NOT too long ago, Kyle Walker was still a kid on a Sheffield council estate who loved playing football in the street.
One summer, he learned about a football project that was available for free in his local community and the rest, as they say, is history.
His talent was spotted and he was recommended to Sheffield United who snapped him up as a nine-year-old.
Tonight, just over two years after making his Blades’ debut, he is set to play for England against Denmark in Copenhagen.
Walker’s rise to the international stage is a source of major pride and inspiration to those involved with the Sharrow-based charity ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’. It was their football project which gave the youngster that launch-pad for his career and, tonight, as Walker lives his dream, they will be celebrating his success.
“We like to think that we provide an opportunity for people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Howard Holmes, who helped found FURD in the mid-Nineties to combat racism and increase understanding between different ethnic communities.
“Kyle was just nine when he attended one of our coaching programmes and was very small for his age – but what he lacked in physique, he made up for in speed and agility.”
In 2002, aged just 12, Walker, who attended High Storrs School, was filmed by the BBC playing three-a-side football against a team including snooker personality John Parrott. It was another FURD project, ‘Streetkick’, which had been highlighted to promote the work done by Sports Relief.
“He still looks back on that day with fondness,” says Holmes. “ And, looking at him now, is weird because he has grown up so much during his teenage years. He is a fantastic role model and was still turning up to our community events as a United player.”
Walker, 20, made just seven appearances for the Blades prior to joining Tottenham Hotspur in a joint £10m deal with team-mate Kyle Naughton. He had started the 2008-09 season as a a centre-back on loan at Northampton Town but finished it at Wembley as right-back for the Blades against Burnley in the Championship play-off final. If only the result had been different, he might not have been sold.
Originally regarded as the ‘lesser part of the bargain’, Walker is now ahead of Naughton in the value stakes after blossoming on loan at Aston Villa. Naughton, 22, is currently on loan at Leicester.
“I was gutted when both Kyles left the club,” recalls Holmes. “As a Sheffield United supporter, you look forward to seeing homegrown players coming through the ranks but neither club in Sheffield has really produced enough of them in recent years.
“Everyone had expected Kyle Naughton to leave when he did – but Kyle Walker’s departure was a surprise.”
Walker initially returned to Bramall Lane on loan for the 2009-10 season but the deal was halted after six months by Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp.
He made his Premier League debut last March and was loaned out again to Championship leaders Queens Park Rangers at the start of this season.
His performances at Loftus Road, under former Blades manager Neil Warnock, were sufficiently impressive to attract the attention of Villa manager Gerard Houllier in the New Year transfer window.
Walker is now on loan with Villa until the end of the season but it will be a major surprise if he is not part of Tottenham’s first-team plans next season.
On his return to Bramall Lane with Villa in the FA Cup last month, Walker was given a hero’s welcome by the home fans and was also cheered off the field despite scoring the opening goal in what proved to be a comfortable 3-1 victory.
His display also led this particular correspondent to write of full international honours coming his way in :the near future.”
Walker’s father Michael was getting ready to fly to Denmark yesterday and has hardly a missed a game involving his son since his schooldays. Although the family have now moved on from the Lansdowne flats they used to call home in Sharrow, they are never likely to forget their past.
One man in an England shirt tonight will never forget Sharrow.