The defender idolised Phil Jagielka while coming through the ranks at Sheffield United. Now they're England team-mates
Kyle Walker has spent his week feeling star-struck. There was the slightly awkward moment when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge strode across the pristine playing surface on the elite practice pitch at St George's Park to meet the England squad and, in his own words, "a boy from Sheffield shook hands with royalty". The small talk might have felt rather contrived, but at least that fleeting set-piece for the cameras had been stage-managed. It is actually the boyhood hero with whom Walker now rubs shoulders who leaves him tongue-tied.
The Tottenham Hotspur full-back's obsession with Phil Jagielka was forged in the Steel City. It dates from the days when Walker sat in the stands at Bramall Lane and chorused the home player's name with the rest of the Sheffield United faithful, the youngster who was then making his name under Neil Warnock hoisted to iconic status by a half-volleyed injury-time equaliser from 35 yards against Terry Venables's Leeds in a League Cup tie a decade ago. These days the pair are England team-mates expected to line up alongside each other against San Marino on Friday. Walker may regret his honesty, and the veneration apparently never extended to tacking a poster of his hero to his bedroom wall, but his secret is still out.
"I'm a Sheffield United boy so, growing up, it was Brian Deane and then, when I fell back into defence, it was Phil," he said. "He was a hero of mine. I was jumping up and down in the Family stand, where they put the youth team, when he scored that goal against Leeds. He took it down on his chest, half-volleyed it and it's flown in. And I was the ball boy behind the net when he went in goal [against Arsenal in a Premier League fixture in December 2006 which the hosts won 1-0]. He kept telling me to slow down when I was retrieving the ball. So I have seen some sights with him.
"He was at the club when they went up to the Premiership and I signed my scholarship, but he moved on to Everton just as I was coming through. I've never told him he was a hero of mine, so don't make his head too big, but to come here and play with him, to sit with and eat with him is an honour. Sometimes he tries to get me a bowl of soup at dinner and I have to say to him: 'You can't be doing that. Let me get you some soup.' Just sitting next to him having dinner's pretty good."
The respect feels quirky, if also refreshing: a case of a club's youth-team product having inspired those graduates still working their way up a productive system with the Blades. And yet it does also offer an indication of progression within the England set-up. Walker will earn his first competitive cap against San Marino in the absence of the suspended Glen Johnson, and will have the opportunity to stake a claim to retain his place for Tuesday's far more daunting trip to Poland. The Spurs right-back's form is impressive at club level, a galloping presence going forward who, like most young full-backs in the Premier League, is admittedly still seeking to add to his defensive game. That assurance, hopefully, will come with experience.
But, having missed out on a place at Euro 2012 with a toe injury, Walker is now established as direct competition for Johnson, ahead of Micah Richards and with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones – who have both featured for England at right-back even if they are centre-halves at heart – now injured. San Marino will offer little threat and will be vulnerable to his raids down the flank. This is a chance to impose himself in an anticipated mismatch, even if his own assessment of relatively rapid progress – Kyle Naughton, with whom he was transferred to White Hart Lane for a joint deal worth around £9m, was supposed to been the immediate "contender" of the pair – remains realistic.
"I've done nothing: I'm 22 and I've done absolutely nothing in my career so far," he said. "I had a good last season, winning young player of the year, but that's just the start and, hopefully, I can go on. I'm young. I want to improve. I want to become the best I can be. Gary Neville is here on the coaching staff, a player I looked up to and watched often in the past, and someone who gives me tips. I'm excited to be working with him and playing with the players I am.
"My defending is improving every week. It's just about experience and learning off the likes of Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill. Glen Johnson is a world-class right-back, someone I've got a lot to do [to displace], but hopefully my time will come. I have to be patient. And then there's Ashley [Cole]. To have nearly 100 caps, he must be doing something right so you try and be a sponge, pick up on what he's doing and take it into your own game. Watching him play, seeing what he has achieved … that's what I want to achieve, too."
That his first competitive opportunity should come in what should prove an uncompetitive qualifier does not detract from the sense of occasion. San Marino may have lost 108 of their 114 games, a team out of its depth on this stage, but Walker cannot see past a cap and his chance to impress. "Who wouldn't be excited? From the age of seven, this is what I've wanted to do: play for my country. I don't treat games any differently, whether it's Manchester United, Real Madrid or San Marino. We have to show them respect and do the job, not showboat and show off."
Heaven forbid Jagielka attempts an early step-over. The full-back at his side might offer up a tongue lashing, childhood idol or not.