Arsenal wonderkids that didn’t make it and where they are now, including Merida, Bentley, Aliadiere and more

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ARSENAL’s current crop of homegrown talents are being heralded, and rightly so.

The likes of Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Emile Smith Rowe have got Gunners fans optimistic for the future after starring in the first team.

Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are just two of the current crop of Arsenal wonderkids starring in the first team today
Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are just two of the current crop of Arsenal wonderkids starring in the first team today
Getty – Contributor

But hold your horses. We’ve been here before, of course, when a fledgling talent has been expected to reach the top.

These seven youngsters failed to set Highbury and the Emirates Stadium alight, and should act as a cautionary tale.

One of them remarkably beat Barcelona legend Luis Figo to a major award once upon a time…

FRAN MERIDA

Plucked from Barcelona’s youth academy, Arsene Wenger said the Spanish midfielder was an “absolutely amazing player.”

He was even called Fabregas 2.0 in some quarters for his playmaking qualities and final ball.

And it started well for Merida when he scored on his debut in a preseason friendly against Boreham Wood in 2006.

But from 2007-10, he made just 16 first team appearances, and decided to seek pastures new.

After refusing a new contract with the North London giants, he signed on a free transfer for Atletico Madrid.

Two years later Merida found himself in the Spanish second division playing for Hercules, and after that he moved to Brazil’s top division to play for Atletico Paranaense.

In 2016 he returned to the Spanish top division with Osasuna, where he currently ply his trade.

Fran Merida was described as an absolutely amazing player by Arsene Wenger
Fran Merida was described as an absolutely amazing player by Arsene Wenger
Graham Hughes – The Times
While some said Merida was a carbon copy of Cesc Fabregas
While some said Merida was a carbon copy of Cesc Fabregas
PA:Empics Sport
Merida now plys his trade at Osasuna
Merida now plys his trade at Osasuna
Getty – Contributor

DAVID BENTLEY

The ‘next David Beckham’, Bentley turned out to be a flash in the pan for club and country.

An attacking midfielder and devilish set-piece taker,  in 2004 he announced himself with a Bergkamp-esque lob against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup in 2004.

But in truth, he struggled to break into a team that boasted ‘Invincibles’ like Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, and Jose Antonio Reyes.

Frustrated by the lack of first team opportunities, Bentley went to Blackburn where highlights included scoring a hat-trick against Man Utd in a 4-3 win, as well as being named Rovers’ player of the year.

His form meant he earned seven caps for England between 2006-08, before a move to Tottenham followed.

However, he believes he fell out with Harry Redknapp after drenching his boss during a TV interview with an ice bucket.

He retired from the game at the age of 29 after his love for football waned, opened up a series of restaurants in Essex and Spain, and started a flooring company.

David Bentley announced himself with a brilliant chip against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup
David Bentley announced himself with a brilliant chip against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup
Reuters
Bentley quit the game aged 29 and now runs a restaurant and a flooring company
Bentley quit the game aged 29 and now runs a restaurant and a flooring company
AFP
Bentley is co-owner of La Sala in Marbella
Bentley is co-owner of La Sala in Marbella

JIM WILL

In the 1990s, trying to dislodge Arsenal and England’s No.1 David Seaman was a tough ask.

That’s why you’ve probably never ever heard of Jim Will, even if you are a Gooner.

But the Scottish shot-stopper was thought of as one of the best goalies in the world when he was a teen.

And Will showed his credentials at the 1989 FIFA Under-16 Championships as he helped Scotland reach the final.

Conceding just three goals, his performances earned him the Golden Ball trophy for best player – incredibly beating future Ballon d’Or winner Luis Figo to the award.

After failing to dislodge Seaman, Will moved to Dunfermline and his career petered out.

Now 46, he’s reportedly a policeman.

Jim Will was one of the most promising goalies in the world in the 90s
Jim Will was one of the most promising goalies in the world in the 90s
At the 1989 FIFA Under-16 Championships Will starred for Scotland and won the Golden Ball trophy for best player
At the 1989 FIFA Under-16 Championships Will starred for Scotland and won the Golden Ball trophy for best player

JERMAINE PENNANT

Signed by Wenger for £2m at the tender age of 15 from Notts County, a then record fee for a teenager, Pennant was thought of as the next big thing in English football.

Again, Pennant was another that couldn’t get first team football ahead of Pires and Ljungberg, who were Arsenal’s first-choice wingers.

But Gunners fans will remember one standout performance against Southampton when he scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win.

However, Pennant’s attitude off the pitch was questionable – and he often found himself on the front pages of the papers for his party lifestyle.

Wenger reportedly lost patience with Pennant for repeatedly turning up late for training, and soon he was shipped out to Birmingham for £3.5m.

Under Rafa Benitez, Pennant appeared to rediscover his form at Liverpool in 2006, but that was short-lived and he was given a free transfer in 2009.

Somewhat of a journeyman, he played for the likes of Real Zaragoza, Stoke, and Billericay Town before becoming a reality TV star on Celebrity Big Brother.

