often seems the case, the ‘New Jose Baxter’.
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