In an ever-demanding league where results remain king, there’s still pressure on top-flight clubs to bring through their own young talent. It doesn’t always work out – sometimes youngsters have to move on to truly establish themselves in starting roles elsewhere – but the rewards are particularly fruitful when things do go to plan...
So which former prospects would current Premier League clubs now take back if they could? (For these purposes, any player training with a club by the age of 17 counts as an ex-academy option.)
Arsenal (Serge Gnabry)
The Gunners have a handful of former charges they’d happily call upon these days, but Gnabry is the standout choice.
At one point he looked on the verge of breaking into the first team on a regular basis under Arsene Wenger, but a serious knee injury kept him out for over a year. Upon his return he suffered a miserable loan spell at West Brom under Tony Pulis, and was eventually allowed to move on for good in 2016 after only 10 league appearances for Arsenal.
After fine spells at Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim, Gnabry is now a regular for Bayern Munich, thriving in the Bundesliga and fast becoming a key option for Germany too.
Bournemouth (Danny Ings)
The Cherries have an ever-improving squad, but don’t have too many graduates who have gone on to better things elsewhere beyond Ings.
Injuries have taken a toll on the hard-working striker, but he remains a serviceable top-flight goalscorer and is again proving his worth this season at Southampton.
Rivals they might be, but Ings started out by coming through Bournemouth’s ranks – after being released by the Saints as a youngster – and scored eight times for them before moving on. He’d still be an asset now.
Brighton (Steve Cook)
Brighton don’t have a world-famous academy just yet. Gareth Barry would perhaps have been welcomed back in previous years, but at 37 that’s not so feasible now. Steve Cook, however, continues to prove himself as a reliable figure at the heart of Bournemouth’s defence and would certainly be a decent addition to his former club’s squad.
A starter? Perhaps not, given the importance of the Duffy-Dunk partnership, but Cook has taken a similarly long route to the top flight since leaving his first club seven years ago.
Burnley (Jay Rodriguez)
The Clarets have gradually established themselves as a Premier League side and hit their peak with last season’s seventh-place finish, but they’ve struggled in 2018/19 all over the pitch.
West Brom’s Rodriguez is a name from the past who could add a touch of class these days; he might never reach his pre-injury best, but is showing in the Championship this term that he remains a handy goalscorer and creator.
The local boy played 128 times for Burnley before departing in 2012.
Cardiff (Aaron Ramsey)
Suffice to say, Cardiff fans would welcome back their former Wales international who’s bound for one of Europe’s biggest clubs. Sadly for them, Ramsey will soon be off for a new adventure at Juventus, but once upon a time he was the Bluebirds’ youngest-ever player aged 16 before joining Arsenal for £4.8m in 2008.
In the end, supporters were only treated to one season of Ramsey’s talents before his big move to north London – and how they’d love to see him back to help their survival cause.
Chelsea (Declan Rice)
West Ham fans can be forgiven for joyously proclaiming Rice as a prodigee of their own making; he has, after all, been with the Hammers since he was 14. But before that, he was Chelsea’s for much of his formative years.
Rice’s form in central midfield this season has earned him rave reviews across the board, and his intelligence, composure and style would surely interest Maurizio Sarri right now. If not him, then another top-six chief may well come calling soon enough.
Crystal Palace (Freddie Woodman)
In reality, a dearth of options for Palace in this realm. Victor Moses’ stock is at its lowest for some time, and Lewis Grabban isn’t of Premier League standard to make a major impact at Selhurst Park.
With Julian Speroni approaching the end and something of a goalkeeping crisis in south-east London, then, perhaps a nod to the future at ex-custodian Woodman might be more sensible.
The Newcastle shot-stopper – currently second in line at St James’ Park – left Palace’s youth setup in 2013 but has since developed nicely and won six caps for England’s under-21s.
Everton (Ross Barkley)
A choice of three for Everton, but narrow defeats and a relative paucity of goals suggest it should be an attack-minded player – so Ross Barkley over Shkodran Mustafi or Eric Dier (who spent time on loan at Goodison from Sporting as a 17-year-old).
Barkley only departed for Chelsea a year ago, but Everton would have kept hold of him if they could. At his best he possesses the drive, dribbling and goalscoring ability to be a serious threat in the final third.
Whether Everton, rather than Chelsea, would have helped him find that best level is up for debate. Right now, it’s hard to argue convincingly that anyone has yet.
Fulham (Moussa Dembele)
Fulham's struggles this season clearly resonate with a newly promoted team failing to find the net as often as they need to – so imagine if they still had Dembele. Currently of Lyon after a £19.7m move from Celtic last summer, the Frenchman is enjoying a useful season with the Ligue 1 giants – so far, it's eight goals in 22 appearances for Les Gones.
Dembele joined Fulham at 16 and played well over 50 games for the Cottagers before heading to Scotland. Now he’s a multimillion-pound forward, still only 22 and tipped for a future with the French national team.
