“You can’t win anything with kids” – Alan Hansen, 1995
Football has always been a game about youth, from the Busby Babes to the more recent Class of ’92 and England’s Golden Generation. The game’s obsessive quest to discover its next superstar has led to many a one-season wonder— and the overuse of the term “wonderkid” to the point of cliché—but there’s still reason to recognize the youngsters on the up and up.
Since 1973, the Professional Footballer’s Association has awarded the Young Player of the Year award to English football’s best player under the age of 23. Here we take a look at the winners from 1990-2000, and track how their careers progressed in a decade that saw the birth of the Premier League and the shift of British football into the global brand we know today.
LEE SHARPE 1990/91
Club: Manchester United
The first winner in the ’90s was a young midfielder from the red side of Manchester known for his ability to dance up and down the left wing and just about anywhere else—on or off the pitch. Before the rise of a certain other Manchester United left winger who we’ll get to later, Lee Sharpe, pioneer of the Sharpey Shuffle, was seen as Manchester United’s future. Unfortunately, his later career never lived up to the promise of earlier seasons, and Sharpe spent his twilight years moving around lower league teams before eventually retiring in 2006.
Sharpe was, however, one of the first young players in the ’90s to attempt the transition from footballer to celebrity, making a number of appearances in mid-2000s reality TV shows (Celebrity Wrestling, Celebrity Love Island) and dating glamour model Abi Titmuss. Sadly, another Manchester United midfielder would upstage Sharpe’s transition into the celebrity lifestyle, leaving his career looking like a trial run for more successful teammates. Perhaps even more sadly, when hired to promote an anti-baldness cream, Sharpe was described as “Of Celebrity Love Island fame!” Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
- 345 career league appearances, 40 goals.
- 193 appearances for Manchester United, 21 goals.
- Sold to Leeds in 1996 for £4.5 million, making 30 appearances in 3 years. Last played for Garforth Town in 2006.
- 8 England caps, 0 goals.
RYAN GIGGS 1991/92, 1992/93
Club: Manchester United
Age: 18, 19
Just as Lee Sharpe had his eyes on making the Manchester United midfield his stomping ground, so did a young Ryan Giggs. The first player to win Young Player of the Year two seasons in a row, Giggs’ early success pales in comparison to what he would become: The most decorated player in British history.
Despite a few recent brother-themed controversies, Giggs is a club legend and a dying breed of footballer, having spent his entire career at Manchester United. Currently serving as assistant manager at Manchester United, and having already managed the club for a brief period after the sacking of David Moyes, it’s hard to say just when Giggs will finally leave Old Trafford for good.
- 963 career appearances, 168 goals (all for Manchester United).
- Scored in every Premier League season before 13/14.
- 64 Wales caps, 12 goals.
- Most decorated player in English football history (13 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, 1 European Super Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup, 1 Fifa Club World Cup and 9 Charity/Community Shields).
ANDY COLE 1993/94
Club: Newcastle United
Although he’s now a Manchester United legend, Andy Cole first made his impression on the top flight as a Newcastle United player. Purchased from Bristol City for £1.75 million, Cole went on to become a sensation for Newcastle, achieving the second-best goals-per-game ratio of any other player in the club’s history. In 1995, Cole moved to Manchester United where he would forge one of the all-time great strike partnerships with Dwight Yorke and became one of the few players to win every award in English football.
- 624 career appearances, 271 goals.
- 85 appearances for Newcastle United, 65 goals.
- 275 appearances for Manchester United, 121 goals.
- Left Newcastle for Manchester United in ’95 for a fee of £6 million plus Keith Gillespie.
- 15 England caps, 1 goal.
- Retired in 2008, ending his career at Nottingham Forest.
- Obtained his coaching badges, currently pundit for hire.
ROBBIE FOWLER 1994/95, 1995/96
Age: 19, 20
If you told a Liverpudlian you needed to talk to God, chances are you’d receive directions to Robbie Fowler’s house rather than a church. In the mid-90s, Fowler was part of Anfield’s infamous “Spice Boys,” a group of footballers known for their wild antics off the pitch (leading to the controversial “snorting” celebration). He went on to achieve many things in his career, from the Cup treble with Liverpool to the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history. The latter stages of Fowler’s career saw him moving to Australia before becoming player-manager of Muangthong United in Thailand. Although he hadn’t played professionally since 2012, Fowler officially announced his retirement in 2015 and has recently appeared as a pundit on the BBC.
