Manchester City‘s Kyle Walker will be heading to Russia this summer for his first World Cup, and the defender remembers how it all began as a 17-year old-on a motorway drive from Sheffield to Northampton.
That day in the winter of 2008 is a vivid memory for Walker, as it was the start of his senior career, which reached the pinnacle this month with his first Premier League medal, and the chance at an even bigger prize this summer with his World Cup call-up.
The former Tottenham defender told the Mirror: “I’ve come a long way from the area where I grew up in Sheffield to that loan spell at Northampton, which was my first taste of real professional football, to sitting here looking forward to the World Cup.
“It’s been a journey. But I’ve enjoyed it and just want it to continue.
“Going to Northampton back then was a massive opportunity for me. I’d been in the academy at Sheffield United, who were in the Championship, and Northampton were in League One when I went there.
“Stuart Gray was the United manager and he gave me the chance to go and show what I could do really. From then, it’s history. But I can still remember driving down with my mum and dad. They were in the front car and I had to follow them down because I’d never driven on a motorway!
“They even came in and watched me train after we arrived. Adebayo Akinfenwa was there and Leon Constantine.
“And I was thinking, ‘These guys are going to think I’m just a kid who’s turned up with his mum and dad!’
“It was like a first day at school – I think I only played 13 games there. But they were so valuable. Some of those players depended on winning games for their mortgage. So it was a massive learning curve to go down there and train with the senior players.”
Since Walker’s early days in the lower leagues, the Englishman has experienced a blistering rise through the ranks, with eight years at Tottenham and a record-breaking £50m move to City helping the right-back establish himself as one of Europe’s best.
It took just one season in Manchester for the ex-Sheffield United man to get his hand on a Premier League medal, and under the wing of Pep Guardiola, Walker has substantially improved his ability, allied with increased game intelligence which can surely help England avoid another Iceland disaster.
Walker was a part of Roy Hodgson’s side that shockingly lost to Iceland at Euro 2016 – and he knows the key is the kind of better game management Guardiola instils.
“Iceland was a negative,” said Walker. “But I feel this England team has made huge steps in the right direction to be where we want to be.
“I think the whole vibe around the place now is completely different. The players that we have are exciting and young. We just have to go there and don’t fear anything because there’s nothing to fear.”
“I feel if we can just control the game a lot better, which we are working on in training, we will have a good tournament.
“People say we aren’t streetwise compared to other countries, but that’s us as English people. We are very honest. We will run for 90-odd minutes and sometimes you need to say, ‘OK, let’s pull the reins back a bit, let’s control the game with our passing and keep the ball’.
“When we have the ball, opponents will have to run. The likes of Spain and Germany believe in a certain philosophy. We need to take that into a tournament and believe in what we are trying to do and what we are trying to achieve.
“If the crowd are getting on us and booing us, don’t worry about it. We must believe in us, as a set of players, believe in the manager and believe in what we are trying to do and achieve.
“At this World Cup, teams have got there by merit and playing well and collecting the points they need to. We cannot underestimate anyone. I’m trying to bring that mindset from City – and so is John Stones – that we don’t have to score in the first 10 minutes. We can wait until the 80th minute and just control the game.
“Especially when I was at Tottenham, the fans wanted attack, attack, attack, but you are sending all these bodies forward and you are liable for the counter-attack and then, as soon as you go 1-0 down, you have to go for it.
“It’s been a dream come true winning the Premier League after trying for so long.
“Now, hopefully, players like me, John, Delphy (Fabian Delph and Raz (Raheem Sterling) can bring that into the camp.
Walker will be heading to Russia this summer with England, and is expected to be played in the Three Lions’ new back three in his uncharacteristic role at centre-back.