For every David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, and Gareth Bale, there are an untold number of players who never reach their full potential.
Some fall at the first hurdle before they even make it out of their teens, choosing parties and girls (or boys) instead of their potential football career, others get a glimpse of the limelight but are ruined by media attention or bad behaviour in their personal lives.
Most ‘could have been’ footballer stars will never be known by the wider public, but there are a few whose failure to reach their best was felt more acutely by the sport and those who enjoy it.
We are not talking about the likes of Gazza here, who was brilliant but could have had a much better career if his off pitch antics weren’t as wild, or Owen Hargreaves, who was plagued by injury problems; we are talking about people who barely got off the starting blocks.
So here are our top 10 footballers who could have set the sport on fire, but instead faded into nothingness.
To be fair to some of the guys ion this list, they didn’t all waste their potential.
Some of them hit a streak of bad luck with injuries, others struggled in the limelight, but all of them could have been household names if things had gone differently.
Plenty on this list did waste their talents though, sometimes through a lack of focus, other times through bad behaviour, and even on one occasion because he found God.
In no particular order, do you recognise any of the names below?
After a very promising start at his boyhood club Everton, the Liverpool native made a move down South in 2001, when Arsene Wenger paid around £8 million for Jeffers’ services with extra moneys owed dependent on appearances.
It’s doubtful these were ever paid though, because Jeffers barely saw the pitch at Arsenal.
He suffered with injuries and then struggled to earn his place against Theirry Henry (which is understandable) Silvain Wiltord (which is less understandable).
After a few seasons he went back to Everton on loan but failed to score in 18 appearances in the league, and was sold to Charlton in 2004.
He went on to have a nomadic career in England, Scotland, Australia, and Malta, including several more spells out on loan, before ending with a whimper at Accrington Stanley in 2013.
Harald is a bit of a cheat entry since he did have a career at Bologna, who made him professional in 1961, taking him away from his native country of Denmark and simultaneously ending his international career, since Denmark did not allow professionals to represent them at the time.
With Bologna he won Serie A and was also top scorer in the league in 1963 and 1964, making him hot property.
Inter Milan made him the most expensive player in the world when they bought him for £100,000 in 1967, and this is what makes the rest of his career so disappointing.
After playing just 8 games for Inter, Harald moved to Napoli and then Sampdoria for one season a piece, playing in only a handful of games for each of his last 3 clubs, before retiring in 1970 at the age of 28.
He began to enjoy the lifestyle more than the football, and injuries didn’t make things any better. Eventually he became more interested in getting rich than staying match fit, essentially becoming a serial entrepreneur who occasionally played football.
This name will mean a lot to any readers from Liverpool, because the local lad was tipped to be Everton’s next big thing – Peter Beardsley even called him the Goodison Gazza.
It was the stuff of dreams for Everton fans because not only was Billy the son of former Toffees midfielder Billy Kenny Snr, but he also managed to be named man of the match in the Premier League’s first Merseyside derby, which Everton won 2-1.
Sadly though, although Kenny did emulate Gazza it was not in the way Beardsley had meant.
Billy enjoyed the attention a little too much, suffering from an injury and then ending up drinking too much and developing a cocaine habit. After playing just 17 times for Everton and a failed stint in rehab, he was sacked and moved to Oldham Athletic, but he only managed 4 games for them, and even scored an own goal.
Billy tried one more time at Barrow AFC but managed just 2 games before deciding to retire – aged just 21.
It was probably one of the fastest falls from grace in footballing history, and also one of the saddest.
This is a very odd tale from the 70s.
Peter Knowles was an absolute hero at Wolverhampton Wanderers, but a stint playing over in America as part of an effort to improve the reputation of the game over there would be the beginning of the end of his career.
While out in Kansas on a return trip, Knowles discovered religion, becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. On his return to the UK he worryingly announced:
“I shall continue playing football for the time being but I have lost my ambition. Though I still do my best on the field I need more time to learn about the Bible and may give up football.”
Which is exactly what he did later that year, aged just 24.
Amazingly, a string of managers kept Knowles under contract in case he ever changed his mind, and he was technically still a player at the club for 12 years after his final appearance. This only came to an end in 1982 when he was 36.
There has even been a book written about Peter’s story called, God’s Footballer.
Expected to be a big star domestically and internationally, Michael Johnson’s career never really got going.
After naturally moving from Man City’s youth team to their main squad, he had a promising start and made 25 appearances in the 2007/08 season, scoring twice.
However, injuries put him on the side-lines soon after and he never really recovered, struggling to regain fitness, and making just a handful of appearances over the next few seasons, including a loan spell at Leicester.
Drink driving offences further compounded his situation, but City kept him on in an effort to get him git enough to play for somebody else, such was their fondness for him. Eventually though, he was released.
A year after he was released by Man City he was caught drink driving on several further occasions and also admitted being treated for mental health problems, before asking to be left alone and living under the radar.
Many great players and managers have spoken about their disappointment at the way things turned out for Johnson, including Roberto Mancini, Sven Goran-Eriksson, and Dietmar Hamann.
His footballing life might not have been the success everyone had wished, but we hope his life now is a happy one.
