Johnny Phillips: Sonny’s sad story is a footballing morality tale for our times

It is a sight and sound familiar to anyone who has spent time involved with youth football: Children, often no older than six or seven years old, being harangued and shouted at from the sidelines.

Their over-bearing parents will tell you that it’s just encouragement and support. The reality is they are putting intolerable pressures on young children and sending out confusing messages, when the only voice any kid playing organised football should listen to is their coach’s.

In many instances, parents are labouring under the delusion that their child might ‘make it’. Not content with letting these young footballers enjoy the game, they want to live out their own unfulfilled dreams through their children.

Perhaps nobody is better qualified to speak about this than Sonny Pike. In his new autobiography, The Greatest Footballer That Never Was, Pike takes us through the incredible and shocking story of a child prodigy who became a pawn in a sinister chase for fame that ripped his family apart.

It is 1996. A beaming 12-year-old bounces onto the set of BBC show Fantasy Football League, wearing an Ajax kit he’d received from the European giants after a recent trial there.

“Have any English clubs been in touch?” enquired presenter David Baddiel.

“Yeah, most of them. Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, Norwich, Ipswich, QPR,” Pike replied.

“So, the whole of the Premier League,” Baddiel interrupted.

Nephew of the former Tottenham Hotspur forward Mark Falco, Pike scored 120 goals in his first season for Charlden Youth in North London.

There were appearances on Saturday morning children’s television, where he fielded calls from other ambitious kids seeking advice on how to make it in the game.

He won Sky Sports’ Champion of the Year and was presented with the trophy by Ian Wright. Pike appeared on the pitch at the 1996 League Cup final, where he went through a keepy-ups routine at the behest of sponsors Coca-Cola.

There was a McDonald’s advert, clothing deals with Paul Smith and boot deals with Mizuno.

His legs were insured for £1million.

All the while his father, Mickey, ensured his son kept a high profile, which included signing for celebrity football agent Eric ‘Monster’ Hall as well as keeping the endorsements rolling in. Pike has not spoken to his Dad since those dizzy times.

The 1996 documentary Fair Game: Coaching And Poaching presented by Greg Dyke, who later became head of the Football Association, was the point it turned sour.

The circus around Pike was laid bare in the programme and he was discovered to have been in breach of football regulations by going on trial at Chelsea – a club he had dreamt of representing – having signed forms at Leyton Orient, with his father’s signature on the documents.

Too young to understand the mess that had been made for him, Pike was the one who suffered. Cast aside by both clubs, he drifted through his teenage years and lost his love for the game.

Meanwhile, his mother took his father to the Royal Courts of Justice over claims of exploitation of their son.

The youngster’s last days as a footballer ended with short spells in the youth ranks at Stevenage Borough, Barnet and Grimsby at 18.

I first met up with Pike five years ago. Then 32, he had passed The Knowledge and was enjoying life as a London cabbie. With a young family of his own, his thoughts had turned to writing a book about his experiences.

Pike wanted to reach out to the media to see if there was still any interest in his colourful story.

“I think there’s a lot to learn from this and I want to get my point across to parents and the media,” he said.

“Let kids enjoy their football.

“I’ve got a lot of friends who coach at academies and I think everyone should slow down the attention placed on kids. Parents sometimes live their life through their kids, which is understandable, but I just want them to calm down.

“It was all too much, for me. I hadn’t just lost the club I wanted to sign for, I stopped speaking to my dad as a result of the trouble it all caused.

“I was dealing with so many things. From being really well-known and famous, it’s a lot for an adult to take on let alone a kid.”

Five years later, Pike’s autobiography is testament to his determination to tell that story.

The question that can never be answered is: Would he have made it as a professional had he not been so poorly handled?

“I can’t guarantee that I was going to make it,” he says.

“I can put myself up to certain players and say I was as good, if not better, than them but no-one can really answer that question. I like to think I was good enough, but I’ll never know.”

Michael Calvin, author of No Hunger In Paradise, has spent years researching the world of youth football.

His studies concluded that of the 1.5million children participating in organised football in England at any one time, only 180 will ever make a Premier League appearance. Yet to listen to some of the parents on the sidelines at any level you would think most matches involved a global star in waiting.

What happened to Pike was the extreme end of the spectrum, but his book serves as a warning to over-eager parents everywhere.

Kids should be allowed to play for the love of the game alone.

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