Thursday, 13 January 2011

"He'll play for England I tell thee"

A familiar sight in a few years? Picture courtesy

Every so often, if you support a club outside the Premier League and if you are lucky, you see your club unearth a real talent. One that has fans turning to each other and saying, "he'll play for England one day". Unfortunately, they usually they have to leave you to achieve it.

Sometimes they do play for England - Phil Jagielka, now Everton and (probably should be first choice) England centre back.

Phil Jagielka - Completed transition to international football

And sometimes they don't - star left back Wayne Quinn left for Newcastle, played a further 62 professional games (including a return on loan), before playing for Hayle in Cornwall. Now aged 34 he is player/manager for Penzance AFC.

Wayne Quinn in action for Hayle c

And sometimes their career takes a completely different path - Curtis Woodhouse, professional boxer

Curtis Woodhouse - Light Welterweight

Two seasons ago, Sheffield United were lucky to see two such players breakthrough in the same season, both local lads and, amazingly, both played in the same position.

To those who didn't watch the reserves, little was known of 19 year old right back Kyle Naughton when he made his debut against Watford back in late September 2008. A spell in the Borders on loan at Gretna the previous season had seemingly made the Sheffield born boy into a man. Blades fans immediately took to him, with his whippet like pace and confidence to push forward - knowing his pace would allow him to recover if he lost the ball. Added to which his timing of a tackle bordered on the impeccable. You could watch him slide into a challenge inside the box with your head out of your hands, as there was little chance of a penalty being given away.

Kyle 1 - the boy Naughton after scoring his 1st goal for the Blades

He quickly formed a great partnership with Greg Halford which saw the constant interchange  and overlapping runs a joy to watch. Even being placed behind the defensively frail David Cotterill did little to curb his enthusiastic runs, whilst still posing little threat to the Blades conceding.

Around the time Naughton was breaking into the Blades first team, Kyle Walker was earning rave reviews on loan at Northampton. Walker was also a Blades fan and even lived in Sharrow, the area of Sheffield that is home to Bramall Lane. Viewed as potentially a better player by Academy watchers, the 18 year old was already gaining England U-19 caps. After returning to the Blades, his chance was to come in a re-arranged FA Cup game at Leyton Orient, playing at right back in a 4-1 victory.

A further appearance in the cup replay defeat at Hull followed, but it wasn't until April that Walker got his first league start, replacing Naughton at right back at home to Swansea, with the older Kyle moving over to left back to cover the injured Gary Naysmith. He looked instantly comfortable, more conservative in his play than Naughton, but generally stronger on the ball and in the tackle. Probably reflecting his stockier build and the fact that he played centre back for academy and reserves.

Kyle 2 - Back in a Blades shirt for a second spell

Naughton, playing "on the wrong side" hardly put a foot wrong. So many full backs switching to play on their "wrong" side get caught out, but in those 4 remaining games prior to the Play Off Final against Burnley Naughton was rarely troubled and neither was Walker.

Prior to the Play Off Final Naughton had picked up the Supporters' and Sponsors' Player of the Year Awards, the Powerade Player of the Month for April, an England U21 cap and had made the PFA Team of the Season. All on the back of 43 starts and 3 goals in his debut season. Fans feared that if the Blades failed to make the Premier League, a big club would come knocking for Naughton. The only compensating factor was the emergence of Walker, with just 5 appearances,prior to the final, to his name he wouldn't be going anywhere and was a ready-made replacement.

Seeing both Sheffield born lads laid out in despair on the Wembley pitch, following another big match failure, was gutting. As was the realisation that was probably the last time we would see them both together in the red and white stripes. We knew the Blades were bound to cash in over the Summer months. We didn't expect it to be on both of them.

Several clubs were linked with moves, predominantly Everton, Spurs and Villa. Naughton was strongly linked with Everton and a £5m deal was reportedly on, before Tottenham stepped in with a bid for both and Everton responded. It was never really clear what went on in the latter stages of the deal being agreed. With them both being local lads, the frenzy of stories from "In the Know" posters on the message boards increased. Eventually a deal worth a reported £10m for the pair was agreed with Tottenham.

The motives for the move were not clear, with Spurs already boasting 6 full backs and plenty of flexible defensive cover in their squad, the more sensible move and the one that might have accelerated their development was possibly Everton.

Despite making his debut against Barcelona in a pre-season tournament and an early season defensive crisis at White Hart Lane, Naughton struggled to break through. By the January 2010 transfer window he had made just one 94th minute substitute appearance during the season and it was decided a loan was needed to get some games.

Naughton was signed by Gordon Strachan for Middlesbrough and, although he filled a number of positions during his 15 game loan spell, he left a positive impression. Boro fan Mark Forster takes up the story;

"He looked like a good prospect when we got him on loan and had a few good games but seemed to drop out of Strachan's plans pretty quickly for some reason. He's a typical modern full back for me, good at supporting the midfield but a bit suspect at the defensive side of his game. Overall though, he is a good pacy player who will do well. It was just a shame we played him out of position a lot."

At the start of this season, back at Spurs, with seemingly no likelihood of first team action, Kyle moved out on loan again. Again it was to the Championship, but this time to Leicester City.  David Bevan of football league website is suitably enthused, even more so as Kyle's loan was set to be to Portsmouth, but fell through due to Pompey's financial uncertainty.

