Archie Gray's fellow Leeds United teen breakthrough star on shared experience and vital differences
If anyone knows what Archie Gray is going through as a very young teenager playing Championship football for Leeds United it's Simon Walton.
Gray was 17 years and 147 days old when Daniel Farke handed him a senior debut at Elland Road in a second tier clash with Cardiff City, but Walton was even younger when he made his breakthrough.
When Kevin Blackwell named Walton in the starting line-up for a home game against Derby County, the midfielder was 16 years and 329 days old. That day he became the club's seventh youngest debutant and, like Gray, one game led to another until supporters grew accustomed to the presence of a boy among men in the Leeds side. The 2004/05 season ended with Walton boasting 23 starts and seven appearances from the bench. Gray already has 13 starts and a pair of cameos from the bench to his name.
As unique insights go there are few better than Walton's when it comes to the latest cab off the Thorp Arch rank. Walton, now head of Under 21 recruitment at Chelsea, also came up through the academy and has always supported Leeds, so he's been watching Gray's emergence with interest. Not least because of the family the 17-year-old is representing.
"I know the Grays well," Walton told the YEP. "Nick was in the youth team when I was coming through. You've got Andy, Eddie, I see Frank down here on our travels when we're working. He comes from a great pedigree and he's been brilliant, just what you'd expect. They're all tall, similar build, tall, lean, leggy. When I've watched him in the youth team in my job over the last few years he's aggressive, he's got the mentality, doesn't shirk any challenges and he's not afraid to mix it so I think the physicality side of it, although it's it's changed a little bit since when I first come through and it's not just big meatheads anymore, he certainly has the physicality to be able to deal with the Championship. He's athletic, covers the ground well and I've been impressed."
Quite how it feels to be a school-aged youngster in a Leeds United dressing room full of grown men is a question very few will ever be able to answer. Gray has been around the senior set-up since he was 15 and looks completely at home in it. He was included in matchday squads by Marcelo Bielsa and taken on the pre-season tour to Australia by Jesse Marsch so perhaps when he finally made his debut the environment had become comfortable. Or maybe, like Walton, he just never felt any nerves.
"To be honest, I've said this before, I think I was so young that I didn't even at the time realise the kind of magnitude of what was happening," said Walton.
"I was a mad Leeds fan and had a season ticket for many years so I knew the ground and the atmosphere but I think I was still so young and naive that nerves didn't particularly come into it, because you're so excited to go and play football on Elland Road pitch. I think sometimes when you're a little bit older, maybe the nerves and the anticipation and expectation that comes around it can play on your mind but I think I was just so young, I was just an excited giddy kid and just loved playing football and wanted to run around and play for his hometown club. Nerves never really came into it."
Playing football Leeds United is one thing, and Gray does that well, but it certainly does not happen in a vacuum. The noise around the newest representative of Elland Road's first family was growing steadily even before ex-director of football Victor Orta made his infamous Sergio Aguero 'feeling' comparison. Where academy players once remained largely anonymous to the average football fan, they're now thrust front and centre at an earlier and earlier stage. Finley Gorman, who is set to make a move to Manchester City from Leeds, is just 15 but his skills have already gone viral on social media.
"It was different back then, like my biggest kind of hype, shall we say, came through the back of the News of the World or some transfer column pages or whatever it was," Walton told the YEP. "It was always a little paragraph language saying 16-year-old breaks through and does this, does that. Now you see all these Twitter and Instagram pages, players get spoken about both good and bad. But I think in terms of a young player back then it was kind of easier to hide from it. It wasn't as in your face as it is now.
"When a young player makes his debut now it's all over social media, all over every Instagram page before the game is even finished. When I was coming through it was looking at the paper, News of the World a Sunday or whatever it was on a Monday to see who played and if you'd played. It made it probably easier for a younger player finding his way but then at the same time obviously it was harder to get out there. No young player goes unnoticed these days."
Another major difference in Walton's emergence nearly two decades ago and the one Gray is going through right now is the dressing room and club culture in which they have to exist. When Gray first joined Bielsa's squad for away games he had a chaperone on the coach and changed separately from the senior players as Leeds met the game's safeguarding protocols. Walton, by comparison, joined in with team nights out and by the age of 18 was living alone in a London flat, having been sold to Charlton Athletic.
