Nathan Delfouneso: From Future England Star to Football Mediocrity

Dave Hornby@False_Number9Featured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

Nathan Delfouneso was regarded as one of the brightest talents in English football as he emerged from the youth ranks at Aston Villa.

Fast forward six years and the striker is now on the books of struggling Blackpool after his release from Villa Park.

In this article, we take a look at the career of "The Fonz" to understand how he went from future Premier League and England hotshot to a fallen star struggling to make the grade in the lower divisions.

It was initially on the international scene with the England youth teams that Delfouneso started to become noticed. In an under-16 squad containing Jack Wilshere, Jack Rodwell and Andros Townsend, the striker finished top goalscorer in the 2006 Victory Shield triumph.

Less than a year later, Delfouneso scored a hat-trick on his debut for the England under-17 side in a 6-0 victory over Malta.

After impressing for England and in Villa's academy setup by emulating goalscoring records set by Luke Moore and Gabriel Agbonlahor, Delfouneso received his first taste of senior football in 2008.

He made his debut for Villa as a substitute in a UEFA Cup qualifying tie against Icelandic side FH Hafnarfjorour. In doing so, the striker became the club's youngest player to feature in Europe at the age of 17 years and 195 days.

The Birmingham-born youngster played for the first team in Europe on multiple occasions before being awarded his first start. Featuring in a weakened Villa side against Slovakian team MSK Zilina, Delfouneso marked his full debut with a goal via a left-footed volley from outside the penalty area.

Although the young starlet had a name difficult to pronounce, it was on the tip of the tongue of all Villa fans and manager Martin O'Neill.

Following his goalscoring performance in an otherwise terrible result for Villa, O'Neill was quoted in the Birmingham Mail praising the youngster:

I thought he played brilliantly in the game. I think it'll be an interesting few months ahead because he's got great ability. 

I thought he was terrific. He's gone out with little fear and shown all the things I see every single week and the things that I saw last year in the youth team. It's great to see a talent like that coming up.

The superlatives didn't stop there for the 17-year-old. James Milner, who was a Villa player at the time, was also quick to praise the wonderkid in the making. Having exploded on to the scene as a teenager himself by becoming the Premier League's youngest-ever goalscorer at 16 years old, Milner was an authority on the matter.

Speaking after the UEFA Cup game, Milner was quoted by The Guardian:

It was a fantastic finish from Nathan [against Zilina] and that was the plus side of the night. You are not going to get a better debut than that. He is definitely one for the future and, hopefully, he can kick on from there. He is a quality player. He has shown that in training and when he has come on.

It is tough. You see what happens when young players do well early on. They get thrust into the limelight and there can be a lot of pressure sometimes. You need to make sure you deal with [the pressure] in the right way and have the right people around you.

The starlet, who was now playing and scoring for England in their UEFA European Under-19 Championship qualifying campaign, also found the back of the net against Hamburg in the UEFA Cup.

His first domestic goal came shortly after his 18th birthday in the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Doncaster Rovers when he scored with a diving header. The striker's stock was growing and again O'Neill added to the plaudits, per Sky Sports:

I'm absolutely delighted with Delfouneso. He gave away the ball for their goal, but outside that I thought he was exceptional. For one so young, he is a really, really good player in the making.

With a growing individual reputation and Villa challenging for three trophies, Delfouneso made the first of four Premier League substitute appearances with his debut coming against Tottenham Hotspur.

An impressive first season with the Villa first team ended with the striker scoring three goals in 13 appearances and claiming the 2008/09 club awards for Players' Young Player of the Year and Supporters' Young Player of the Year. He also scored in the Premier League Reserve final as Villa were crowned champions.

Despite his promise, O'Neill was reluctant to include the striker in the first team too frequently, perhaps in an attempt to shield him from pressure and expectation. His first real impact of the 2009/10 season was in the FA Cup where he scored in the third round against Blackburn Rovers and fourth round against Brighton and Hove Albion.

His first Premier League goal came against Portsmouth as he scored the winner in a 2-1 away win, just two minutes after coming off the bench.

In all senior competitions, the striker again scored three goals in 13 appearances and claimed the club's 2009/10 awards for Players' and Supporters' Young Player of the Year. Big things were expected.

That summer, the Villa academy graduate was part of the England squad that finished runners-up in the UEFA European under-19 Championship. Although his nation failed to win the tournament, Delfouneso added to his growing reputation by winning the golden boot award with four goals in the competition.

However, due to his involvement with the national side, he missed pre-season with Villa, which in hindsight may have affected his first-team chances.

