In US sports they call it the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award, but there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent honour in European football. I know the PFA have their ‘Young Player of the Year’ award — but when you’ve got seasoned veterans like Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo in the running it hardly stacks up.
So I’ve created a list of ten authentic rookies, all young but also inexperienced before the 2007-08 season began back in August. All of them have impressed us this season — but do any deserve to be called the ‘Breakthrough Player of the Year’ ? Or did I forget someone ?
Firstly let me reveal the criteria I have applied to determine who qualifies as a breakthrough player this season and who does not. To be considered a breakthrough season, I figured the player must have appeared at least ten times in a top league. So there can be no argument about any of these players being just a ‘flash in the pan’.
I also thought that to be considered an original breakthrough, none of the candidates can have played ten or more times in a top league in any previous seasons. So — that means players like Alan McGregor (Rangers) and Manuel Neuer (Schalke 04) are instantly ruled out.
Bojan Krkic (Barcelona) — age 17. A stunning debut season in the Barcelona senior squad during which he’s played in 27 matches and scored 8 goals. He also scored the winner in Germany against Schalke 04 in the Champions League QF 1st leg.
Joe Hart (Manchester City) — age 21. Took over as Sven-Goran Eriksson’s first choice keeper in September and held the position down all season. Capable of stunning saves and ultra consistent, Fabio Capello has spoken of his as a future senior England international.
David Wheater (Middlesbrough) — age 21. Now established as a first choice for his local club, Middlesbrough sold Jonathan Woodgate because they were so confident Wheater could fill the breach. Has not disappointed and was similarly singled out by Capello as a future full international. Scored three goals for Boro and shown ability to play out from the back.
Lorenzo De Silvestri (Lazio) — age 19. Played 23 games as a full-back after being switched from a midfielder in the Primavera squad. Scored his first goal for the club in the Coppa Italia in December and has earned rave reviews for his ability to get forward as well as defend.
Toni Kroos (Bayern Munich) — age 18. Following his Golden Ball award as the best player at last summer’s Under-17 World Cup, Kroos has lived up to Bayern fans’ expectations. In just eight games he has contributed two assists in the Bundesliga and even scored the last minute winner away to Red Star in the UEFA Cup, shortly after setting up another in a decisive nine-minute cameo.
Marek Hamsik (Napoli) — age 20. After two seasons in Serie B with Brescia, Hamsik made the step up to the top flight and has flourished as 8 goals in 35 games for Napoli from midfield suggests. He also found time to score two goals for Slovakia during the season and looks set for a big future.
Esteban Granero (Getafe) — age 20. Granero has blossomed during a one-year loan from Real Madrid – playing 24 La Liga games, and firing two goals. He’s demonstrated the ability to peform in the big matches and has been a star for Getafe in their run to the Copa del Rey final and Uefa Cup quarter finals.
Mario Balotelli (Inter) — age 18. Really hit the headlines in January with his brace against Juventus in the Coppa Italia. Had also scored two against Reggina prior to that but since the start of April has begun to see more Serie A action – delivering two further goals in eight total appearances, most from the bench.
Alexandre Pato (Milan) — age 18. I’ve bent the rules slightly to allow Pato in because he did play 10 matches for Internacional last season. But his first season at Milan has been the breakout campaign. In 15 Serie A games, 8 goals is a stunning return for a precocious teenager who still has some growing up to do. Scoring on his Brazil debut also adds to the feeling that he can become a fairytale player.
Yoann Gouffran (Caen) — age 21. The 2006-07 Ligue 2 Player of the Season has coped with the step up and led his side to a respectable mid-table position in France. In 33 games he has managed 9 goals — of all types, with both feet.