The EFL has a long-standing tradition of developing some of the most talented English players in the country. Over the years, a number of youngsters have shone in the EFL, before going on to achieve success with club and country; Harry Maguire, Dele Alli and John Stones to name a few. As part of today’s St. George’s Day celebrations, we’ve taken a look at some of England's finest young talents to have recently learned their trade in the EFL.
Ryan Sessegnon - Tottenham Hotspur
EFL Club: Fulham
Type Ryan Sessegnon’s name into Google, read his records, and you’d struggle to believe he is still only 19. Having been on Fulham’s books since he was just eight years old, the 2016/17 season saw him break into the first team. His professional debut came in the League Cup against Leyton Orient as a 16-year-old, and he was back in the classroom studying just a few hours later!
An attacking full-back by trade, the teenager made an instant impact that season, scoring his first goal for the club in a 2-2 draw with Cardiff City and, in doing so, became the first footballer born in the 2000s to score a goal in a first-team game, as well the youngest player to score in a Sky Bet Championship fixture. He also went on to score the winner on his FA Cup debut, also against Cardiff, becoming one of the youngest goalscorers in the history of the competition.
In total, Sessegnon finished his debut season with seven goals in 30 appearances in all competitions, earning him a place in the PFA Championship Team of the Year - the youngest player ever to be included.
The following season, 17-year-old Sessegnon’s performances saw him become one of the greatest young players the Championship has witnessed. He marked his 50th appearance for Fulham with a first professional hat-trick in a 5-4 win over Sheffield United - becoming the first 17-year-old to score a hat-trick in the top four tiers of English league football since Dele Alli in 2014.
The teenager’s 15 goals in the 2017/18 campaign earned him much-deserved plaudits as he was named the Sky Bet Championship Player of the Season, EFL Young Player of the Season and LFE Apprentice of the Year, as well as being named in the EFL Team of the Season at the 2018 EFL Awards ceremony. Despite finishing the season in third place, Fulham secured promotion to the Premier League with a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the Championship Play-Off Final.
Following promotion, Sessegnon went on to feature for Fulham 35 times in the Premier League, scoring his first top-flight goal in October 2018, again becoming the first player born in the 2000s to score in the competition. At just 18 years of age, he made his 100th appearance for Fulham.
After Fulham’s relegation back to the Championship, Sessegnon signed for Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2019 and has since made his Premier League and Champions League debut for the club, as well as becoming the youngest-ever Spurs player to score in a Champions League game when he netted against Bayern Munich in December.
A player who still has the world at his feet, there’s no doubt that Sessegnon is on his way to the top.
James Maddison - Leicester City
EFL Clubs: Coventry City, Norwich City
Born in Coventry, Maddison started his football career with the Sky Blues as an Academy graduate, making his debut in 2014 as a 17-year-old. A league debut against Bristol City followed, as did a first league start against Oldham Athletic, a game in which Maddison also scored his first league goal.
His importance at Coventry City grew throughout the 2014/15 season and shortly after his 18th birthday, Maddison signed professional terms with the midlands club, but missed much of the rest of the campaign after picking up a back injury.
The attacking midfielder continued to develop during the 2015/16 season, and signed for Norwich City in February 2016 before returning to Coventry on loan for the remainder of the season. A further loan spell at Aberdeen meant he had to wait for his Norwich debut, which eventually came in January 2017, and it was worth the wait as he marked it with a debut goal for the Canaries. He went on to play an important role throughout the rest of the season as Norwich finished eighth in the Championship.
The midfielder's most influential season to date came in the 2017/18 season, during which Maddison repaid manager Daniel Farke’s faith in him with a return of 15 goals and eight assists. He contributed some vital goals to Norwich City that season, establishing himself as one of the Championship’s most prestigious creators, having fashioned more chances than any other player in the division. That season also saw him receive his first call-up to the England U21 squad.
His successful campaign was rewarded with a summer move to Premier League side Leicester City, where his stock continued to rise in his maiden season. The midfielder scored an impressive free-kick against Huddersfield Town as well a memorable volley against Watford, resulting in a first-ever call-up to the England senior squad. He finished his debut Premier League season with 14 goal contributions, and was named Leicester’s Young Player of the Season.
