Pressure of price tag prevented ex-Manchester United and Burnley 'wonderkid' John Cofie from hitting true potential

The pressure of being advertised as the youngest ever £1m footballer prevented new Moorland High School coach John Cofie from reaching his full potential.

Tuesday, 1st December 2020, 12:15 pm
Updated Tuesday, 1st December 2020, 12:18 pm
Moorland High School coach John Cofie, who joined Manchester United from Burnley for £1.25m in 2007.

That’s according to the school’s Head of Football Development Charlie Jackson, who has had a significant part to play in the life of the Ghanaian striker.

The ex-Burnley ‘wonderkid’ had stardom thrust upon him as a teenager when switching to Manchester United for a record seven-figure sum.

The stratospheric fee involved instantly magnified the move to Old Trafford and the eyes of the media were suddenly on him.

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John Cofie (left) and Charlie Jackson (right) with former Barcelona and Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure at Moorland School.

There was huge expectation on the Aboso-born forward, who hadn’t been in England for long after emigrating from Germany.

It was quite a burden to carry, a kryptonite that proved to be steadily debilitating, even if Cofie was relatively oblivious to it at the time.

“The price tag was the scary thing and that’s something that I wanted to protect him from,” said Jackson.

“The £1.25m price tag at the time was ridiculous for such a young boy and the press got hold of that pretty quickly. I wouldn’t have released that if I was Burnley or Manchester United.

“I think that was probably the beginning of the downfall of how that was going to go in my opinion. That’s the sad thing about football when you’re putting price tags on academy players.

“It’s just madness. He went there, he was doing well but that price tag, later on, played its part. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Jackson insists that the hype was real. The Matrix Soccer Academy director, who owns a UEFA Youth Licence, claims that Cofie was better than United midfielder Paul Pogba as a boy.

Long before the Frenchman’s world-record £89m transfer to the Red Devils, which marked his return to the club in 2016, the pair had formed part of the Academy at Carrington.

Cofie made the step up the ladder just months before Pogba completed his signing from Le Havre as a 16-year-old and, less than two years later, they helped United land the FA Youth Cup with a 5-3 aggregate win over Sheffield United.

“I think at 14 he was the best player,” said Jackson. “He was better than [Paul] Pogba. The only player that ran him close was Ravel Morrison, who was an unbelievable talent, but the ups and downs in his world have changed him.

“I think John could still play now if he was managed properly. He would do a good job for somebody, he just wants to play football.

“He hasn’t changed since he was 12 and he first walked through the door. He was the best athlete, he could run all day.”

It wasn’t quite the Theatre of Dreams that Cofie had anticipated, however, as he failed to match the promise of his formative years.

The prolific frontman had been unapologetically ruthless throughout his generative years in the game.

His ability was ingrained, his eye for goal instinctive; he was the unpolished diamond that stood out from the rest when stationed at the Rheindahlen military base.

Burnley swooped in under the noses of Borussia Monchengladbach and, before long, Cofie was considered to be one of the most exciting prospects in English football.

“Burnley picked him up during a community project and I got wind of this when I was at Blackburn,” said Jackson, who would take Cofie under his wing in the Ribble Valley.

“He wasn’t signed at the time but I was told, in no uncertain terms, to keep away from him. He was their kid.

“When he came here he got quite a serious back injury while playing for Burnley, which laid him up for nine months.”

Cofie’s goal-scoring exploits at Turf Moor saw his reputation rise exponentially which, in turn, put the Premier League’s top bosses on high alert.

Jackson vividly remembers the time a procession of revered tacticians arrived on the doorstep of Moorland High School unannounced.

A selection of the world’s finest coaches would all be chauffeured to the tip of a prolonged Autumnal track, that was enshrouded by trees, before politely being asked to make a U-turn.

He said: “It was ridiculous. To name Chelsea and Liverpool doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

“There were so many clubs and we had to turn certain managers from big clubs back down the drive.

“They all wanted to speak to him face to face. He was a Liverpool fan as a kid so we thought he was going to go there and then United came in.”

Jackson, who is currently Manchester City’s Development Centre Head Coach, had formerly held a coaching role at United’s famed training headquarters, where he worked alongside the likes of Dutchman Rene Meulensteen.

His experience formed part of the decision-making process while the lure to work closely with Sir Alex Ferguson forged a strong gravitational pull towards the most decorated club in English football.

“I worked at Manchester United for a number of years,” said Jackson. “Having been there previously, I could tell him how good the club was.

“He asked me what I thought and I told him, if he had the pickings, to go to Manchester United. They had the track record and legacy of developing young, quality players and a manager there who knew his football.”

Cofie wasn’t able to emulate the success of World Cup winner Pogba, who went on to win four consecutive Serie A titles at Juventus and the Europa League in his second spell at United.

But his story is one that can be used to educate and inspire the next generation. Cofie - who was also capped for England at Under 17 level - will undoubtedly be worth his weight in gold.

“Because John has played at a good level and played with some of the best players in the world, there’s ready-made advice for the kids,” Jackson said.

“It’s great to have him back, his enthusiasm hasn’t changed, he’s still got the same attitude to life, which is good. He’s not allowed football to define him, which is a big thing. Football can do that, good, bad or indifferent.

“It’s been good to bring him back because he’s been able to speak to the kids about his past, present and what could potentially be their future.”

Jackson’s track record is exemplary. Cofie started the trend, but there are plenty of others that have bucked it. Joe Grayson, Stefan Mols and Niall Mason are all products of his expertise.

And Scott McTominay, Adam Henley, Joe Riley and Clarets season-ticket holder Liam Grimshaw have all benefited from Jackson’s knowledge and artistry.

He said: “John was probably the first kid that we’ve had through the school to make it as a professional. We’ve had multiple since then.

“A large contribution of my effort went into John and the success that we’ve had with other players since shows that it wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t a one-off.

“There are Premier League players who have gone on to do good things so we’ve done it at a consistent level. It’s amazing and sometimes you have to pinch yourself.”

He added: “John was the first £1m player and that’s something to be proud of and he left the school with massive success attached to him.

“Now he’s back having gone through the ups and downs of football and hopefully he can share those positives and negatives with the kids. He’s very humble like that and the kids will listen to him.

“We’re still only a school with 165 kids but in the last six years we’ve won four national titles and five Lancashire Cups. Nine titles in that time is pretty impressive on top of getting kids signed.

“It’s nice to keep the success going and having John back here to enhance that is the cherry on the cake. It’s good to have somebody there to bounce off.

“Hopefully we can win more titles and John will prove that he’s just as successful as a mentor and coach as he was as a youngster going into the minefield of professional football.”