Kyle Walker: Lionheart

The international journey of a right-back who has never played better...

Reaching the final of Euro 2020 is an ambition realised for Kyle Walker as he completes one (if not the) greatest seasons of his career.

It will also be a fitting way to mark 10 years of service for his country, with the 31 year-old’s journey starting in November 2011 when he was selected to plat against Spain as a promising 21 year-old that had swapped the colours of his beloved Sheffield United for those of Tottenham Hotspur.

Representing his country came relatively late for Walker who didn’t play for any of the England youth sides until he was called up for England Under-19s while still with the Blades.

Though he hadn’t made a senior appearance at that stage, the right-back with extraordinary pace was certainly getting noticed  and would play seven times for the Under-19s.

During 2010-11, he was promoted to the England Under-21 squad where he would again make seven appearances, many of which were during the UEFA U21 European Championships that he would impress enough to be voted into the Team of the Tournament - this despite England's early exit

Spurs, who had paid in the region of £5m for Walker, then loaned him back to the Blades and he would later have loan spells with QPR and Aston Villa before finally holding down the right-back role at White Hart Lane for the 2011-12 campaign during which he would make 47 appearances.

Again, Walker’s contribution was recognised, this time by his fellow professionals as he won the coveted PFA Young Player of the Year award for the 2011/12 campaign, receiving the award in April 2012.

Had the vote been held a month later, chances are one of the players he pipped in the vote – Sergio Aguero – might have got the nod instead given City’s incredible end to that campaign!

At the time, Walker said: “I was a bit surprised because defenders don't normally get these awards and get the limelight as much as the centre-forwards. It is a great honour to get the award and hopefully there is more to come.

"It is always an honour to be selected by the people you play against and hopefully I can get a few more of these and some medals with Tottenham along the way.”

Though his club career had finally taken off, a knee injury meant that Walker was ruled out of Euro 2012 and what would have been his first major championships.

Had he been fit, he might well have been selected more regularly thereafter, but as it was, wasn’t a regular starter for his country over the next three years, missing out when Roy Hodgson named his squad for the 2014 World Cup and by 2015, the then 25 year-old had won only 13 caps over four seasons.

But his consistency for Spurs, where he was by then regarded as one of the best right-backs in the Premier League, was unwavering.

Walker had ability, power and determination to make the right-back role for England his own and he more than earned his spot in Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad where he would feature in three games.

But it was a bittersweet experience for the Sheffield-born defender, as England were eliminated by Iceland in the Round of 16 and the hopes of a success-starved nation floundered yet again.

Gareth Southgate took over as England manager after the Iceland debacle, steadying a ship that was foundering in choppy waters, and Walker would become a regular member of the new manager’s squads with his performances during 2016/17 earning him a second appearance in the PFA Team of the Season.

And with Pablo Zabaleta at the end of his time at City, it was Walker that Pep Guardiola wanted as his right-back for the 2017/18 campaign and with his new club crowned Premier League champions later that season, Walker continued to represent his country on a frequent basis.

Southgate named Walker in his 23-man England squad for the 2018 World Cup - his third major international tournament – and deployed Walker as part of a three-man central defence as the Three Lions made it all the way to the semi-finals.

Walker had a solid tournament, but he later fell out of favour somewhat with Southgate, winning just nine more caps over the next two years, though that did take him past the 50-cap mark for his country.

He was left out of successive squads and with the emergence of Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka, many felt his days with the national team could be over.

But the Kyle Walker of the 2020-21 season could not be ignored.

Looking fitter, stronger, and more focused than ever before, Walker had a superb season with City, making 42 appearances as the Blues went on to win the Premier League again, the Carabao Cup and appeared in a first Champions League final.

With defensive partner Stones also finding his best form alongside new signing Ruben Dias, the City duo went into the delayed Euro 2020, in the form of their lives, with Walker as Southgate’s preferred right-back.

The enthusiasm and determination to defend as though their lives depended on it during City's title triumph had become a trademark of Guardiola's new-look mean machine.

It was an attitude that was both infectious and inspiring - and they transferred that mentality to the national team with a typical 'none shall pass' ethos.

It's is perhaps no coincidence that three of England's outstanding regular back four this summer - Stones, Walker and Harry Maguire - were all born within a radius of about 20 miles of each other.

A South Yorkshire band of brothers with more than a hint of Sheffield steel.

For his part, Walker has featured in five of England’s six games, so far only sitting out the 0-0 draw with Scotland.

His pace and power have been incredible in this tournament, with his ability to mop up any danger with a lightning burst of speed demonstrated on several occasions as Southgate’s side made its way to a first final since 1966.

And against Denmark in the semi-final, there was a moment when Walker chased a Danish attacker on the left, dispossessed him and tidied up with a minimum of fuss.

It was the performance of a player at the very top of his game, and one that brings a calmness to the England defence, safe in the knowledge that nobody outruns Kyle Walker and his physical strength is second to none.

Respected Mirror journalist Darren Lewis summed up the display as he wrote: “Our attacking stars will get the credit when we look back on this epic, historic win - but don’t forget the contribution of Kyle Walker.

“Don’t forget the cool and concise way in which he ensured England’s defence didn’t fall apart after Mikkel Damsgaard silence Wembley and left the country dumbstruck after half an hour.

“Don’t allow the credit that the likes of Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling absolutely deserve to overshadow the way in which Walker kept the back door shut time and again.

“The talk ahead of this semi-final was that Kieran Trippier would come in for Walker because the Atletico Madrid man was more solid, more reliable.

“Walker, a three-time Premier League winner and Champions League finalist, didn’t look the inferior player on this evidence. Not a chance.

“From the outset, he was a man in the mood to ensure this would not only be his night - but England’s night. The country’s night.”
Darren Lewis

On Sunday he will hope to continue the international journey that began a decade ago by attempting to be part of a team that is aiming to win one the biggest prizes in world football.

And for a player some thought had been discarded by the national team last year, it's now hard to imagine this England team without him.

Quite a journey.