KYLE WALKER, modest by nature and not one to actively seek the limelight, is nonetheless emerging as the media friendly and go-to spokesman for England and Premier League champions Manchester City.
The national side's World Cup-opening 2-1 win against Tunisia in Russia this week was a proud moment for South Yorkshire and Sheffield United in particular. Manager Gareth Southgate’s back three featured ex-Blades Walker and Harry Maguire, both lifelong fans or the club.
They played either side of Barnsley-born John Stones who began his career at Oakwell and is a teammate of Walker’s at The Etihad. Another two originally from South Yorkshire, Jamie Vardy (Sheffield) and Danny Rose (Doncaster) sat on the bench alongside fellow Yorkie Fabian Delph.
The evening in Volgograd didn’t go quite as planned for Sharrow-born Walker, responsible for a penalty award which cancelled England’s promising early lead and ultimately changed the nature of the group match as victory was snatched from the jaws of a draw. But the way he handled it afterwards spoke volumes for how mature the 28-year-old has become.
Maguire, meanwhile, in typical style so familiar to fans at Bramall Lane during his time there, provided the header which enabled England skipper Harry Kane to swivel and clinch the match-winner, his second goal, in added time. The 25-year-old is in football parlance ‘a unit’, at 15st 6lbs he’s six stones heavier than midfield teammate Jesse Lingard.
But despite his huge frame Maguire, who watched England as a fan from the stands at the European Championships in France two years ago and was in the Leppings Lane end when United beat Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough last season, is light on his feet. Surely a future ballroom material Strictly Come Dancing, and, like Stones, a ball-playing box-to-box exponent.
Walker has been providing something of an insight to life in the England camp and when the heat was on in full glare of criticism he didn’t shirk the television cameras immediately after the match either. In fact, he was the first from England’s camp to face the media. Given similar circumstance many before him have chosen to lay low in the dressing room.
Former England defender Rio Ferdinand told the nation Walker’s defending which led to the penalty incident was “criminal”. This from a man who has spent time as a TV pundit in the BBC’s Moscow World Cup studio obsessing about the English Press not backing their country at big tournaments and instead looking to pick holes.
Ferdinand’s valid point being that Walker was facing his own goal playing in a position which is not natural to him, something that an accustomed top class centre-half would avoid. “If you play right-backs as central defenders that’s what you get,” said Rio pointing the finger at Southgate’s tactics.
‘England boss doesn’t know what he’s doing’ and ‘Jail Walker’ would have been the likely headlines if Ferdinand had been writing for The Sun. He was a classy defender, obviously has great knowledge of the game and is an all-round good guy. But if he really does want to stand-up his criticism of the media he would command more respect from them if he engaged his brain in order to avoid the hypocrisy.
Walker readily admits he is more comfortable in a right-back role and wasn’t about to challenge Ferdinand’s view. Instead he fronted up with customary politeness refusing to make excuses for leaving a trailing arm which afforded Tunisia's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef an opportunity to make contact and win a penalty. “In the Premier League, we would have probably got away with it,” Walker said. “Tripps (Kieran Trippier) said to leave it because we knew there was no one at the far post so I let it go across me. In future I will head it away and ask questions later.”
Maguire, who left Bramall Lane in 2014 for then Premier League Hull City before moving to Leicester City, earned glowing praise from his manager after presenting Kane with the match-winner. His potential is huge,” the England manager said of the man chosen ahead of Chelsea’s Gary Cahill who spent time on loan with the Blades and comes from just over the South Yorkshire border in Dronfield.
“He’s probably the one player — him and [goalkeeper] Jordan Pickford — who hasn’t played in cup finals or on a big stage, Champions League games in the past. Maybe it was more a voyage of discovery for him than some of the others. He has great composure and defensive qualities. Most things land on his head in both penalty areas.”
Like Maguire, Walker is a product of United’s Academy and at £54million became the world’s most expensive defender when he joined City from Tottenham last July. A record fee surpassed six months later by Dutchman Virgil van Dijk who joined Liverpool from Southampton for an eye-watering £75m.
Walker’s big-money move to City netted the Blades about £5m from a sell-on clause as part of the £9m deal Tottenham agreed for him and Kyle Naughton in 2009. There were many raised eyebrows when Walker arrived at The Etihad, some observers believing that his best days were behind him. But under the guidance of Pep Guardiola he has become an even better, more complete defender.
“As players you don’t put a price tag on your head and say ‘I’m worth that much’,” he said. “It was completely out of my hands. There was a little bit of proving people wrong because we all can see the transfer market did go a little bit crazy in the end.
“But for me it was just about proving to myself and proving to the manager who had invested all that money in me, and proving to my family that I can go out and play for Manchester City and achieve what they wanted to achieve.
“It’s good coming here [to Russia] knowing you’ve won the Premier League; you feel on top of the world because from being a little boy I have been dreaming to win that. To finally put my hands on it and lift it was fantastic.
“I’ve come a long way from the area where I grew up in Sheffield, to the loan spell at Northampton, my first taste of real professional football, to sitting here.”
His allegiance to the Blades, however, and to the city in which he grew up is unquestioned. "Hopefully one day I'll get to play for Sheffield United in the Premier League, hopefully that's a dream that can come true," Walker said recently.
"They put a lot of faith in me and hopefully I can finish my career there, just to say thank you."
That is the mark of the man.