Thursday 23 November 2017

Sheffield steel gives Walker cutting edge

Young Spurs defender is a well-grounded character on the up, writes Duncan White

"Switch on your TV."

Kyle Walker had just got back from a pre-season friendly with Athletic Bilbao at White Hart Lane and had phoned his mum to tell her about the game and the excitement he felt about the coming season and the possibility of winning his first cap for England the following week. He was alarmed by her tone and when he switched on his set he realised why: the road down which he had driven from the stadium was being torn apart by increasingly violent riots.

"We'd just left the stadium really," Walker explained. "It must have been 25 minutes later when I got home and my mum just told me to switch on the TV. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing."

As the riots rumbled on, Tottenham's opening game of the season against Everton was postponed. Walker had been named in the England squad for the friendly against Holland on the day the riots broke out but that game also was a victim of the troubles.

Two months later and Walker is in the gym of Northumberland Park school, playing basketball with the pupils. He is there as part of the Premier League's collaboration with the Olympics, helping to get children playing Olympic sports. It helps that Walker is good. Mike Martin, from the Great Britain team, laughs as Walker drifts past him and soars into a textbook lay-up.

This is not just about the Olympic legacy, though. This school is in one of the worst-hit areas of the riots and Haringey, with its high unemployment and reliance on a shrinking public sector is not a healthy borough.

Tottenham want to build a new stadium here, necessary if they are to compete with today's derby opponents Arsenal, and have applied for government money to build the infrastructure. Tottenham have been accused of opportunism, but you cannot get round the fact that the area badly needs the redevelopment.

Those are the big plans -- the more immediate concern is stitching back a sense of community. Walker grew up on an estate in Sharrow, central Sheffield, the son of a builder. He is the perfect choice to represent the club here: engagingly earnest and at ease with the kids.

"Hopefully what happened in August is past us," he said. "Now we can rebuild for the future. I grew up on a council estate like a lot of these kids so it's good to give something back to the community around here. I hope they have enjoyed it as much as I have.

"I wish we had had things like this after school, a bit of basketball or football. We just used to do it on the street. With what happened it's really important to give back to the community, and to keep doing it. I think Tottenham do that very well.

"The lads are always talking about the new stadium and about what we can do for the community. People need to know that we are here. We are not big famous people you can't speak to, we're approachable guys. I hope people can grow to understand that."

Walker has a special appreciation for the value of inclusive schemes. His football career began when he went along to a game organised by 'Football Unites, Racism Divides', a Sheffield-based charity.

"I was sleeping round my mate's house and he asked if I wanted to go for a kick around in the park," he said. "I was seven at the time and I went down and it all started there. They played a massive part in getting me into football, particularly a guy called Paul Archer, who was the coach there. I have to thank him because if it wasn't for that Sunday morning in a park in Abbeydale I wouldn't be here."

Archer recommended Walker to Sheffield United and he began training with the club he has always supported. At 16 he was not sure he was going to be taken on -- he was quick, but slight and United took convincing -- and coming that close to missing out on a career in the game is responsible for his impressive work ethic now.

Playing at Bramall Lane was a particular thrill for Walker, a Blade from birth. "I used to go to games with my grandad, who has sadly passed away," he said. "He got me a season ticket when I was really young, maybe four. I remember watching Vassilis Borbokis, who was a right-back.

"Then as part of the academy you had to do work as a ball-boy at the training ground. As a United fan I wasn't complaining. I was a ball-boy for Neil Warnock, which was strange because last year I went on loan to QPR and played for him. It was a bit different to when I used to pick up cones for him. But we all have to start somewhere."

His immersion in football in his hometown will prepare him for the febrile atmosphere of today's north London derby. Before moving down to Spurs he played in a Steel City derby against Wednesday and he will draw on that experience in the afternoon. "You have to be careful about letting the occasion get to you," he said. "I've played in one Sheffield derby and thankfully won that one -- I want to keep that 100 per cent record. I remember being nervous before that game. If you support a team it means that bit more to you out on the field.

"I remember we were 3-0 up and they came back to 3-2. My heart started pounding. I was just thinking about all the stick I was going to get off my mates if we threw away a three-goal lead. Luckily we held on.

"For me it is just about keeping up my form. The manager has given me the shirt and I want to pay him back for that, let him know that he can trust me and that I am capable of playing in these games. But I still need to learn. I'm only 21 and I've got a lot of learning in me."

Spurs are certainly impressed and the coaching staff think he could play right-back for club and country for the next decade. He has an excellent chance of being called up for England's 2012 qualifier against Montenegro when the squad is named tonight and with Liverpool's Glen Johnson still injured he could win his first cap in Podgorica. It is all unfolding quickly before him.


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