Sunday 22 September 2019

Pulisic quality moulded by early English detour

Christian Pulisic. Photo: OZAN KOSE / AFP
Christian Pulisic. Photo: OZAN KOSE / AFP

Oliver Brown

For all that Christian Pulisic's rise from a small town in Pennsylvania to a seat at the Premier League's top table might look like a seamless all-American adventure, it took a sharp detour, a little over 14 years ago, to Brackley.

The boy who would become Chelsea's £58m man was just about to turn seven when his mother, Kelley, won a Fulbright scholarship to work in England on a teaching exchange. While the family set up temporary home beside the River Cherwell, father Mark, once a top-flight striker in the United States, was determined that his son's football education should not be postponed. As he cast around for potential hothouses, the suggestion of the youth team at Brackley Town, then under the command of coach Robin Walker, kept recurring.

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"The call came out of the blue," Walker reflects. "Mark wanted a club for Christian, an embryonic talent, and we had a good reputation. He brought him down and Christian trained that evening. There was an instant 'wow' factor. I had never seen it before. He had the pace, he had the vision, and even at that age he had the touch. It all looked completely natural."

Pulisic (pictured) hails from Hershey, the US's ultimate chocolate-box community, while his paternal ancestry can be traced to the Croatian island of Olib.

But it was in a sleepy corner of Northamptonshire that his priceless gifts on the ball first attracted wider notice. Pulisic, 21 next month, has long been defined by his precocity: at 17, he was the youngest non-German to score in the Bundesliga, with Borussia Dortmund, and by January he had Chelsea so smitten that the club agreed not only to make him the most expensive ever American player, but to allow him to defer his arrival at Stamford Bridge until the summer.

He might be slight of physical stature, but a common thread in the testimonies to Pulisic is the emphasis upon his sheer cussedness.

"Resilient for a little fella," said veteran US goalkeeper Tim Howard, after he brushed off a few roughhouse tactics on a road trip to Panama in 2017. This was one attribute of which Walker, blooding Pulisic into the Brackley under-8s, had far earlier sight than most.

"When he got kicked, Christian just bounced back up again immediately," Walker says. "At that age, players tend to go down, have a bit of a cry. But he was so tenacious. I remember a tournament at Butlin's. I was teaching karate, so it was left to my wife to drive Christian down to Bognor Regis. He was ill the whole way, sick all over the back of her new Volvo. We played the next night, but from the way Christian performed, you would never have known he was struggling. He was the star, and we ended up winning the whole thing. It highlighted his amazing ability in adversity."

The notion that world-beating potential can be discerned at so tender a stage of a player's development is controversial. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, after all, had to wait until 11 before he was discovered by Sporting Lisbon's scouts. Walker was convinced, though, that the effortlessness of Pulisic's close control marked him out for future greatness.

"I regret not going into a betting shop and saying, 'This seven-year-old is going to be a major international football star,'" he explains. "The ball just stuck to his feet - it was like watching Lionel Messi. We were taking on academy teams like Aston Villa's and beating them. A few months after he returned to the US, he came back to Europe briefly, and turned out for us in an 11-a-side event in Holland. We won that, too."

It is difficult to overstate the fervour that Pulisic has since stirred in his native land. After a succession of star-spangled prodigies who have ultimately crashed and burned, such as Clint Mathis and Freddy Adu, this vibrant attacking sensation represents hope that players of true global class can be reared on American soil. Pulisic's parenting evidently helped: Mark was a prolific scorer during his eight seasons at Harrisburg Heat, while Kelley played to a high level at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Still, Mark has been the first to acknowledge that Christian's startling progress is also a product of his influences abroad, describing the year at Brackley as crucial to his love of the game. Other, more exotic factors would soon come into play: in Detroit, Pulisic would learn deft ball-juggling techniques from Brazilian players coached by his father in a local indoor league, before later adopting the South American art of futsal to perfect his technical skills in tight spaces. It is little wonder that Frank Lampard, impressed by Pulisic's dynamic display in Wednesday's Super Cup defeat by Liverpool, predicted that there was "a lot more to come".

It is not merely his advanced trickery that excites his admirers, but the balanced outlook instilled during his upbringing. Steve Klein, the coaching director at PA Classics, the development side for whom Pulisic played between the ages of 11 and 16, has dubbed Mark and Kelley "ice-cream parents": in other words, the types who would far rather take a child for a treat after a poor match than dole out criticism. Walker observed as much throughout the Brackley experience.

"I had discussions with parents, asking them to leave tactics up to me," he says. "You get one or two who lose it. But Mark, who knew more about the game than I did, kept quiet on the touchline. At the end, he would sometimes tell Christian where he was going wrong, firmly but positively."

Walker earns a successful living these days as an interior landscaper, installing tropical plant displays. It is this creative impulse, dovetailing with his football expertise, that perhaps illustrates why Pulisic has never forgotten him.

Two years ago, at his zenith with Dortmund, he invited Walker to stay at his palatial house ahead of a home match against Hertha Berlin. They played pool and shared Brackley memories with an ease that belied Pulisic's soaring status in the Bundesliga.

"I went over to Dortmund on my motorbike," he says. "He had a lovely place, with an indoor swimming pool, but he was as humble as ever. I hadn't seen him for 12 years, but he ferried me to the game and made sure I had the full VIP treatment: food, drinks, leather seats, the works."

Indeed, so highly does Pulisic value Walker's contribution to his career, the childhood mentor even appears to have had a direct effect on his big-money switch to Chelsea. "I'm a Chelsea fan, I grew up in London supporting them," he says. "When I was in Dortmund last year, I told him that he had to come. He wouldn't go to Manchester United because of Jose Mourinho. His father couldn't stand Mourinho, because he didn't promote young players.

"It was at that point I asked, 'What about London? That's where it's at.' I was trying to sell the city. His agent agreed, saying, 'When you make these decisions, it's all about investment and property.' I was delighted that he did sign."

As Chelsea confront Leicester this afternoon, Walker will find he has a complex blend of allegiances. Chelsea might be his boyhood club, but it was Leicester for whom his son recently played, in the same academy class as Ben Chilwell and Hamza Choudhury. And the player making his home debut in front of 40,000 restless fans is the one he can still picture as the small child braving sickness at Butlin's. "Even the Leicester scout looking after my lad wanted Christian," he says. "He admits that he hasn't seen a better player before or since. I have the same view. What he has done is phenomenal."

Telegraph.co.uk

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