Teenage prodigies: Have they reached their potential?

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Gareth Bale is one of the best decisions Tottenham Hotspur ever made.

An initial fee of £5m for a 17-year-old left-back now looks like a steal. If they sell, Spurs stand to make between £45m and £65m - depending on which report you decide to believe. 

If they keep him, well, they get to keep one of the most exciting and devastating players in the world. Win-win.

But it didn't always look like it would turn out this way. For 24 matches, Gareth Bale did not win. He could not win. One report even claimed Spurs were ready to cut their losses and flog him on for a cut price £3m. 

It just goes to show the risk involved when it comes to spending big money on young players. Potential is one thing, consistency is another.

Football is littered with cases, from Jermaine Pennent and John Bostock to more recent examples like Anderson and Connor Wickham, of players who moved with big reputations that they struggled to fulfil. 

So, we at GMF decided to take a look at five of the biggest Premier League teenage transfers over the past ten years. And, as we do love a grading system, we'll rank the best from the worst.

Has potential translated into performance? Have they flopped or flourished?

Let's find out...

Gareth Bale | Tottenham Hotspur | (A-)

From jinx to genius. Bale's transformation from Spurs hangdog to this season's Cristiano Ronaldo-lite has seemingly occurred overnight.

But the process has been gradual. Bale was a hugely gifted attacking full-back at Southampton - a Football League Young Player of the Year. Manchester United were sniffing around, but Spurs agreed a deal with the Saints worth up to £10m to bring the Welshman to White Hart Lane.

His initial struggles are well documented. But from the first win onwards, a 5-0 victory over Burnley, Bale hasn't looked back.

That 2008-09 season brought zero goals, the next just three. 2010-11 was a break-out year, 11 goals including that hat-trick in the San Siro.

The gradual improvement was gathering pace. Last year he notched 12, and this term he's already got 19 in all competitions.

Comparisons with the world's best are a little premature, but they should serve to drive Bale on. He needs to play with the best, or at least compete with the best in title challenges, for these convictions to be realised.

Unfortunately, Spurs are unlikely to be challenging Europe's elite - even if they do get Champions League football next season.

But there's no doubt he's fulfilling his potential - his recent run of goals has been thrilling to watch. The only thing that remains is to replicate this kind of hot streak in the Champions League.

For him to be the second coming of Ronaldo, he needs to win the trophies like Ronaldo.

Wayne Rooney | Manchester United | (A)

Champions Leagues, Premier Leagues, Club World Cups - at club level Rooney's won it all. Such a record makes it hard to argue that the former-Everton man hasn't lived up to the hype that exploded after a squat 16-year-old whipped one high past David Seaman in the Goodison Park net.

But there's a nagging feeling that he hasn't quite yet. A teenage Rooney tore apart the 2004 European Championships - at that stage a future past the quarter-final stage could be envisaged.

Instead, nothing but disappointment for England has followed. And at 27-years-old, have we seen his best form?

Cristiano Ronaldo's departure prompted Rooney's best goalscoring run - he's bagged more than 30 goals in two of the last three seasons. He was the team's central striker.

But, following the arrival of Robin Van Persie, Rooney has once again been asked to play deeper - even in midfield on occasion. This is not necessarily a bad thing - he makes still makes telling contributions.

But it's a tact admission that the bullrush of a striker we watched back in 2004 will never resurface. That was his zenith, and that's a shame.

Theo Walcott | Arsenal | (B)

A victim of the hype. Theo Walcott travelled to Germany for the FIFA World Cup without having played a single minute of Premier League football.

His inclusion basically said 'this kid will be the future of English football.' It may not have had that intention, but this was the result.

At Southampton, he was not even the most eye-catching youngster during the under-18s run to the FA Youth Cup final - that honour belonged to Swansea's current man-of-the-moment Nathan Dyer.

But the hype machine was already rolling, and a couple of neat goals for the Saints first-team persuaded Arsene Wenger to commit £5m (rising to £12m) for the teenager in 2006.

Seven years on, and he's the club's highest paid player. Not bad right? Well yes, he's enjoying his best season yet, with 18 goals and 14 assists, but the club is stuck in a rut - struggling to break a trophy-less cycle.

And Arsenal fans' desperation for Walcott to sign a new deal should not be read as a vindication of his talents - it was more out of fear that they would lose another high-profile player. After Van Persie, Fabregas and Nasri, Arsenal couldn't afford to lose another and remain competitive.

There's still time. Walcott is an excellent player, but he is not an elite Champions League player. He is not consistent enough. He is not the player Wenger must of hoped he would become. 

Cristiano Ronaldo | Real Madrid | (A+)

Sir Alex Ferguson paid £12m for a scrawny Portuguese teenager back in 2003. And it's hard to think of a transfer that's worked out as well - for both parties.

Ronaldo is a phenomenon, a freakish combination of natural talent, physical gifts, and hard graft.

Ten years ago, when he made his Old Trafford debut, it would be difficult to imagine that Ronaldo would go on to become the physically dominant forward that now bullies La Liga's defences.

An international calibre player, yes. One of the best wingers in Europe, certainly. But few imagined he would become what he is today - an athletic goalscoring machine. 

£80m later, and Manchester United have every right to feel pretty satisfied.

And for Ronaldo? His talent has been fulfilled, even excelled, thanks to his commitment to improvement.

A pat on the back for that scout please.

Romelu Lukaku | Chelsea | (C)

The jury's still out, after all Lukaku is the only one on this list who is still a teenager.

Chelsea invested up to £17m in the Belgian striker in August 2011 - a player of raw potential but one who was perhaps not ready for the rigours of Premier League football.

A season with the reserves followed, before Lukaku emerged, seemingly ready, and promptly turned in a man-of-the-match performance on the final day of the 2011-12 season against Blackburn.

But no, he was still not a Chelsea first-teamer. A loan switch to West Bromwich Albion was agreed, an opportunity to develop under the guidance of former-Chelsea coach Steve Clarke. And he's flourished.

12 goals in 25 appearances demonstrates his undoubted ability. At his best he is a torrent of limbs hurling with harrowing efficiency towards the net. His goal against Liverpool, when he left Daniel Agger for dead, is the most vivid example of his potential. That must of been what the Chelsea scouts saw.

Do the same at Stamford Bridge next season, and he'll get much higher than a C grade.

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Premier League
Cristiano Ronaldo
Wayne Rooney
Gareth Bale

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