Morrison came up through Manchester United’s youth academy, and much like Michael Johnson above, players and managers were going mad for him.
Rio Ferdinand said he would pay to watch him train let alone play, and Alex Ferguson said he had top class ability, on a par with Scholes and Giggs at the same age.
However, he came from a difficult background and in 2011 was convicted of intimidating a witness, and his home life was not conducive to a successful footballing career.
He moved to West Ham in 2012 but things didn’t work out there either, and his lifestyle continued to hamper him further with constant police issues and the party life proving too enticing. As of 2021 he had played for 12 clubs in 9 years, rarely playing more than a handful of games at any of them.
Although he has had a career, it has been extremely scattered and is so far from expectations that it had to make the list.
In the words of Alex Ferguson; “The boy had a good heart. He was just beaten by his background.”
Another player who did have a career of sorts, but you wouldn’t recognise most of the teams he played for. His personal story is extremely sad.
He was born in Ghana to abusive and neglectful parents, his father was an alcoholic and used to beat him and stub cigarettes out on his body. He would also heckle and be abusive from the side lines when Lamptey played football.
At 8 he was kicked out of his house and went to a Muslim football camp, and his talent was quickly recognised. Aged 15 he wanted to move abroad to play, but his passport was confiscated as Ghana wanted to build a team around him, so he had to smuggle himself into Nigeria where the national team’s captain, Stephen Keshi, got him a fake passport and took him to Belgium as his son.
This amazing story is how he came to play for Anderlecht, making his debut aged 16, and breaking the record for the youngest professional football player in Belgium.
A loan stint at PSV Eindhoven caught the attention of Ron Atkinson who brought him to Aston Villa to much fanfare, but he had also been signed by an agent at this point, who took advantage of Lamptey’s lack of education, stealing money from him and acting in his own interests rather than his clients.
He struggled at Villa and moved with Atkinson to Coventry City, but fared no better there.
After this he went from team to team, playing in Italy, Argentina, Germany (where he was ignored by other players and suffered racist abuse), China, Portugal, Dubai, South Africa, and Turkey. He never reached his full potential though and barely spent a full season at any club.
During this time he also lost two children, and was forced to bury them in different countries which left him heartbroken.
This poor man’s story still serves as a warning against putting too much pressure too soon on promising teenagers. He now lives happily raising cattle with his family back in his home country, and also coaches football.
You can’t write a list of players who never reached their potential and leave out Duncan Edwards.
One of the Busby Babes killed in the Munich Air Disaster, Edwards was not the only promising young player to lose his life that night, but he was certainly the most famous.
He became the youngest ever player to take part in a top flight game when he made his Manchester United debut in 1953, aged 16.
He was also called up to the England squad in 1955, aged 18, and was soon a household name, known as a strong defensive midfielder who could also score goals.
Despite being just 21 when he died, Edwards had taken part in 6 seasons of professional football for Manchester United, being an established team member in 5 of them, and also had 18 England caps as well as 5 international goals.
Seven other young United players died on the same night as Duncan Edwards:
- Geoff Bent (25)
- Roger Byrne (28)
- Eddie Colman (21)
- Mark Jones (24)
- David Pegg (22)
- Tommy Taylor (26)
- Billy Whelan (22)
As you can see, the majority were at the start of very promising careers, and when you learn that Bobby Charlton was one of the survivors of that crash, you have some idea of what these men could have gone on to accomplish.
Duncan Edwards actually survived too, but died 15 days later in hospital.
A product of Liverpool’s youth academy, Adam Morgan was the shining star of 2010–11 FA Premier Academy League Group C season, scoring 18 goals in 16 games.
He quickly gained a place in the reserve team and Robbie Fowler went on record calling him “One of the best finishers I’ve seen in a very long time.”
Liverpool gave him a 4 year contract aged 17 and he was taken on the pre-season US tour, before getting a few first team starts, and everything was lining up for him to become a regular starter. His first senior career goal against Hearts was disallowed, and perhaps this was a bad omen for the future.
Struggling to break into the first team, he was loaned out to Rotherham then Yeovil to give him first team experience, but the move to Yeovil became permanent and he never regained the promise of his youth career.
Yeovil offered him a severance deal and between 2015-2016 he bounced between 5 different low league teams, finishing up at Halifax Town for a few years. Since then he did not spent more than a year at a single club, and only saw action in the national league.
Poor Ben Collett had his leg (and his career) broken in two places by a horrific tackle by Middlesbrough’s Gary Smith in 2003.
He was only a teenager at the time, and had won the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year Award in the 2002/03 season playing for Manchester United’s youth squad.
He was a regular in the youth squad and also broke into the reserves, with Alex Ferguson and many first team players picking him out for special mention.
He did recover from his injury but never regained his full fitness, and after very short spells with New Zealand Knights and AGOVV Apeldoom in in the Netherland, was forced to retire from professional football.
Justice was served though, and Collett took Gary Smith and Middlesbrough to court, winning £4million+ in damages after Alex Ferguson, Gary Neville, Howard Wilkinson, and Brian McClair all testifying that he had every chance of becoming a first team regular at United before the injury, and was an “A-Class” player.
He may have been robbed of his playing career, but it’s good to know he has been looked after since.