That was Armley in Leeds, in the early noughties. A “cheeky chappie” who would grow up to play for England in the men’s first major tournament final in over half a century.
Similar scenes were playing out in playgrounds across Yorkshire that year, with four more boys who would all grow up to become national heroes.
John Stones, in a small village in the Pennine hills, a quiet and bright child who had the potential to become a professional swimmer, but who only ever wanted to play football.
Kyle Walker, in Sheffield, a “skinny” boy whose teachers had watched him grow into his athletic prowess. Harry Maguire, in Mosborough, whose older brothers also had showed significant talent.
And Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who had beamed with shy pride when his former PE teacher Rich Mintoft surprised him with a photo album from his days at the Steel City’s Forge Valley School.
This is a Three Lions’ team rooted in Yorkshire, roaring onto the pitch as the beating heart of England’s champion side, and set to make history as they face Italy in tomorrow’s final of Euro 2020.
With manager Gareth Southgate at the helm, himself an adopted Yorkshireman from Harrogate, suggestions mount as to what may be fuelling such talent with homegrown fire.
All the cliches drop, of being raised on Yorkshire grit, with a side of Sheffield steel, or something in the tea perhaps. One words stand out for those that know them – ‘resilience’.
“Win, lose or draw, you get on with it,” said Paul Hatfield of the Wortley Juniors, who had coached an eight-year-old Kalvin Phillips “That’s grit. That’s what he does, and always with a smile.
“What you see now is the same person he’s always been. Just a young lad who loved the game, and loved playing football.”
Midfielder Phillips, now aged 25, was born in Wortley and was spotted at an early age by Leeds United as he played for the juniors club, proving a poster boy for success.
He has long since spoken of a childhood on free school meals, and how his mother Lindsay Crosby and beloved late grandmother ‘Granny Val’ kept him and his three siblings on track.
To Claire Beswick, co-head at Whingate Primary, he was the ‘smiliest’ boy in the class, with those famous dimples to highlight a cheeky grin. Mischievous, she mused.
“Everybody knows who he is now, throughout the world,” she said, in a voice that’s still hoarse from cheering through Wednesday’s semi-finals. “It’s unbelievable, but we see it.
“He’s exactly the same now as he was then, always striving to be the best, always polite and well-mannered. All his siblings are.
“It’s a massive credit to his mum. He’s a lovely human being.”
This is an underprivileged area, with a higher than average number of children facing deprivation. At the school, at the football club, it’s all about the children’s hero. His name is on every club shirt.
“What it shows our children is if you work hard, and have a determination, you can achieve,” said Mrs Beswick. “Kalvin is testament to that.”
These are Yorkshire lads who were free to play from an early age, gaining a confidence that comes with skill, honed alone in hours of practice. Hint of an ego may be missing as well.
Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire, now 28, was born in Mosborough and went to Immaculate Conception Catholic Primary in Spinkhill near Sheffield.
Invited back to host an assembly some years ago, he is said to have shied away from the spotlight and asked to visit every classroom individually instead.
Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, 24, had beamed in surprise at a visit from his old PE teacher at St George’s Park.
And Kyle Walker from Sheffield, now aged 31, a right-back with Manchester City, who had honoured his old geography teacher when he bumped into him at a Sheffield United match.
“I didn’t expect him to remember me but he was really lovely and humble,” said teacher Tim Lockwood of his former High Storrs student. “I said to him then: ‘You’re going to sign for someone big and you’re going to go places.’ I was right.”
Walker is remembered as a “cheeky, skinny” 11-year-old who grew to become a “well-rounded” and exceptional sportsman.
His former head of year, Eileen Hetherington, said that while school wasn’t always easy for him he had overcome it all to succeed.
“His picture and signed shirt are displayed in the PE department as a reminder to others that your dreams can be realised,” she said.
And John Stones, now aged 27 and a centre-back for Manchester City, who was raised in the picturesque village of Thurlstone, in the shadow of the Pennine hills.
At that time there were only around 75 students at Thurlstone Primary and headteacher Charlotte Gibbins, speaks fondly of a “lovely lad” with mischief in his humour.
“He cared about doing well in school, and even more about football,” she said. “He was good at swimming as well – he could have done anything.
“He never lost his cool. Kids, well they can get really passionate about the game, but it was too important to him. He always kept his head.”
Not long ago, Stones had visited his old school, arriving in an Audi. Mrs Gibbins jokingly asked if he was still ‘keeping his head’. He’d replied that his parents wouldn’t let him do anything but.
“I suppose he was quiet at school, not shy but humble,” she said. “When he left I didn’t think ‘oh, he will play for England’. But I knew he would be successful.”
Buoyed by success
he children at Thurlstone are shattered this week, she said, with many having stayed up late to watch their idol play against Denmark.
Regardless, said Mrs Gibbins, the whole community here is buoyed by Stones’ success.
At the Penistone Church Football Club, where a seven-year-old Stones started, there isn’t a spare seat in the house for tomorrow night’s match at Wembley.
“I’m so proud,” said Mrs Gibbins. “The children see that connection, to our tiny school. They think it’s amazing, that John Stone learnt to play football on the little field that they play on now.
“We’re just a small school, nobody knows about us. Big things can happen, even at small schools. Everybody has got the potential to be extraordinary.
“It won’t be easy, being as successful as he is,” she added. “He will have had to make so many sacrifices, people sometimes forget that. It’s about resilience.
“A bit of grit, that’s what we’re famous for isn’t it? We are made of strong stuff.”
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