By Gabriel Kuhn
A review of Ryan Baldi, The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Lose Their Way (Worthing, Sussex: Pitch, 2019).
The rich body of European literature on soccer has in recent years seen a rise in perspectives on the game reaching beyond the limelight. In particular, the biographies of promising players whose careers were cut short have aroused interest. Examples include Oliver Kay’s Forever Young, chronicling the life of the late Adrian Doherty, once considered one of Manchester United’s biggest talents, and the memoir I’m Not Really Here by Paul Lake, who, in his youth, played with rivals Manchester City. Now, Ryan Baldi offers a whole collection of stories about footballers who never lived up to what their teenage years promised. The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Lose Their Way is based on interviews with fifteen such players and people who have been on their side during their careers.
It’s good and informative reading for anyone curious about the life of footballers who didn’t become big stars. The selection of players, however, seems somewhat random. There are some, for example Andy van der Meyde or Fábio da Silva, who have had decent professional careers, while others saw theirs wither away at an early age. It never becomes quite clear why, out of thousands of possibilities, these particular fifteen players come together in the book other than Baldi stating that these were “the players I approached who were willing to share their journeys.”
The writing is, at times, very anecdotal and the number of direct quotes can make you wonder why Baldi didn’t chose a straight-up interview format. International readers might also like to know that a certain understanding of the structure of English football is required to grasp the details of the players’ youth careers.
The biggest flaw I found with the book was that the explanations for the unfulfilled promises remain exclusively on the individual level: injuries, antagonistic coaches, bad transfers, poor attitudes. The reality of a soccer industry that is geared toward spitting out 98 percent of its youth talent on the way to the top is hardly ever addressed. While the individual stories are touching and illustrative, they all point to a much deeper problem.
With that said, Ryan Baldi’s The Next Big Thing is certainly among the more interesting soccer titles of 2019. To offer glimpses of the not so glamorous sides of the footballing life beats another homage to a star player or billionaire-owned club anytime.