From Championship to Euro 2024: Adam Wharton’s Sacrifices on the Path to Success

From Championship to Euro 2024: Adam Wharton’s Sacrifices on the Path to Success

Adam Wharton is standing in a ground-floor room bordering the central courtyard at the 12th-century German castle that is acting as England’s media centre at the European Championship. Youth and Middle Ages, side by side.

This is England’s first official media day since they arrived in Germany and Wharton, 20, has been chosen to begin proceedings with the first press conference, a question-and-answer session that is being televised live.

It has become the custom at major tournaments for England players to have a game of darts with a member of the media before they sit down to conduct their press conference. His opponent, a BBC reporter, asks Wharton if he is any good.

‘Never played,’ Wharton says.

Wharton’s delivery is deadpan so it’s hard to know if he is bluffing but it seems plausible enough. He was playing in the Championship for Blackburn Rovers just over four months ago. There are going to be a lot of firsts for him over the next few weeks.

Adam Wharton took on a member of the media in darts on England’s first official media day 

The midfielder was the player to make a late run to secure their place in the England squad

Wharton made his England debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina

The midfielder was the player to make a late run to secure their place in the England squad 

Wharton is not the youngest player in Gareth Southgate’s England squad but he has played fewer top-flight games and featured in fewer minutes at international level than anyone else in the party of 26 that begin their campaign against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday.

He was living in digs in Blackburn when England made the final of the last Euros. He and some of the other club scholars went to a pub around the corner and watched the game in a tent that had been erected outside.

He, more than anyone else, symbolises the boldness of Southgate’s selection. He made his professional debut less than two years ago but his move from Blackburn to Crystal Palace in February led to rave reviews for his Premier League appearances.

He is the bolter in the squad, the player who made a late run and pipped players such as Jack Grealish and James Maddison on the line. ‘He sees pictures early,’ Southgate said, after Wharton made an impressive senior debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month.

Wharton plays with a maturity beyond his years, the kind of midfielder who always seems to have time on the ball, who knows where he is going to play his next pass before the ball has even been played to him and who has the kind of game intelligence it is difficult to teach.

He will not start against Serbia but a team evolves fast in the heat of tournament play and his impact has been such that, if a vacancy arises either through injury or shortcomings in performance, Southgate will not hesitate to promote him to the starting XI.

Wharton talks with a maturity beyond his years, too. He is confident enough to be himself in front of the media, which is the deepest kind of confidence to possess.

‘How is John Stones?’ he was asked after Stones missed training with a cold. ‘No idea,’ Wharton said. He went on to expand on why he had no idea but the point remains. He has a laconic nature that makes him averse to babbling embroidery in his answers. He does not feel the need to try to impress.

Wharton joked his dad's description of him as 'a bit of a loner' was 'a bit harsh' at a press conference

Wharton joked his dad’s description of him as ‘a bit of a loner’ was ‘a bit harsh’ at a press conference

When he was told his dad had described him in a radio interview as ‘a bit of a loner’, Wharton smiled slowly, letting it sink in.

‘Loner is a bit harsh,’ he said, with just enough self-deprecation to make the room laugh.

‘I don’t have a million friends. I sort of keep myself to myself. That is how I’ve always been really. That works for me. I live on my own in London now. I am not always out with my friends doing this and that.

‘Part of being a footballer is you can’t go out on the weekends and they are the sort of sacrifices you make. I’m not a loner but I’m not the most outgoing person. I’m not going to go into a room with people I don’t know and be really loud.

‘All the lads have made it really easy, all very welcoming and happy to chat. That has made it easy but we are all involved in football and there is plenty to talk about. I’ve spoken to all the lads now and none have been difficult to speak to.’

Wharton was a promising cricketer for Lancashire in younger age groups but he is from a football-mad family.

Wharton enjoyed a fast ascent at Blackburn before signing for Crystal Palace in February

Wharton enjoyed a fast ascent at Blackburn before signing for Crystal Palace in February

The 20-year-old's form for Crystal Palace led to his inclusion in the 26-man England squad

The 20-year-old’s form for Crystal Palace led to his inclusion in the 26-man England squad

‘I’ve got two older brothers,’ he said, ‘and playing with them in the garden, well, they beat me up a few times. That all helps me getting used to the physical side of the game.’

One of his older brothers, Scott, plays for Blackburn, their local club, having fought his way back there after loans at Cambridge United, Lincoln City, Bury and Northampton Town. ‘I think that is a massive advantage that I have been able to have to help me transition into first-team football,’ Wharton said.

‘My brother had four loans before he got his chance at Blackburn. He was in League Two for about four seasons and got promoted a few times. And, yes, it definitely gave me a reality check as I was coming through.

‘I watched a lot of his games in League Two and it is a completely different game. It is a lot more physical. I was always ready for that. I am not the most outgoing — a bit of a loner — so to have him there definitely made it easier for me to transition into first-team football.’

Wharton’s own ascent was faster but it was not without its setbacks. He spent much of his first year as an apprentice out injured, a combination that can easily kill a fledgling career before it has properly started.

At that point, Wharton also had to fight.

I asked him if any experience in the Championship typified the contrast between those days and the elevated status he is now enjoying. He made the point that, to him, the Championship was what he knew and it was a privilege playing in those stadiums early in his career. Again, he had the confidence not to feel the need to dissemble.

‘It is a surreal feeling being here,’ he said. ‘Honestly, I wasn’t really expecting it. I have only just gone into the Premier League. It was more of a bonus if I got in, so I’m absolutely delighted. You can’t beat it, being able to do what you love at the top stage.

‘But if you are good enough, you are old enough.’

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