"When he instead pitched up at the Walkers Stadium. Leicester City fans were delighted. We desperately needed pace throughout the side and here, falling right into our lap, was the Championship's Daniel Alves... 
Well, perhaps not but two goals from open play in the space of three months or so - Naughton's tally in a Leicester shirt so far - is unheard of for most right-backs at this level. A superb counter-attacking goal at home to Doncaster has been his highlight to date, complete with somersault and air guitar celebration, while the slip that allowed Max Gradel to open the scoring in the recent 2-2 draw with Leeds was his worst moment." 

"It was a defensive aberration, the like of which we have seen on a few occasions from Naughton, but his attacking play, enthusiasm and all-round athleticism has been a joy to behold and I can only hope, along with most City fans, that we can keep him on a permanent basis when his season-long loan runs out."

With six first team appearances in the Championship, alongside a brief loan at Northampton, Walker was always going to be loaned out by Spurs to build up experience. Thankfully, as part of the deal that saw him leave, he was to return to Bramall Lane on a season long loan...or so we thought.

On his return Walker continued to impress in a red and white shirt, despite playing as part of an ever changing back four in an inconsistently performing team, that was propped up by a number of short term loans. Then, with fifty minutes of the January loan window remaining, with Harry Redknapp having let Naughton and Hutton leave on loan and with Walker travelling with the Blades squad for a match at Watford, Walker was recalled. Redknapp made play of a defensive crisis, although that was surely of his own making? The circumstances behind the recall have never been revealed, but it is clear from comments made since that it left a bitter taste in the mouth of management and directors at Bramall Lane.

Despite the urgency of the recall, it was the end of March before he made his Tottenham debut, one of three appearances in the remainder of the season. And again he started this season outside of the reckoning. A short term defensive crisis saw him join Championship leaders QPR, initially for a month in September, but this was extended to January a month later.

QPR fans were more than impressed with what they saw. Comments such as :
"Kyle was class, he oozed it. Pacy, skillful and clever, he will be in the full national side by the end of the year, a starlet he's exciting to watch and a genuine international star in the making."
"Kyle was almost too good for us, he needed to be in the Premier League. He was an amazing player though."
"Kyle was absolutely superb. So much pace and strength. Definitely a future England international."
"He was fab. Quick, smart and able to get back whilst not be scared to go forward. Gutted that he's gone."

And gone he was. The quality of his play for the R's was duly noted at White Hart Lane and a decision was made to find a temporary Premier League home for Kyle. A move to Villa materialised and within 24 hours he returned to Bramall Lane. Slotting in well alongside the experience of Dunne and Cuellar, Kyle reminded us of what we briefly saw in his time at Bramall Lane. Within 6 minutes he had gathered the ball on the halfway line, rounded Jamie Ward and driven at a back tracking defence, before confidently tucking the ball past Steve Simonsen. His lack of goal celebration was noted by Blades fans (and should be noted by a fat lad from Sheffield). His defensive play was near faultless throughout the match and another driving run in injury time was a key contribution to Petrov's goal, Villa's third.

The end of the match saw Walker take acclaim from all sides of the ground in a calm, respectful manner. The boy seems well grounded and  that will hold in in good stead until the end of the season.

Kyle Walker makes a successful return to Bramall Lane

So what might the future hold for the two Kyles? Naughton is now 22, but still has time on his side. If he continues to impress at Leicester, then a permanent move could be in the offing. Particularly if the Foxes achieve promotion. He could also tempt a lower half Premier League club, if the Foxes remain in the Championship. From their, with his skill, attitude and work ethic he can still progress. Unfortunately, I don't think he has a future at Spurs and I think the reason for that is his younger namesake.

If Walker, now 20, takes his chance at Villa, and nothing he has done to date suggests he will do otherwise, I can see him forcing his way into the reckoning at Spurs and from there....? There is a dearth of decent right backs in England. Glen Johnson divides opinion, Micah Richards has never really progressed and fulfilled promise, Jagielka could play there, but is much better in the middle. Who else stands out? As I said here the opportunities for good quality youngsters to progress are dependent upon getting experience at Premier League clubs and Walker is now achieving that.

I honestly believe that Walker will play for England in the next 3 years. There I have said it. In fact I think I sat on the Kop at Bramall Lane 2 years ago and said he would achieve it within 5 years. And if I am wrong and if this blog is still here in 3 years time, you can come and tell me. I might be accused of bias, but I honestly don't think I will be.

Thanks to David Bevan, Mark Forster, @TrickyTredder (Trevor Abbo) @lucyshambles (Lucy Amos) @JLQPR  (Jawad Laouira) @Jane010879 (Jane Simons) for their input into this article. It was much appreciated.


  1. they were the days, england full backs all we've got now are crap loan players and league 1 to look forward to...McCabe out!!!!

  2. In the period leading up to the fateful play off final you mention, my fellow blogger Lloyd and I became puzzled. All season, Kyle Naughton has been attracting headlines. That he became the subject of transfer talk and secured a move to Spurs was no surprise, but he was suddenly joined in the column inches of the newspapers by another Kyle – at the time, it all smacked of a “buy one, get one free mentality…after all, he’s called Kyle as well, so he must be good.”

    But seeing Walker’s rampaging display back at Bramall Lane on ITV on Saturday showed how wrong we were to be sceptical. I hadn’t known about the loan spell at Northampton so your post is very informative Ian. I’m not a fan of Glen Johnson so I think this piece could be prophetic.