While the path to footballing greatness is now paved with gold, it’s also littered with a slew of fallen bodies and the fragments of shattered dreams.
These include the aspirations of players who were blessed with abundant talent and ability, but for all of their much-vaunted gifts, were unable to achieve the success (either individually or collectively) that their skillsets deserved.
Some of these players achieved more than others, of course, while they all captured the imagination of those who watched them and will have convinced at least a few Jack Poker fans to gamble on their future success!
I’ve highlighted some of these talents below, while asking how their careers progressed and what problems ultimately prevented them from realising their full potential.
#1. Robbie Fowler
Robbie Fowler’s inclusion in this particular list may seem a little strange, especially given his career record of 590 senior club games, 254 goals and a total of 26 England caps.
However, these figures scarcely do justice to one of the most instinctive finishers that English football has ever seen, with Fowler’s immense and natural talent enabling him to compile a back catalogue of goals that included everything from classic poacher’s finishes and six-yard tap ins to 30-yards thunderbolts.
Unlike Micah Richards, Fowler actually burst onto the scene in the mid-90s, having first appeared as an unused substitute in an FA Cup tie against Bolton at the tender age of 17. Between 1994 and 1997, he scored more than 30 goals in three consecutive seasons, netting 98 times in just 127 appearances across all competitions during this thrilling period.
One particularly memorable goal against Aston Villa at Anfield saw Fowler beat former Red Steve Staunton with a delicious drag back, before he powered home a swerving 25-yard shot with his trusty left foot. Then came his now iconic brace against Manchester United at Old Trafford in Eric Cantona’s emotional comeback match in October 1995, as he rattled home from a tight angle with his left foot before displaying a unique meld of brawn and subtlety to shrug aside Gary Neville and chip Peter Schmeichel from the same left-hand channel.
It was an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the 1997/98 campaign that initially derailed Fowler’s progress, while the emergence of the similarly predatory (albeit less instinctive) Michael Owen also had a detrimental impact. Fowler also struggled to thrive under the new management of Gerard Houllier towards the end of the 90s, with the Frenchman’s rigid and particularly joyless style of play failing the get the most out of the Liverpudlian’s talents.
Ultimately, Fowler became a footballing journeyman with an unfortunate penchant for picking up injuries and struggling with his fitness. So, he was left with just five major honours and seven international goals to his name by the time he retired in 2011, despite boasting a level of talent that should have seen him rival Alan Shearer as the EPL’s record goalscorer.
#2. Stan Collymore
On the subject of Shearer, another striker who had the raw talent to match England’s most iconic number nine (of the Premier League era at least) was Stan Collymore. He certainly boasted the same unique blend of pace and power that Shearer had in his youth, while his close control, strength and acceleration were scarcely believable at times.
During his peak years at Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, Collymore often showcased shades of the original Ronaldo, from his immense strength and acceleration to the explosive nature of his finishes from all ranges. Consider his winner at Old Trafford in the 1994/95 season, for example, when he cut inside onto his trusty left foot and hammered an unstoppable rising drive beyond Peter Schmeichel.
Collymore was also two-footed and a superb dribbler of the ball, with this helping him to form a prolific partnership with the aforementioned Fowler at Anfield. These two combined for an incredible 102 goals in the 1995/96 and 1996/97 campaigns, with Collymore often dropping deeper and leveraging his athleticism to create space for his strike partner.
However, Collymore eventually struggled in what was deemed at the time to be a lax and ill-disciplined regime at Anfield, as his form became more inconsistent and he fell out of favour with then-Liverpool manager Roy Evans. He also suffered from the emergence of the irrepressible Owen, with the Reds ultimately deciding to sell Collymore to his boyhood club Aston Villa in May 1997 for £7 million.
This proved to be the beginning of the end for Collymore, who continued to endure a swathe of high profile off-field issues while also encountering significant depression. At the age of just 30 and following a turbulent five months at Real Oviedo in Spain (which resulted in Collymore being sued for breach of contract), the player retired without winning a single major honour and with just three international caps to his name.
#3. Nil Lamptey
While Fowler and Collymore are well-known superstars from the Premier League era, you may not be as familiar with the once precocious Nii Lamptey. However, few players generated as much as excitement in their youth as this attacking midfielder, who first shot to fame after inspiring Ghana to unexpected success at the Under-17 World Cup in 1991 in Italy.
Following a series of bewitching performances in the tournament, Pele himself anointed Lamptey as his heir apparent, while this also followed a stunning debut season with Anderlecht in Belgium at the tender age of just 16. It’s at this stage that the vultures began to circle the youngster, however, with Lamptey being targeted by unscrupulous agents despite being unable to read or write in English.
While he shone during a season-long loan spell with PSV Eindhoven after turning 19, he subsequently failed to thrive in the fast and furious Premier League, scoring just five cup goals in successive seasons at Aston Villa and Coventry (both under the tutelage of Ron Atkinson). He experienced further manipulation at the hands of agents while playing in England, while personal demons also began to their toll as Lamptey began an increasingly nomadic and unfulfilling on-field career.
Lamptey had tragically endured abuse at the hands of his parents, while he lost two of his own children while still at a relatively young age. At least partially as a result of these experiences, he ultimately drifted between 10 different countries and four continents, before retiring at the age of 34 after two seasons at Jomo Cosmos in 2008.
Unfortunately, Lamptey knew little but abuse and exploitation during his life and playing career, ensuring that a generational talent with incredibly quick feet and outstanding technique ultimately failed to realise even a modicum of his full potential. The good news is that he has since found fulfilment outside of football and through philanthropic work, while he retains legendary status in the Midlands and particularly among Coventry City fans.