Unexpected England squad development highlights unique Leeds United position in Archie Gray summer transfer discourse

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Adam Wharton’s call-up to England’s provisional Euro 2024 squad serves as a reminder to Leeds United teenager Archie Gray of the career milestones within touching distance.

Wharton and Gray shared the pitch together earlier this season as Leeds visited Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. Shortly thereafter, Wharton swapped Ewood for Selhurst Park; Championship football for the Premier League.

The youngster’s move to Crystal Palace began with a baptism of fire against Brighton and Hove Albion, but gradually over the course of the second half of the campaign, Wharton has demonstrated why Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate deems him worthy of a place in England’s provisional 33-man squad.

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Southgate will whittle his group down to 26 before the tournament begins next month and Wharton is likely to be cut from the final list, but inclusion even at this stage is a reflection of his ascent in recent months.

Back in March, Gray’s name was mentioned by Southgate alongside the likes of Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo and Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott, the former going on to make his Three Lions bow. Leeds' prodigious teen is very much in the England manager’s thoughts, albeit on the periphery. His inclusion of Wharton and Curtis Jones from Lee Carsley’s Under-21 group proves the coach’s willingness to promote from within the England youth setup. Meanwhile, Gray has ascended from representing England’s Under-17s this time last year to the U21 squad within the space of ten months, whilst playing a central role in Leeds’ promotion push, accumulating over 50 first-team appearances.

Wharton aside, there are few young English midfielders making strides quite like the Whites teenager. There remains one crucial difference between the pair, however, and that is the division in which they have each finished the 2023/24 season.

There is little doubt Gray could feature in midfield for a Premier League club - he has exhibited composure, versatility and maturity surpassing many divisional peers throughout his debut professional campaign. So far, he has not been afforded the opportunity of a Premier League debut and there is no guarantee Leeds will be there next term, even if they are a mere 90 minutes from glory at Wembley this Sunday.

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Wharton’s example shows the likes of Gray what is capable of being achieved with Premier League football on his CV. This, of course, can be interpreted two ways: firstly, as added motivation for the play-off final this weekend. Win, and Gray will be on the fast-track to becoming a cornerstone of Leeds' bid to remain in the top flight, just as a previous academy graduate-turned-England-international managed.

The scenario Leeds fans fear is the second way in which Wharton's example could be interpreted, that Gray may seek a Premier League transfer this summer should Leeds fall at the final hurdle, having seen the progression opportunities given to England youth international peers playing a division up.

Working in the Whites’ favour, however, is the strong probability Gray’s development would benefit most by staying put, coupled with the fact Wharton is two years his senior, while Mainoo is 2005-born. Gray, on the other hand, was born four short months before Zinedine Zidane's headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the FIFA World Cup Final between France and Italy. Time is very much on Leeds' side, especially considering the boyhood supporter penned a new long-term deal to remain at Elland Road which runs until the summer of 2028.

Few teams in the top flight would be able to guarantee Gray the requisite minutes that would be necessary for a senior England call better than his current employer. Not only that, the 18-year-old has earned his place in Daniel Farke's team, which has a realistic chance of promotion where Wharton's Rovers did not.

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It is a quite unique position Leeds and Gray find themselves in, but ahead of kick-off at Wembley, it is a strong one. He is contracted long-term, has an intimate familial connection and time on his side to go and achieve all the things that are within his grasp. Only a select few in Southgate's 33-man training camp squad are without EFL experience - Phil Foden, Cole Palmer, Bukayo Saka, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice among them - proving the value of the appearances Gray has made this season, at least in the eyes of England selectors.

Wharton's call-up strongly suggests in Gray's case, it is a matter of when, rather than if, he is selected for the senior England squad. Leeds' task - aided by the teen's efforts this weekend - is to ensure their own trajectory matches that of one of their finest academy prospects in recent years.

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