The boy wonders

When it comes to very young talent, in this demanding age of youthful millionaires, especially in London, you just never can tell.

Southampton are not a bit pleased at losing their 16-year-old boy wonder, attacker Theo Walcott, to Arsenal even though it may in time be worth �12 million to them. They might even have been reflecting that Wayne Rooney, not long ago a 16-year-old prodigy himself, cost Manchester United more than double that when he moved from Everton. But perhaps the Saints and their much criticised — in this instance, much offended — chairman, Rupert Lowe, should feel relieved that for once at least the Gunners have actually paid money for a teenaged talent.

You might call this the exception that proves the rule, for when it comes to capturing young European talent, Arsenal may be seen, according to which side of the fence you are now, either as inspired opportunists or ruthless predators. A few years ago, they whisked the teenaged Nicola Anelka away from an outraged Paris Saint Germain, free of all charge, taking advantage of the present anomalous and confusing transfer regulations which decree that until they are of an age to turn full professional, players can change clubs without payment.

As it transpired, Anelka turned out to be brilliant but endlessly dissident, egged on by two obnoxious brothers who acted as his agents. On form, he was a glorious striker for both Arsenal and France, and when he eventually moved — indeed he has kept on moving — it was for around �25 million. Arsenal, in the meantime, had somewhat patronisingly bunged SG a consolatory �560,000!

Today, in their midfield, they have the precocious Spaniard Ceso Febregas. He arrived, and made his full debut, at the age of 16, from Barcelona; who predictably were not best pleased about it. How much did he cost? Nothing! Ditto the highly promising now 18 years old Italian striker, Arturo Lupoli, who has made a number of first team appearances in lesser competitions like the Football League Cup. He was spirited away from Parma as indeed was the 18-year-old Manchester United striker Giuseppe Rossi, who has shown precocious qualities when given his chances. American born in New Jersey, he was at Parma too.

What this means in the case of Arsenal is that their heavily financed, splendidly accoutred, so called academy, or youth scheme, out at the lush pastures of their London Colney training ground in Hertfordshire, is the mountain that parturates a mouse well, let's be fair. Ashley Cole, the adventurous England left back, is hardly a mouse, but who else of British birth has the academy produced? There is some hope that another full back, the teenaged Gilbert, given his League debut promisingly at Everton, may come through, but overall, for British talent, the academy is somewhat of a black hole.

It was by curious and ironic coincidence, that, at the very time when Walcott was signing for Arsenal, Jermaine Pennant should excel for Birmingham City against Portsmouth at St. Andrews; a match I saw. His manager Steve Bruce, who generously decided with the club to rehabilitate him after Pennant was gaoled for a driving offence, legitimately described him as "unplayable." His England international team-mate, the striker Emile Heskey, enthused that Pennant would play for England. He had indeed shown all the natural winger's classical talents, electric pace, splendid footwork, quick intelligence, finishing power. He scored a spectacular goal, moving into the middle to whip the ball away from the defence, pivot, then strike it home with his left foot. Birmingham, hitherto in the doldrums, won 5-0.

This was not the only occasion when I had seen Pennant catch fire. There had been an evening match at Highbury, one of his relatively few for Arsenal, when he scored three out of six goals against Southampton. And an FA Cup tie for Watford, for whom he was on loan, when he made mincemeat of the experienced West Bromwich Albion left back, Neil Clement, enabling Watford to knock WBA out of the tournament.

The point being that when Pennant was a mere 15 years old, Arsenal had paid a whacking �2million to bring him and his high promise to Highbury from Notts County. It was a somewhat unappetising affair, since there was a battle between the boy's father and an agent as to who was entitled to a cut of the fee. In the event, Pennant at Highbury did not deliver on his promise. His behaviour off the field was undisciplined, sometimes unruly. He was lent out to Leeds and Watford, eventually, last season, to Birmingham, who decided to keep him when his career was in crisis.

Alas, when it comes to very young talent, in this demanding age of youthful millionaires, especially in London, you just never can tell. Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has himself admitted that Walcott is "a gamble." All too many highly paid young players fall prey to the manifold temptations of London's West End.

Ideally, they turn into a latter day Pele, a refulgent star of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden at 17, still better 12 years later in Mexico when Brazil won the trophy again. Rooney has, in racing parlance, trained on, for all his explosive character. Barcelona have at least managed to keep the dazzling Argentine forward Lionel Massi, who came to them from Newell's Old Boys at 13 and is now sparkling at 18. Diego Maradona, an Argentine cap at 16, superbly maintained his promise, even if his later career ended in drug taking and disaster. Yet injury too can, all too often, play its sombre part in ending even the most promising career. And not too many prodigies can come back from limbo, as Pennant has so excitingly done.