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Sunday, 13 February 2011

This boy will play for England, mark my words!

When Stephen Caulker arrived on loan at City during the early autumn we were bottom of the league and it almost went un-noticed with the fans still talking about signing Danny Rose - he who scored THAT goal for Spurs against Arsenal last season.

A few months on, with eight clean sheets in the last 19 games, and it is Caulker who looks a sure bet for a clean sweep for the player of the season awards. Not since Andy (as he was known then) Cole graced the Ashton Gate turf in the 1992-93 season have so many talked about a "future England international".

Whether Caulker ever gets that far is still to be proven, but his maturity and assuredness, allied to his pace, reading of the game and the knack of coming up with the odd goal certainly gives him every chance.

However, Caulker's performances have got this blogger thinking...when have I seen a player of such ability that I got that hunch that he would go on to much greater things. This is not a "look-how-clever-I-am" article, more a walk down memory lane and a sharing of those moments when I did, in fact, walk into school/the pub/work in the days after the game and sound like my Grandad! Remembering those occasions when you feel like you have no option other than to just sit back and enjoy a performance, even if it means your team being drubbed!

For any Premier League fans reading this, remember this is not so common an experience in the lower leagues. We don't have many "Remember the Name" moments like when Wayne Rooney scores his first goal, or Jack Wilshere's/Fabregas' to drool over. Moments like these are all too rare and should be savoured.

My first memory of such an event was an old Third division encounter with Swansea City in the 1989-90 season. City's season had been mediocre when the Swans arrived on a Tuesday evening and it got no better when John Salako - on loan from then top-flight Crystal Palace - made his Swansea debut and showed his class instantly. His trickery, pace and guile down the left flank left Andy Llewellyn - Bristol City's very own Gary Neville of the 80's and early 90's - floundering and meant the result was never in doubt. A 3-1 defeat only told half the story as a star was born. Salako quickly progressed to Palace's first-team and many years at the top level followed, including five caps for England.

[City side-note: the players and formation that had been tried and trusted up until that point was thrown to the dogs and with a couple of new players (including Glenn 'Psycho' Humphries I believe) and new tactics, City went on an amazing run of form with Super-Bob Taylor scoring goals galore. Swansea were smashed 5-0 in the return and City ended up promoted as runners-up.]

The next incident that sticks in my mind is a Christmas fixture back in 1993. Nottingham Forest were still famous then - just a decade on from their European glories and League Cup finalists just a year earlier. However, when "Ol Big 'Ed" bid a tearful farewell to football as Forest were relegated from the inaugral Premier League, a season of Championship football ensued and all was not going to plan halfway through. Brian Clark's men had struggled to adapt to the lower tier and arrived in the West Country adrfit of the play-off positions. 

What followed was a forward's master-class from Stan Collymore in a 4-1 win. This wasn't just a striker's good day, with a couple of goals thrown in for good measure. Stanley was immense. He terrorised each member of the City defence throughout the afternoon as he moved across the line effortlessly, dropping deep to affect play and using his pace and skill to get behind the back four when the ball was threaded through by the fabulous Neil Webb and Ian Woan.

I was only 15, but went back to school after the break (no text messages or Facebook in those days!) and recalled the performance to a Forest-supporting friend and informed then that not only would Forest go up that season (they finished 2nd), but that the young lad up-front would go on to play for England. 

The British transfer-record was broken when he moved to Anfield a few years later, and Collymore was one of the very best all-round strikers to play in the first ten years of the Premier League. However, only three appearances for England followed due to a variety of reasons including injury, inconsistency, and maybe perception of a bad attitude, but primarily due to strikers of the calibre of Shearer, Sheringham, Cole and Fowler. These days Colly would be a shoo-in each time the squad was announced.

Flitting over 'the Neil Lennon moment' (when one Friday night at the pub I proudly proclaimed he would play for England, not knowing he was Northern Irish....I'm sure he would have done!), the final memory I'll linger on is with another Crewe Alexandra graduate, and possibly one of the best strikers not to have a truly great career, Dean Ashton. 

Ashton had just turned 19 when he played in BS3 for the first time, and although he didn't score in a 2-2 draw, his all-round ability and talent was unbelievable. A big man who could flick on and hold the ball up if necessary, he had an incredibly good touch and was possibly Crewe's most creative player. His ability to spot a gap and his control was as good as anyone I'd seen since, well, since Collymore, and six years later when he pulled on the Three Lions I could rightly claim I'd 'spotted' him and my credibility as a talent-spotting scout was restored!

So there you are - three players with only a handful of caps between them but caps nonetheless. 

I would love to hear others memories of these games, and others where an 'unknown' made a name for themselves in the lower leagues.

The Exiled Robin

Follow me on Twitter at @cider1977

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