"I was on the cusp of where this kind of generational change was happening," said Walton. "So back then, when you were a young player, you were just a first team player so you got involved with the first team stuff, you get dragged on team bonding nights out and stuff like that. It was a bit different back then, it wasn't against the norm, that's what went on. But I think as I kind of progressed to early 20s, mid 20s that that kind of stopped and that old school mentality of team bonding, and well, you're with the first team now that's it you're a first team player kind of changed and youth development became even bigger.
"Now, these young players get looked after, they get their bums wiped for them quite often. There's a fine line between having a bit of independence but also being looked after. When I was coming through there was none of that. I signed at Charlton at 18, 19 years old in the Premier League and I got put in a two-bedroom flat in Canary Wharf and was given the keys and basically told 'there you go, live your life' and I know for a fact that doesn't happen nowadays."
Although as a teenager Walton was all in favour of new-found independence in the capital, he sees benefit for youngsters like Gray in the modern approach to how players are treated and supported. He said: "When you're 18, 19 you love it, it's the best thing in the world. When you look back for development and for personal growth, I know for a fact clubs wouldn't even dream of doing that now, but that said it was just the done thing at the time.
"I was seen as a first team player. I'd lived at home all my life, I've lived in in leafy Garforth all my life, ventured into Leeds city centre now and again and then next thing, I've signed for a club and you get whacked in storey of flats in the middle of Canary Wharf, so it was certainly eye opening. I had to live my life and find my own way and just like any young kids, you make good decisions, you also make bad decisions, whereas now those decisions are taken out of the hands of young players.
"There's more care and more mental care and more just logistical care and it's a totally different world now for those younger players. And it was even when I came through I'm speaking like I'm 50 years old, but even from when I came through, it's changed so much and there's so much more in place for them to be able to develop."
Something else that will work in Gray's favour, according to a man who should know, is the support network he finds around himself both at home and at work. That is where their respective experiences find more common ground. Walton says his family and friends kept him grounded, with senior players doing their bit too.
"It's an easy thing that people say but having seen both sides of the coin, from a player's point of view and now someone who's working on the other side in football it makes such a difference," said Walton. "Archie's got plenty of people to lean on within his family. He's always going to have a level head on his shoulders, coming from that pedigree and knowing Eddie and Frank they're never going to let him get carried away. I don't think there was ever going to be a question about his temperament.
"I was quite fortunate that the vast majority of the groups that I went into were good with young kids, we had leaders. I've been at clubs and I've worked at clubs where you get the experienced ones and they don't particularly take to the young kids or treat them particularly well and how they speak to them. I was fortunate that I was in a good environment where I was very much encouraged by the older players but also if I stepped out of line or did anything that dropped below standards, they also let me know.
"I think I was one of the fortunate ones but it can be tough because I've been there, been an old pro when a young pup comes through and you think they're gonna take your place and take your mortgage payments at the end of the month. So there's a fine line, but I think it all depends. If you look at all the young players who have done well they've always come from good dressing rooms with good older players within it. That's what Archie has got now, fortunately, he's got good characters in the dressing room."
Gray likely has all the advice he could ever want, and more, given the collective footballing experience, success and international caps to be found at family gatherings but if Walton could offer him any wisdom it would be this: "I got asked this question the other day, I had to do a presentation, but my first point was enjoy it, just take it all in, drink it all in. Enjoy it because it's soon over. But then my second point would be to make the most of it. Eat, sleep, breathe football and make the most of every little attribute.
"Every young player has got every tool to be successful. So as well as enjoying it, make the most of it because at certain points there's no excuse for failure now that every club's got every tool whether it be gym stuff, coaches, player care, nutritionists. There's so much for young players to delve into and utilise. Don't expect anything, because you've got to work hard for it, let me tell you."
A life in football that started in earnest at 16 has not dulled 36-year-old Walton to the excitement being felt around Leeds right now when it comes to 'one of their own' and one so young in the starting line-up. He feels it too and believes it could help to unearth the 16 and 17-year-old debutants of the future.
"The old romantic in me always thinks a young player, particularly being a Leeds fan, it gives you a different feeling," he said. "When you see a young player like Kalvin Phillips for example, if we had signed him from I don't know another Premier League club or Championship club but still performed in the same way and gone on to do what he's done, would we as a club and as a city had the same level of pride? I don't know.
"I think just seeing young exciting talent homegrown gives fans something to relate to and something to strive to. I've got young nephews, nieces and nephews who go and watch Leeds and that gives them something to strive on. I always say to people, 'it has to happen to somebody - it happened to me, so why not you?'"