Still, much was expected of Delfouneso as Villa approached the start of the 2010/11 season as the now 20-year-old had been around the squad for two seasons. For his club, he had shown flashes of promise, but found it difficult to produce as he was used intermittently.

His glowing reputation was enhanced however by fellow striker Emile Heskey who publicly backed Delfouneso to shine for both Aston Villa and England in the near future, per Aston Villa's official website

The lad has done really well. He's not had many chances to come on and play but when he has he has shown what he is capable of and he is a good player for the future.

He has managed to get himself in the England set-ups from a young age - from the under-16s until now where he is playing for the under-21s at the minute and has just been called up for the under-19s for a major finals.

So he is a great prospect for the future and got a great career ahead of him. You've got to bide your time and when you do get an opportunity, take it. He knows that himself and he knows what he is capable of doing.

The resignation of O'Neill, just five days before the start of the new season, was arguably another blow to Delfouneso after he missed pre-season with the team. His mentor, who held him in such high regard, was now gone and in stepped new boss Gerrard Houllier.

The striker struggled to break into the first team under the Frenchman. His first start came against Fulham in November 2010, but this was more down to luck than form. Injuries had ruled out Carew, Heskey and Agbonlahor, so the 20-year-old was the only recognised striker at the club.

Quoted by the Daily Express, Houllier urged the youngster to take his opportunity in the first team:

It will be an opportunity for young Nathan to step up – he will definitely be the striker.

Young players don’t stay young all their life. At some stage they will grow and mature but the career usually starts when there is an opportunity. I would say the reason 80 or 90 per cent of the players arrive on the big scene is because they started when there was an opening.

I know Nathan is not a newcomer because he has played under Martin. He knows the Premier League. To him, maybe it’s an ideal opportunity to put his footprint on it.

Delfouneso started two consecutive games and managed to score in the second in a 3-2 win over Blackpool courtesy of an Ashley Young assist. He then made seven consecutive Premier League substitute appearances but failed to add to his tally.

His second, and last, goal of the season came in the FA Cup fourth round against Blackburn as he scored a header in a 3-1 win. 

The arrival of record signing Darren Bent in January 2011 pushed Delfouneso further down the Villa pecking order, and a loan move to Championship club Burnley was arranged in March.

The Villa academy graduate spent two months at Turf Moor and began in spectacular fashion with a goal five minutes into his debut. Despite the excellent start, the striker failed to score in the remaining 10 games as he went on a barren run of no goals in 650 minutes of football, per Transfermarkt.

In all competitions, just three goals had been scored in 28 appearances.

Despite this, Delfouneso put pen to paper on a new three-year deal at Villa Park and featured for new manager Alex McLeish during pre-season. Like his previous incumbents, the Scot liked the look of the young striker.

Following a friendly game against Walsall, McLeish said of Delfouneso, via the Daily Mirror:

He needs to get the experience of the Bents of this world. But the positions he got himself into were tremendous and he looked really lively. Nathan, I am sure, looks like he has a bright future.

As the 2011/12 season started, the now England under-21 regular spent the majority of time on the bench until injuries to Agbonlahor and Bent saw Delfouneso start against Liverpool. He then made consecutive substitute appearances against Arsenal and Stoke but failed to impress. The youngster was getting chances in the first team but was failing to take them.

McLeish brought in Robbie Keane on loan during the 2012 winter transfer window, which led to another loan move for Delfouneso as he packed his bags for a one-month spell with Leicester City. McLeish hoped that a run in the first team would help the now-21-year-old develop, per the Birmingham Mail:

It would be great if Nathan got regular football and came back from being a boy into a man. He was unlucky in the Stoke game because if he’d scored the chance, your contribution to the first team changes and all of sudden you are looking at starting a game.

However, Delfouneso again failed to take his opportunity. He made five substitute appearances for the Foxes but did little to impress.

As he returned to Villa, Andi Weimann, who himself had been out on loan, was taking his chance in the first team. The Austrian was involved in 10 of the last 12 games of the season compared to just two for Delfouneso.

The striker finished with just one goal and 13 first-team appearances, per Transfermarkt. The promise shown by the striker during his teenage years appeared to be waning.

Paul Lambert replaced McLeish in the summer of 2012 as Delfouneso slipped further down the pecking order at Villa Park. Lambert brought in Christian Benteke and Jordon Bowery, who alongside Bent, Agbonlahor and Weimann made Delfouneso surplus to requirements. As such, he was sent on a season-long loan to Championship side Blackpool.

