Sometimes one or two decisions can define a career.
After Dominic Solanke fired in his first and then second Premier League goals in 39 games for Bournemouth on Sunday to hand the Cherries a lifeline in their relegation battle, he may have taken a moment to reflect on what has gone before. Once touted as the crown jewel in England’s talented youngsters, the boy from Reading had been treading water for some time.
Some miles north-east in London, great friend and former youth teammate Tammy Abraham is living the dream Solanke once held; leading the line at boyhood club Chelsea, where Solanke too, began his career.
Born a month apart in 1997, the pair both joined the Blues at under-eight level, rapidly progressing and spurring each other onto a staggering 41 goals apiece, during an incredible campaign for the age group sides in 2014. The Chelsea Under-18s, led by the pair, collected both the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League titles.
Solanke went on to become the youngest Champions League Chelsea debutant, when Jose Mourinho introduced him – as a second half substitute- to first team action later that season. Abraham wouldn’t get his first team bow until the arrival of temporary coach Guus Hiddink the following year, while Solanke headed to Chelsea’s European development centre of Vitesse.
Abraham spent two largely successful loan spells at Bristol City and Swansea and was subsequently called up to England’s Under-21 side. In perhaps fatal decision number one, Solanke turned down similar loan offers and instead played an almost unnoticed third choice to Diego Costa and Michy Batshuayi, for the title winning season of 2016/17, before being told he wasn’t in Antonio Conte’s plans at Stamford Bridge.
The frozen-out Solanke responded by smashing four goals and grabbing the ‘Golden Ball’ for player of the tournament as England won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, in the summer of 2017. But despite his international successes, you can’t help but wonder how his club career had turned out had he taken the option of a loan deal the summer before and settled at a side where he was given those precious minutes.
Solanke instead stood his ground and in another decisive move, held out for a switch to Liverpool; which, at the age of 19, proved to be one risky move too many.
Ultimately, it never happened at Anfield for Solanke, where he scored once in 27 appearances but was still sold for huge profit to Bournemouth.
Abraham was hammering in goals for Aston Villa and securing his place in Frank Lampard’s plans for this season, now seasons ahead in development of his friend at senior level.
Abraham speaking to the Chelsea website last year, spoke of his admiration for the talent of his old teammate and reminisced fondly on their glory days in blue together.
“He was the first player I ever met when I came in to Chelsea and we clicked straight away. He was always skilful in the younger age groups and he had the quickest feet you’ve ever seen. When I saw him doing a certain skill, I wanted to do it as well and we were just like that, always driving each other on. It was nice to have that friendship and bond to play alongside him.”
As well as differing transfer switches, it is perhaps also Abraham’s self-assurance and strength of character in the years since the pair’s dual success, that has determined their differing returns in the top flight.
“Dominic was quite a shy boy,” former Blue’s academy coach Adi Viveash told the Athletic. “Tammy was what you see now: confident, bubbly, quite an extrovert. He was a lot louder than Dominic in an outward way, although on the pitch they both had the same steely determination.”
Abraham also agreed with that assessment of their contrasting personalities, although he remains confident that the boy he met at the age of seven all those years ago can still deliver on his undoubted potential.
“In front of people he’s not comfortable with, he’s quiet but once he gets going he’s a good lad.” added Abraham. “I think he can really develop into a top striker, he’s so versatile so he really can go to the top.”
Abraham commenting on Solanke’s potential may feel strange considering they are the same age, but the markedly different paths they have taken thus far, largely facilitate it. Perhaps a relegation may be good for Solanke, providing a chance to experience the Championship and learn his craft, or rather re-learn it.
Despite a welcome return to the scoresheet – one that Chelsea fans will be grateful for, with it preventing Leicester from going third – there is still plenty of work to do for the former wonderkid to rediscover the form that first thrust him into the spotlight.
Sadly those decisions made three years ago, and perhaps a loss of belief, have ensured that he has been playing catch up with his pal Tammy since they lifted those youth trophies aloft together. Let’s hope he now finds the fight to stay in the race.