This season he has featured more than 30 times for the former Premier League champions, and in November 2019 Gareth Southgate handed the 23 year old a senior international debut as he came off the bench in England’s 7-0 win over Montenegro at Wembley Stadium.
Max Aarons - Norwich City
EFL Club: Norwich City
It’s been an unforgettable two years for Norwich City defender Max Aarons who, somehow, is still only 20 years of age. Norwich City’s promotion-winning 2018/19 campaign saw Aarons emerge as one of the most exciting young defenders in the country with his performances.
After signing a first professional contract in 2018, he took to the Sky Bet Championship like a duck to water, catching the eyes of many in his debut season. His first professional goal came in the Carabao Cup against Cardiff City - which was enough to earn him a subsequent England U19s call-up – and, just days later, he was rewarded with a first league start, in which he produced an assured display. It put him firmly on the map as one to look out for in the future.
Aarons played a key role in Norwich City’s Sky Bet Championship title-winning season, establishing himself as the ultimate modern full-back. Solid in defence and dangerous in attack, his form was recognised with the 2019 EFL Young Player of the Season Award, as well as a place in both the Sky Bet Championship Team of the Season and the PFA Team of the Year.
Promotion to the Premier League doesn’t appear to have phased the 20-year-old either, having made almost 30 Premier League appearances so far, as well as making his England U21 debut earlier this season.
James Justin - Leicester City
EFL Club: Luton Town
James Justin is another rising star unlikely to forget the last year. Luton born and bred, Justin joined the Hatters aged seven in 2005, progressing through the club’s youth system. He made his senior debut for the club in May 2016, and went on to feature for Luton 39 times in all competitions the following season.
During the 2017/18 campaign, Justin made 22 appearances in all competitions for the Hatters, helping them to promotion from League Two but it was the following season that really put the defender on the map. Although it wasn't his first in professional football, the 2018/19 season was a breakthrough one for Justin and his most influential yet. The versatile defender showed maturity beyond his years and by his 21st birthday had already made more than 100 appearances for his home town club.
Forward-thinking, energetic and hard-working, the full-back was an invaluable member of Luton Town’s squad as they achieved a second successive promotion, picking up the Sky Bet League One title along the way. Justin was also shortlisted for the 2019 Young Player of the Season Award, only to be beaten by Championship defender Max Aarons, as well as making the 2018/19 PFA Team of the Year.
Following his success in League One with Luton, Justin signed for Leicester City in June 2019 on a five-year contract. His Foxes debut is one he’ll never forget, marking the occasion with his first goal in a 4-0 Carabao Cup Round Two victory away at his former club. Justin may have only made eight appearances for the Premier League side this season, but he is still very much developing on his way to the top.
Tammy Abraham - Chelsea
EFL Clubs: Bristol City (loan), Aston Villa (loan 2018/19 season)
Now a regular in the Premier League for Chelsea, Tammy Abraham signed as an U8 for the Blues and enjoyed a prolific youth career progressing through the ranks. He was part of the Chelsea youth team which recorded consecutive triumph in both the UEFA Youth League and the FA Youth Cup in 2015 and 2016 respectively. From 2014 to 2016 over the course of two seasons, Abraham scored 74 goals in 98 matches across all competitions for Chelsea's youth teams and was tipped to reach the top.
He may have been on the Premier League’s books since his childhood, but he is a player who very much learned his trade in the EFL.
After making his Premier League debut as an 18-year-old in May 2016, Abraham was sent on loan to Bristol City for the 2016/17 season as he sought first-team experience and competitive playing time. After making his debut on the opening day of the EFL season, Abraham - who was 19 at the time - set the Sky Bet Championship alight, scoring 11 goals in his first 16 appearances for the Robins, picking up a Young Player of the Month award along the way. Early in 2017, the striker had reached 16 league goals, becoming the highest-scoring teenager in the history of the Championship.
