JUST eighteen months ago, the name Kyle Naughton was relatively unknown to anyone unfamiliar with Sheffield United’s youth academy.
Naughton was a precarious teenager, a pacy adventurous right back – who then amazed the Bramall Lane crowd with a series of displays which belied his tender age. After a character-building loan spell at Scottish side Gretna, Naughton, like many young players, was given his first taste of first-team action in a cup tie, against Port Vale. United won, Naughton kept his place, and scored in the next round against Huddersfield.
From then on, there was no stopping the Sheffield-born defender as he made 49 appearances in his maiden season – including one at Wembley, for the Play-Off Final last May.
Naughton’s rapid rise to prominence attracted some admiring glances from the Premier League, and seemingly-endless speculation suggested that a move to either Aston Villa, Everton or Tottenham Hotspur was on the cards. Even Manchester United and Arsenal were reportedly interested in the teen, but it was Harry Redknapp who eventually secured Naughton’s signature – alongside his 18-year-old United team-mate Kyle Walker, who had also featured in the Play-Off Final loss to Burnley.
The double deal was reported to be worth up to £10m – a staggering sum, considering both player’s lack of experience and also Tottenham’s track record of buying promising, lower league players – including Bobby Zamora, Matthew Etherington and Michael Brown.
Naughton made three senior appearances in a Spurs shirt, before joining Middlesbrough on loan – but the defender’s lack of time on the field has not put off England under-21 coach Stuart Pearce, who named both Naughton and Walker in his squad for the recent Euro 2011 qualifier against Greece at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.
“I’m sure they’re going to go on and do well in both club and international football,” Pearce told the Sheffield Star.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world to tell someone who is just coming through, but you’ve got to be patient. Kyle Naughton saw a lot of action when he was at Sheffield United and then had a few games for Spurs before going out for a spell elsewhere.
“That’s clearly what they feel is best for the next stage of his education. But that is how it works and patience really is the key.”
Throughout his relatively short career, however, Naughton has not been used to waiting around. Just a matter of months after making his Bramall Lane bow, he was signing a lucrative contract with a London club and was, effectively, a Premier League player.
Such was his importance to the United cause that fans are still angry about the sale of two of their brightest stars. But does the rangy right-back have what it takes to live up to Pearce’s expectations, and do well in international football?
In short, yes. In modern day football, defenders are not just defenders – their role has transformed, and they are now expected to support the attack as often as possible. The obvious example is Glen Johnson – who commanded an £18m transfer fee not for his ability to defend, which is often under scrutiny, but his attacking instincts. Even Gary Neville’s frequent forays down the wing at Manchester United have become commonplace.
Not surprisingly for a player of his age, Naughton fits in well with these modern-day principles, and often used to excite the Bramall Lane crowd with pacy, expansive runs down the right. Defensively he is sometimes still a little naïve at times, but his explosive pace is usually enough to get him out of the most troublesome situations.
United manager Kevin Blackwell admits Naughton is destined
to leave. He did – but to Spurs, not Everton
For a young man with such a slender appearance Naughton is also surprisingly strong, and is equally adept on the left-hand side of the defence – where he was forced to operate at United, following Walker’s emergence on the right. For a club so used to favouring the long-ball game, Naughton’s intelligent and mature use of the ball was a breath of fresh air.
With England’s senior squad currently devoid of a number of right-backs – so much so that Neville is being discussed in some quarters as a possible World Cup inclusion – a string of impressive performances for Gordon Strachan’s Boro could yet place him in Fabio Capello’s thinking. A World Cup place is highly unlikely, but the England manager is not afraid to call up new players – and an extended run in Tottenham’s first team would certainly help.
“Boro is good because I’m playing and that’s what everyone wants to do,” Naughton said. “It’s an important part of my education.”