It will soon be a year since Manchester City cocked eyebrows by paying £50m for a full-back. All things considered they paid £102m for two full-backs the previous summer, however Benjamin Mendy was to spend the greater part of the season out injured. Kyle Walker, the first defensive investment, has delighted in such an agreeable osmosis into City’s title-winning side and Pep Guardiola’s state of mind that the charge is now beginning to look a similar deal – to outcasts, at any rate. The exchanged ware himself has never stressed excessively over valuation.
“As a player you don’t put a price tag on your own head,” Walker explains, taking a break from England’s preparations for their pre-World Cup friendlies. “You can’t go around thinking: ‘I’m worth that much.’ It is just business that gets sorted out by the chairmen. For me there was a little bit of proving people wrong, because a fee like that does attract attention, but I think we could all see the transfer market went a little crazy in the end.”
Together with John Stones and Fabian Delph, the 27-year-old is part of a Yorkshire core in the City defence that, it is hoped, will transfer to England. They look out for each other, look after each other and keep their feet firmly on the ground.
Walker is likely to be asked to move into a back three at some point in the next couple of months but feels well-qualified to do so. “I used to play central defence for Sheffield United,” he says. “I had Chris Morgan at the side of me which helped me a lot because, if I did anything wrong, I’d be sure to find out about it.
“I can still remember one of my first games. It was Hull away and they had Caleb Folan playing up front with Nick Barmby behind him. He was a classic target man and I had to mark him. ‘Morgs’ just told me: ‘Right, you deal with the headers and I’ll sweep up behind you.’ Right back is still my preferred position but as long as I’m on the field at the World Cup I’m completely happy to play anywhere.”
Walker will find himself up against some City team-mates when England play Belgium in the group stage, in addition to familiar Premier League names such as Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. He is relaxed about the situation. He is relaxed about everything. He frequently talks of his career as a journey, one that began on a Sheffield housing estate and is now unfolding on the world stage, and if he seems capable of taking it all in his stride, it is possibly because he remembers the early steps so well.
“I got my first taste of real professional football on loan at Northampton,” he recalls, not something too many elite competitors in Russia will be able to boast. “I was 18 at the time and I played only nine games, but it was a massive opportunity for me. Sheffield were in the Championship and they were in League One when I went, so it meant I could get games.
“Stuart Gray was the manager and he gave me the chance to show what I could do. I’ve never looked back from there, that was the point where my career took off. Some of those players depended on winning games for their mortgage. I had been with Sheffield from age seven, my career was being looked after, so it was something I hadn’t quite seen before. Training with those players was a real learning curve for me.”
Walker’s career trajectory has indeed been ever upwards since. There were a few more loans in the first couple of seasons at Spurs but by 2012 he was recipient of the Professional Footballers’ Association’s young player of the year award, ahead of his team-mate Gareth Bale, and was named in the PFA team of the season.
While two trophies in his first season at City confirmed his latest move as a shrewd one, the progression has not always been as smooth on the international front. Walker missed out on Roy Hodgson’s squads for the 2012 Euros and 2014 World Cup through picking up injuries at critical stages of the season, and though he made it to France two years ago the memories of Euro 2016 are far from happy ones. “It was difficult to take, I’m not going to lie and say there were loads of positives,” he says. “It was a negative. In the game against Iceland my feeling was that things were going to plan when we went 1-0 up. Instead scoring an early goal might have put us off our guard.
“I don’t believe we thought we were already through but we were beginning to feel seeing out the game might be easy when a long throw came in and caught us by surprise.
“The whole vibe around England now is completely different. It is a younger set of players and we are taking huge steps in the right direction but we still probably need to get more streetwise.
“English footballers are honest, they will run for 90-odd minutes, but that is not always what you need. Sometimes you need to rein back a bit and try and control the game with your passing.
“When we come up against Belgium, say, it could be a deciding game but we need to realise that we don’t have to score in the first 10 minutes. If you can control the game you can wait until the 80th minute or longer if necessary. I’m trying to bring that calmness from Manchester City, and so is John.
“I’ve adapted my own game a bit since changing club. I stay back a bit more. When I was at Tottenham the fans wanted attack, attack, attack but, if you send too many bodies forward, you are liable for the counter. With England we are working in training on controlling situations a little better. If we can make it work on the pitch we will hopefully have a good tournament.”
The idea seems to be gaining traction that England can play without fear or pressure at this World Cup, because after the last couple of disappointments so little is expected of them. Walker does not entirely agree. “You shouldn’t be looking for a free pass, if you want to win things you should play every game like it’s your last,” he says. “I don’t think we should be talking about pressure either, when we are playing the game we’ve been good at since we were kids at the very highest level. Anyone would want to play in a World Cup, why fear anything?
“Everyone in the squad is there for a reason, the gaffer could have picked hundreds of others but this is the 23 he’s chosen to represent the country. That’s a privilege that should give you confidence. Just go out and enjoy it.”