- 589 career appearances, 252 goals.
- 369 appearances for Liverpool, 183 goals.
- Left Liverpool in 2001 for Leeds in a £12 million move making 30 appearances in 2 years. (Yet another Lee Sharpe record broken…).
- 26 England caps, 7 goals.
DAVID BECKHAM 1996/97
Club: Manchester United
No other footballer has made the transition from athlete to general sports icon as well as David Beckham (despite Lee Sharpe’s best efforts). Part of the Class of ’92, Beckham was one of many exciting new prospects emerging from Manchester United at the time. He would go on to captain England, score that free kick against Greece, and have one of the most famous scalps in football history. Beckham left his boyhood club for Real Madrid after an infamous fallout with Sir Alex Ferguson, eventually moving to the United States to play in Major League Soccer before ending his career at Paris Saint-Germain. Now, with his playing career behind him, Beckham has plans to open a new MLS franchise in Miami, while he continues to put his name on a range of clothing and perfumes.
- 719 career appearances, 129 goals.
- 394 appearances for Man U, 85 goals.
- 115 England caps, 17 goals.
- Left Manchester United for Real Madrid for a fee of around £25 million, retired in 2013.
MICHAEL OWEN 1997/98
While nowadays Michael Owen may find himself the butt of Internet jokes because of his (lack of) abilities as a pundit, there was once a time when he was one of, if not the greatest, striker England had ever produced. Winner of the Ballon D’or in 2001—the first Englishman to win since 1979—Owen was seen as the talisman of English football. Sadly, injuries plagued his career, and despite moving to Real Madrid in 2004, Owen would spend the latter stages of his playing days as a “super-sub,” a shadow of the player that could have been. The extent of his drop was made painfully apparent when, after Newcastle United were relegated in 2009, a brochure was released to try and muster up some interest in the former superstar. Despite all this, Owen is still one of seven players to have scored over 150 goals in the Premier League and continues to be regarded as one of its best-ever players. He’s now a regular pundit and commentator for BT Sports.
- 482 career appearances, 222 goals.
- 297 appearances for Liverpool, 158 goals.
- 89 England caps, 40 goals.
- Left Liverpool for Real Madrid in 2004 for £8 million, moved to Newcastle United in 2005 for £16 million, and then controversially joined Manchester United in 2009. Owen retired in 2013 after joining Stoke in 2012.
- One of the few players to play for both Manchester United and Liverpool.
Bonus (Yes, it’s from the brochure):
NICOLAS ANELKA 1998/99
Nicolas Anelka was the first non-British Young Player of the Season since the award began and would go on to become the stereotype for football journeymen. Anelka has played for no less than twelve teams in his career, from Chelsea (for whom he appeared 125 times, scoring 38 goals) to Shanghai Shenhua (22 appearances, 3 goals). Like many award winners, Anelka’s career was not without controversy, and in 2013 his contract with West Bromwich Albion was terminated after he performed the quenelle gesture during a goal celebration.
- 655 career appearances, 208 goals.
- 127 appearances for Arsenal, 45 goals.
- Currently plays for Mumbai City in India (7 appearances, 2 goals).
- 69 France caps, 14 goals.
HARRY KEWELL 1999/2000
Club: Leeds United
Rounding off the decade is Harry Kewell, the man who in 2012 was voted Australia’s Greatest Footballer. Kewell, like many footballers before him, was a player with great potential who was unfortunately plagued by injuries. He is one of the few players to have the dubious honor of being injured in the finals of both the FA Cup and Champions League. But despite his injury record, Kewell went on to have a successful career. Much to the anger and disappointment of Leeds United fans, Kewell left for Liverpool in 2003 where he would go on to win the FA Cup, Super Cup, Community Shield and Champions League, among other accolades.
- 515 career appearances, 124 goals.
- 242 appearances for Leeds, 63 goals.
- Left Leeds for Liverpool in 2003 for £5 million, retired from professional football in 2014 finishing his career at Melbourne Heart.
- 56 Australia caps, 17 goals.
- Only Australian Player to win the Champions League.
A shortened version of this post originally appeared on reddit. We contacted the author, who offered to write a longer version for Eight by Eight.