Ben Godfrey - Overlooked by Leeds United, Bradford City and Jamaica, but now former York City man is in England squad

Things could easily have worked out very differently for Ben Godfrey.

Ben Godfrey, left, playing for hometown York City in a Football League Trophy match with Barnsley in 2015 (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Ben Godfrey, left, playing for hometown York City in a Football League Trophy match with Barnsley in 2015 (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

The York-born 23-year-old’s meteoric rise from League Two prospect to the top of the game reached new heights last week when he received his first call-up to a senior England squad.

A Premier League regular by the age of 21 and now among the country’s brightest young talents, it almost seems unimaginable that, as a 15-year-old, the versatile Everton defender was highly-rated by virtually nobody.

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A host of clubs including Leeds United and Bradford City were either disinterested or unimpressed by what they saw from the York City trainee, while representative honours looked a million miles away.

York's Ben Godfrey challenged Barnsley's Adam Hammill (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Indeed, had the Jamaican Football Association bothered to take seriously an email from Godfrey’s then coach at the Minstermen’s academy, the player could now be lining up as a Reggae Boy, rather than for the Three Lions.

“I still have the copy of the email that I sent to the Jamaican FA back in 2013, advising them to come and have a look at Ben and telling them he was definitely a player they should consider,” revealed Darren Kelly, the York City coach who brought Godfrey back into the club’s academy and later handed him his YTS, following his release from Middlesbrough.

“He was just a cut above, but England weren’t interested in him and Ben’s dad, who had played professional rugby league, was of Jamaican heritage.

“I just felt that given how gifted he was, it would be a no-brainer for Jamaica, that they would be stupid not to want him, but I didn’t even get a reply. As far as I know, they didn’t even come and watch him.

Ben Godfrey playing for Everton and challenging Harry Kane during a stellar Premier League campaign that led to an England call. (Picture: PA)

“So things could have played out very differently for Ben, which is something I contacted him to tell him when he got his first call up to the under-21s. I even sent him a picture of the email I sent the Jamaican FA just saying ‘what could have been’.”

It was not just international teams who passed up on Kelly’s recommendations.

“I could 100 per cent see that Ben was a player capable of making it to the Premier League and it comes as no surprise to me that he’s gone on to receive an England call-up,” added the Northern Irishman, who has subsequently gone on to manage Oldham Athletic, Halifax and Scarborough.

“Ben was released by Middlesbrough, I believe because they felt he was too small. He came to us as a 14-year-old and I could see after two or three games in our under-15s that he really had something.

Ben Godfrey (front) playing for Norwich in 2019 (Picture: PA)

“It wasn’t long before he was playing a year above himself for the under-16s. I realised very quickly he was capable of going the whole way. A blind man could see it. He was very, very good.

“I contacted a number of scouts and big professional clubs about Ben. I spoke to a coach at Bradford City, I spoke to Leeds United. I told them to come and have a look at this boy. I don’t know if they did or they didn’t, but I know that nobody ever followed up on him or declared an interest.

“Maybe it’s because we were only a category three academy, not one of the big clubs, but this boy was on Leeds’ doorstep, it could’ve been them getting that £20m fee that Norwich received.”

Godfrey’s success with Norwich and Everton owes much to his versatility and athleticism, qualities which quickly stood out to Kelly.

“Middlesbrough, I believe, had said he was too small, but he started to develop into a real athlete at York,” he said.

“He was strong and had fantastic pace. The timing of his tackles was outstanding, his reading of the game and awareness was outstanding and technically he was excellent. He played predominantly as a central midfielder, but you could put him at right-back or left-back and he’d run the show from wherever he was playing, he was that gifted. He was an eight or nine out of 10 every week.”

In addition to his ability on the pitch, Godfrey’s personality off it also set him apart from his peers, in Kelly’s eyes.

“Ben is a great boy. He comes from a really nice, down-to-earth family,” added Kelly, of a player who will find out early this week if he has made Gareth Southgate’s final squad for Euro 2020.

“We used to train at York University and I remember one occasion, probably only the one time I ever recall Ben being injured, and he was in the treatment room.

“There were all the little under-nines and under-10s in the building as well and they were so thrilled to see him. They were physically in awe of him, starstruck. Here was this under-16 player and they wanted to be him.

“And Ben was brilliant. He made so much time for them, made such an effort and it really stands out in my memory.

“It’s been great to see him go on and do so well for himself and I fully expect him to become a regular for his country.”

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