Jermaine Pennant was once the most costly teenager when Arsenal paid Notts County £2m for him when he was 15
Jermaine Pennant was once the most costly teenager when Arsenal paid Notts County £2m for him when he was 15
News Group Newspapers Ltd
A hat-trick against Southampton in a 6-1 Arsenal win showed Pennants credentials
A hat-trick against Southampton in a 6-1 Arsenal win showed Pennants credentials
News Group Newspapers Ltd
But Pennants off-the-field antics were a detriment to his career
But Pennants off-the-field antics were a detriment to his career
Rex Features
Today, Pennant is a reality TV star appearing on shows including Celebrity Big Brother
Today, Pennant is a reality TV star appearing on shows including Celebrity Big Brother
Rex Features

QUINCY OWUSU-ABEYIE

Armed with a bag of tricks, wide-man ‘Quincy’ as he was more affectionately known by the Gooners seemingly had the world at his feet.

He was schooled first by Ajax, before moving to North London at the age of 16 in 2002 after the Dutch club reportedly released him for alleged attitude problems.

Immediately, Owusu-Abeyie impressed in Arsenal’s under-17 side – scoring 17 goals in 20 games, including six in one match against Wolves.

He had an eventful debut in the League Cup against Rotherham United in 2003, first having a hand in getting goalie Mike Pollitt sent off for deliberate handball, then missing a penalty in a shootout Arsenal won.

But when Arsenal bought Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott in the 2006 January transfer window to compliment a forward-line that already included Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, he knew he had to move on.

Owusu-Abeyie ended up at Spartak Moscow, then had loans in Spain in England, before trying his hand in Qater with Al-Sadd, then returning to Europe with Panathinaikos.

Now 33, he was last seen playing for Dutch third division club NEC Nijmegen, who released him in 2017.

Quincy Owusu-Abeyie was known as a bag of tricks on the wing for Arsenal
Quincy Owusu-Abeyie was known as a bag of tricks on the wing for Arsenal
Getty Images – Getty
Owusu-Abeyie originally came to Highbury from Ajax at the age of 16
Owusu-Abeyie originally came to Highbury from Ajax at the age of 16
PA:Press Association
Winger Owusu-Abeyie bounced around several clubs, including Panathinaikos
Winger Owusu-Abeyie bounced around several clubs, including Panathinaikos
Getty Images – Getty

JEREMIE ALIADIERE

A graduate of the brilliant Clairefontaine academy, head coach Claude Dusseau believed that Aliadiere was the best striker alongside Henry and Nicolas Anelka to come through their ranks.

He arrived at Highbury at the age of 16 with that weight on his shoulders and showed promise early doors.

Aliadiere made his debut in the 2001-02 season, coming on for Henry in a 4-1 victory.

He scored his first goal the following season in a 5-2 demolition of West Brom.

While in the 2003-04 season, Aliadiere was used as the main striker in a League Cup run that saw him score four goals, and get voted the best young talent in that tournament.

However, he was ruled out for the whole of 2004-05 with a knee injury, and failed to re-find his form.

Spells at West Ham, Wolves and Middlesbrough didn’t quite pan out until he returned back to France at Lorient, where he enjoyed some success but not what his early promise seemed he was destined for.

Recently retired, Aliadiere, 36, now does some media work and appears for Arsenal’s Legends.

Jeremie Aliadiere was the best youngster to come out of the Clairefontaine academy since Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry
Jeremie Aliadiere was the best youngster to come out of the Clairefontaine academy since Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry
Times Newspapers Ltd
Eventually, Aliadiere discovered his form at Lorient after years in the wilderness
Eventually, Aliadiere discovered his form at Lorient after years in the wilderness
AFP – Getty
Aliadiere recently played for Arsenal Legends against a Real Madrid team
Aliadiere recently played for Arsenal Legends against a Real Madrid team
Getty – Contributor

RYAN SMITH

Smith graduated from the Arsenal conveyor belt alongside foreign talents Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy.

Wenger once crowed of the boy wonder: “He has so many ingredients that you love to have when you’re a young player,” and revealed he was adamant his protege had a big future in the game.

But the boyhood Arsenal fan and flying winger suffered a cruel fate that robbed him of his future.

In a reserve match against Ipswich Town in 2004, he wrecked his knee – a cruciate ligament rupture, as well as a double micro-fracture which resulted in four key-hole surgeries left Smith in agony.

Weeks later he was told by Arsenal physio Gary Lewin that the injury was so severe that a life in football after the age of 26 was highly unlikely.


Smith bounced around clubs including Leicester City, Southampton and MLS club Sporting Kansas City.

Alongside his football, Smith began a music career and recorded a single with fellow professional footballer Neil Danns.

His career is a classic case of what could’ve been.

Ryan Smith was destined to be the next big thing at Highbury until a knee injury wrecked his career
Ryan Smith was destined to be the next big thing at Highbury until a knee injury wrecked his career
Getty Images – Getty
Smiths football career is a classic case of what could have been
Smiths football career is a classic case of what could have been

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