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Young Guns

Last week Sparta Spotlight looked at some of the oldest goalkeepers to play at the top level in homage to the forty-two-year-old Gianluigi Buffon’s contract extension at Juventus.

With our penchant for balance and the links between Buffon and his namesake Gianluigi Donnaruma who made his Serie A debut for AC Milan at the age of just sixteen and Italy debut at seventeen, we thought it would be interesting to look at some of the ‘keepers who have burst or been thrust onto the scene at a tender age, with varying degrees of future success.

 

Neil Finn

The youngest goalkeeper to ever appear in the Premier League, Neil Finn started for West Ham at Manchester City on New Years Day on 1996 just three days after his seventeenth birthday, in what was his only appearance in professional football.

Finn, who was drafted in as a late replacement to both Ludek Miklosko and Les Sealey, put in a respectable display for one so young as him despite going down 2-1 at Maine Road.

He was in the same fabled youth team which included Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, but Finn never appeared in the first team again after his historic bout and a loan move to Dorchester Town would be his only football before being released by the Hammers in 1998, with a brief return to football with non-league Romford Town his only other club.

 

Alban Lafont

France under-21 international, Alban Lafont, been on the scene across two of Europe’s top leagues since 2015.

Lafont became Ligue 1’s youngest ever goalkeeper, when he made his bout for Toulouse at just sixteen and remained as the club’s first choice after a vastly impressive start to his professional career, where he kept two clean sheets in his first two games.

He would only miss a couple of matches in the following two seasons and his impressive performances in the south of France at such a tender age drew attention from several big hitters and in the summer of 2018 joined Fiorentina in a £7 million switch from Toulouse.

Lafont suffered a loss of form towards the end of last season in Serie A after a string of high-profile errors and was sent to Nantes on loan for the 2019/20 season where he has had a steady campaign to keep his promising career on track.

 

Peter Jehle

It is difficult to fathom a sixteen-year-old child playing international football, but that is exactly what Peter Jehle did when he made his debut for Liechtenstein in a Euro 2000 Qualifier with Azerbaijan in 1998.

Not only did Jehle make history in regards to his age in the game with Azerbaijan, but also played a part in what turned out to be Lichtenstein’s first ever competitive victory, having not long been FIFA affiliated.

Jehle would break his country’s appearance record with 132 caps and has become something of a bastion of the Liechtenstein game, now working in a directorial capacity within their FA.

The youngest ever international goalkeeper made a big move from local club Schaan to Swiss giants Grasshoppers, where he would pick up to Swiss Super League winners’ medals.

Jehle spent most of his career in the Swiss top-flight, a spell with Boavista in Portugal aside, before retiring in 2018, playing for the national side right up until he called time on his club career.

 

Thibaut Courtois

By far the most high-profile in this list, Courtois has been playing an elite level of football for well over a decade and was a fortnight shy of seventeenth birthday when he made his debut for Genk.

The 2010-11 season would see Courtois instated as Genk’s number one, leading them to the Belgian Pro-League title and outstanding individual displays would attract the attention of Chelsea, moving for a reported £9 million in the summer of 2011.

Within weeks, Courtois was sent on loan to Atlético Madrid, where he enjoyed such success that he spent three seasons Vicente Calderon where he won a La Liga title and reached a Champions League Final. All this before the age of twenty-two, and Belgium’s number one was already living up the hype bestowed on him at such an early age.

Chelsea would reap the benefits of the Belgian’s talents for four seasons, adding another two league titles to his collection, before a controversial move to his former foes Real Madrid in the summer of 2018.

Courtois endured a very mixed start to life at the Bernabeu but is on the verge of winning the La Liga title in his second season with the club and living up the billing as one of the top ‘keepers in Europe.


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