His first start for the club saw him score twice and provide an assist in a 4-1 win over Middlesbrough. Delfouneso featured regularly, either as a centre-forward or as an attacking midfielder on the right, and finished the season with seven goals and four assists in 42 appearances for the Seasiders.

On returning to Villa Park, Lambert made it clear that Delfouneso would be available for transfer as the Scot looked to revamp his struggling squad, per the Daily Mirror.

Despite spending little time with the striker, Lambert had already decided that Delfouneso wasn't a payer he wished to utilise. 

He returned to Blackpool for a second stint on loan, but injury hampered his progress part way through his six-month temporary deal. After recovering from injury, Delfouneso accumulated 11 appearances for the Seasiders, but he failed to find the back of the net and his loan expired.

In January 2014, he dropped a further division to sign for League One Coventry City on loan. This gave the striker the perfect opportunity to attract a club prior to the expiry of his Villa contract, particularly as he had come to terms with the fact that his Villa career was over, per the Express and Star:

I knew the situation when I went back [to Villa after his Blackpool loan ended in January]. I would have loved to have the opportunity to prove I could play. 

When I came through a lot was said about me and I would have loved to do that with Villa. In the end I didn’t get the opportunity which would have helped my case.

A lot of people will say, and it’s true, I’ve been around for a long time. I came through at Villa when I was 17 and for whatever reason things haven’t worked out. I would have loved to break through and realise the potential and hype as I was coming up.

Coventry manager Steven Pressley was also aware that Delfouneso was at a crossroads in his career. He reportedly told the striker that he needed to make the most of his opportunities or he could struggle once his contract expired, per the Coventry Telegraph:

It’s a pivotal time for him and a time when he has to grasp the opportunity and show that mentality and hunger to prove people wrong. He has four weeks to prove to us at this football club that he’s a consideration for next season.

That’s what he’s got, four weeks, not just to prove to us but to any other potential suitors that he’s a capable striker for next season. He’s in a situation where he’ll be a free transfer in the summer and he has to prove to people that he can fulfil that great potential that he showed when he was younger.

I have no doubts about Nathan Delfouneso’s ability but I think in terms of fulfilling that and having the hunger, belief and desire to fulfil that is key. He has to prove to people that he can handle the expectation because he is a player who comes with expectation levels.

Despite these words of advice, Delfouneso had an inconsistent and frustrating time at Coventry. He scored just three goals, of which two came in the final two games, in 14 appearances, per Transfermarkt.

This led to the Sky Blues deciding not to take the gamble of making the loan move permanent. Having failed to make the grade in the Premier League and the Championship, the now 23-year-old had also struggled in League One.

Following his release by Villa in the summer, Delfouneso returned to Blackpool on a trial before putting pen to paper on a one-year contract, per BBC Sport.

It perhaps says something about the fallen star that he was required to have a trial with a club he had spent a season and a half with, particularly considering Blackpool's issues with squad size.

It is difficult to say why it didn't work out for Delfouneso at Villa. I'm sure that is a question he asks himself every day.

Unlike some youngsters who have suffered a fall from grace, Delfouneso's tale has not been about cars, women and money. It does not appear that hard work or a poor attitude were the problem in Delfouneso's demise.

He has always been regarded as an intelligent, ambitious player who works hard. During his younger years for example, he was known to spend time studying other strikers in order to work on his weaknesses and strengths, per the Birmingham Mail.

Niggling injuries have not helped, particularly during his most recent loan moves. Similarly, his career has been very stop-start, particularly at Villa when he rarely had a string of first-team appearances and was often superseded by new signings.

However, when he did get his opportunity, Delfouneso failed to deliver the goods. In the cruel world of football, if you don't take your chances, then the opportunities will dry up.

Living with the tag of wonderkid must weigh heavy on the shoulders of any player. For every Wayne Rooney or James Milner, there is a Michael Johnson, Federico Macheda, John Bostock, Freddy Adu or David Bentley who failed to live up to their promise.

Perhaps mentality was a key factor in Delfouneso's demise?

It is a shame to see a player who was regarded as such a talented prospect fail to live up to the hype and expectation that surrounded him. The move to Blackpool gives him another, and potentially the last, opportunity to prove himself.

Having failed to deliver for a number of years, there is only so long that the striker can live off the excitement created by his early appearances. 

At 23 years old, he has plenty of time on his side, which is a major bonus. Let's hope that "The Fonz" can rediscover his form and return to happier days.


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