His blistering start to the 2016/17 campaign earned him a call-up to the England U21 squad, where he made his debut in a 5-0 victory over Bosnia Herzegovina, an occasion he also marked with two goals.
By the end of the season he had scored 26 goals in 48 appearances for Lee Johnson’s side who successfully fought against relegation. He ended the campaign by picking up Bristol City’s Player of the Season, Young Player of the Season and the club’s Golden Boot award.
The following campaign saw Abraham spend time on loan at Swansea City, where he scored eight goals as the Welsh side failed to avoid relegation to the Championship, before he joined Aston Villa for the 2018/19 campaign in the Sky Bet Championship. He was Dean Smith’s first-choice striker as he recorded a season to remember in the EFL. In total, he netted 26 goals in 40 appearances, becoming the first Villa player to score more than 20 goals since their last title-winning season of 1980/81.
Abraham was a key figure in the Aston Villa side that went on a ten-match winning run, culminating in a Play-Off Final victory over Derby County which restored their top-flight status.
The 22-year-old started this season as he finished the last. Now a regular for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea side, Abraham has made over 30 appearances in all competitions so far this season, scoring 13 goals.
Dean Henderson - Manchester United (on loan at Sheffield United)
EFL Clubs: Grimsby Town (loan), Shrewsbury Town (loan), Sheffield United (loan 2018/19 season)
Like Abraham, Dean Henderson has also been on the Premier League books since his early teen years, but valuable experience in Sky Bet League Two, League One and the Championship has led him to the Premier League success he is enjoying today.
Despite working his way through the ranks at Manchester United, Henderson is yet to make a first-team appearance for theReds, and has instead experienced first-team football through a series of successful loan spells across the EFL.
His debut in professional football came in Sky Bet League Two for Grimsby Town in 2016, a game in which Henderson kept a clean sheet and the Mariners won 2-0. After an impressive start, his loan deal was extended until the end of the season, however it came to an unexpected end in February 2017 when he was recalled by the Reds following an injury to United’s third-choice goalkeeper at the time.
The 2017/18 season was a landmark one for the youngster as he recorded an unforgettable campaign during a loan spell at Shrewsbury Town. Making almost 50 appearances that season, Henderson appeared twice at Wembley for the Shrews - once in the EFL Trophy Final and again in the League One Play-Off Final. Despite two fine individual displays on the big stage, Paul Hurst’s side were to be unsuccessful on both occasions.
Henderson signed a new contract at United, keeping him at the club until at least June 2020; however, such is the fierce competition for places, he joined Championship side Sheffield United on loan for the 2018/19 season in search for more regular first-team football. The move was a huge success as he won the Sky Bet Championship Golden Glove award for most clean sheets in the division and was a key part of the Blades’ promotion to the Premier League.
As Henderson continued to grow in stature, he was England’s number one in the U21 European Championship in the summer of 2019, before he returned to Sheffield United on another season-long loan, this time to gain top-flight experience following their recent promotion to the Premier League.
Luke Matheson - Wolverhampton Wanderers (on loan at Rochdale)
EFL Club: Rochdale
One look at what Luke Matheson has achieved in the last two seasons and you’d struggle to believe he was just 17 years of age. Having quite literally hopped off the school bus and onto the team bus, to say recent times have been eventful for the teenager would be an understatement.
Many may recognise him as the teenage defender (16 at the time) who scored at Old Trafford to take Manchester United to a penalty shootout in Round Three of the Carabao Cup, or the school boy who recently signed for Premier League side Wolves, but his journey started at Rochdale in 2010, when he was just eight years old.
Fast forward eight years and his name was already in the record books. September 2018 saw a 15-year-old Matheson make his Rochdale debut in an EFL Trophy Group Stage match. Coming on as a substitute, Matheson became Dale’s youngest-ever debutant at 15 years and 336 days of age. He was also awarded Man of the Match for his performance. Not a bad way to kick off your career.
His league debut followed in January 2019, as he came on as a substitute against Fleetwood Town in Sky Bet League One, before going on to represent his country for the first time at England U17 level - a game in which they beat France 3-2.