Huddersfield Town (Josh Windass)
The Terriers don’t have too many options to choose from, meaning their standout option is a Championship-level player. Sadly for the Terriers, though, they're likely to be a second-tier side themselves next term.
Josh Windass has come a long way since being released by Town as a youngster, progressing through non-league football and Accrington Stanley to arrive, via Rangers in Scotland, at Wigan.
An attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, he’d suit the technical needs – if not being a guarantee of the quality – that Huddersfield would require.
Leicester (Max Gradel)
Leicester's attack has struggled to break down spirited opposition at home this season, and few of Claude Puel's options out wide have truly convinced in 2018/19. Harvey Barnes has been recalled from a prosperous loan spell at West Brom, but another of the Foxes' former kids could also help satisfy a disgruntled home crowd right now.
Toulouse's Gradel never quite made the impact fans hoped he would at Leicester, but now 31, he is currently thriving at Toulouse – Whoscored.com rank him as the 19th-best performer in France's top flight this term.
The obvious answer here is Raheem Sterling: a ready-make alternative to the fast-paced forwards Liverpool rely on right now. But given that the oft-levelled criticism of their play is a tendency to be predictable and over-reliable on the pace and movement of those attackers, perhaps there’s an argument to suggest that Suso might be more useful to Jurgen Klopp's current side.
A scheming, creative threat from central or wide, and a semi-regular scorer to boot, he wouldn’t look out of place swapping Milan for Anfield once more.
Manchester City (Jadon Sancho)
What do you need most when you’re the reigning champions and have all the money in the world? Well, not much really – but their success wasn't enough to keep the most exciting teenager in English football right now.
Initially, Sancho made headlines for his move as much as his magic, but his scintillating performances for Borussia Dortmund have comfortably drowned them out. FourFourTwo's March 2019 cover star quickly began to show why he'd backed his talent in search of first-team football with BVB, and so far this season has racked up nine assists and six goals in the Bundesliga alone.
Manchester United (Josh King)
Manchester United have surprisingly few options for this category – Michael Keane is surely not the answer to their issues at centre-back, and the same applies to their popular former right-back Rafael at Lyon.
Bournemouth's King – who played twice for United during his stint at Old Trafford between 2008 and 2013 – has proven himself to be one of the most consistent forwards in the Premier League over the last two-and-a-half years, impressing with his unselfish link-up play and eye for goal.
He'd doubtlessly find it hard to get in the current United side ahead of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku, but he's probably the best option they've got out there right now.
Newcastle United (Fraser Forster)
Even with the recent acquisition of record signing Miguel Almiron, new arrivals at St James’ Park tend to be few and far between. But few fans would take kindly to homecomings for either Andy Carroll or Nile Ranger, leaving viable alternatives thin on the ground for the Magpies.
Southampton goalkeeper Forster never made an appearance for Newcastle as a youngster, and while his stock has fallen dramatically at St Mary's, so has his price tag.
Southampton (Gareth Bale)
Arguably, the Premier League club with the most options here – and yet conversely, this is the easiest decision of the lot.
Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana have all passed through the Saints' fabled academy, but so too did Welshman Bale, who burst onto the scene with his set-piece prowess in 2006. The rest hardly needs mentioning.
Tottenham (Nabil Bentaleb)
Initially, Bentaleb showed good promise with Tottenham and played 66 times for the north Londoners, starting a League Cup final and signing a long-term contract in 2015. The Algerian fell out of favour with Mauricio Pochettino by 2015/16, however, played only five Premier League games as Spurs went for the title.
Schalke rescued him on loan in August 2016, since when he's impressed and grown steadily into his role in Gelsenkirchen. He's even managed six goals this season – all of them penalties.
The 24-year-old is certainly not a starter for this current Spurs team, but a serviceable talent who could beef up Pochettino's current central midfield options.
Watford (Ashley Young)
Are we allowed Jadon Sancho twice? The Dortmund star began his career with Watford as a youngster, before heading to City aged 14.
The other alternative is the (considerably) more seasoned Ashley Young, who remains a reliable starter and consummate professional for Manchester United.
West Ham (James Tomkins)
Tomkins joined West Ham aged seven and became a Premier League regular for the Hammers, fulfilling a childhood dream.
His 2016 move to Crystal Palace was perhaps sideways more than forwards – admittedly, based on his form – but Tomkins' old club have struggled at centre-back in recent seasons and wouldn't mind having him back among their options right now. The 29-year-old is more mature, experienced and certainly more reliable than in his younger days.
Wolves (Wayne Hennessey)
Wayne Hennessey played over 150 times for Wolves before moving on to Crystal Palace, but his fortunes at Selhurst Park have been up and down to say the least.
Nobody at Molineux would want his inconsistency over Portuguese stopper Rui Patricio, but he’d at least be decent competition as the West Midlanders' back-up shot-stopper.
Sorry, Wolves fans – but Robbie Keane has retired and Elliott Bennett was the alternative.
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