It was clear then that Matheson was going from strength to strength, and the start of the 2019/20 season saw him make his first league start as Rochdale beat Bolton Wanderers 5-2 in League One. In August 2019 he received his GCSE results (five A*s, three As, a B and a C), and in September 2019, he fulfilled every young lad’s dream by scoring in front of 58,000 fans at Old Trafford.
His first professional contract followed, and the icing on the cake came in January 2020 as he put pen to paper on a life-changing contract with Wolverhampton Wanderers to top off a whirlwind couple of years for the teenager.
Immediately after signing for Wolves, Matheson returned to Rochdale on loan for the remainder of this season to continue his development. At just 17 years of age, he already has almost 40 professional appearances to his name.
Jarrod Bowen - West Ham United
EFL Club: Hull City
A player with a natural goalscoring instinct and fantastic work rate, Jarrod Bowen signed for Hull City in July 2014 after impressing for his debut season for Hereford United. He soon established himself in the Tigers’ Reserves, and was rewarded with a first-team debut in the League Cup in August 2016, before Marco Silva gave him his big break in 2017. A first league start followed, as Hull signed off the campaign against Tottenham Hotspur.
Bowen was involved from the start as the Tigers kicked off the 2017/18 campaign at Aston Villa, a game in which he would net his first goal for the club. His first full season in senior football brought 15 goals in total, including four in five league appearances in August, which resulted in an EFL Young Player of the Month award and a new three-year deal. Bowen had reached double figures by the turn of the year, and people outside of East Yorkshire were taking note.
The following campaign saw him go from strength to strength, becoming the first Hull player to hit 20 goals in a single season since Stuart Elliott in 2004/05. By the Spring of 2019, he had passed the 20-goal mark and set a club record by scoring in eight consecutive home league matches, including braces against Swansea City, Sheffield Wednesday, Birmingham City and Queens Park Rangers.
He would go on to be included in the EFL Team of the Season for the Sky Bet Championship, and picked up where he left off in August of last year, making his 100th senior appearance and hitting double figures in the league with a brace against Preston North End.
In January 2020, Bowen departed the EFL for Premier League side West Ham United, leaving behind an impressive record: over a century of appearances and a half century of strikes in all competitions for the Tigers.
Bowen left ready-made for the Premier League, and is a shining example of youth development in the EFL. The stats speak for themselves, and his rise shows no signs of slowing.
Lloyd Kelly - AFC Bournemouth
EFL Club: Bristol City
The 2017/18 season saw young defender Lloyd Kelly burst onto the Sky Bet Championship scene, as the Bristol-born defender made himself known. Having come through the Robins’ ranks - Kelly had hardly finished his GCSE’s before being asked to train with the U23 squad and soon caught the eye. After time in and around the first team, Kelly made his senior debut in a 5-0 victory over Plymouth Argyle in the Carabao Cup in August 2017, and since that night cemented his place in the first team.
A full-back by trade, some tipped the youngster to develop into a central defensive role, thanks in part to his physical stature and standout ability to read the game. After making a total of 14 appearances in his debut season for Lee Johnson’s side, his breakthrough and most influential season arguably came in the 2018/19 campaign where he made a total of 34 appearances and played a key role in City’s Play-Off push.
Following a successful season on the pitch, Kelly signed for Premier League side AFC Bournemouth in the summer of 2019. He made his debut in a Carabao Cup tie against Burton Albion but is yet to feature in the Premier League for Eddie Howe’s side.
He got his first taste of international football in 2017 with England U20s, before receiving a call-up to England U21s a year later. Kelly was also part of England U21s European Championship squad.
There are of course many more youngsters who have been tipped to reach the top currently making their mark in the EFL. Brighton & Hove Albion's Ben White - currently on loan at Leeds United - has featured in all three EFL divisions in recent years, and is patiently waiting for his chance in the Premier League.
Kalvin Phillips - also of Leeds United, Ollie Watkins of Brentford, Derby County's Jayden Bogle and teenager Jude Bellingham of Birmingham City are amongst those currently playing in the EFL making the headlines at the moment.