Twenty years ago, he was a tiny kid from the Landsdowne Estate in Sharrow, running rings around boys older and often much bigger than him. Today, he is among the world’s most expensive footballers.
Last week Manchester City paid what could rise to an incredible £50million to sign Kyle Walker, a fee balked at by many as outrageously extravagant. However, in the cash-rich modern era of Premier League football, quality costs and 27 year-old Walker has that in abundance.
That precocious talent was spotted at a very early age and according to one of the men involved in the organisation which helped Walker on his way, the first big step up came about by accident.
Howard Holmes is co-founder of Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), a project set up in 1995 to bring together communities in Sheffield and break down prejudice, using sport as its fundamental means of integration.
“He only played with us because someone dropped out and we said ‘come on then’,” remembers Howard. “Kyle was younger than the rest of the boys but when a place opened up for him to play, we let him come along.
“We were doing some coaching up at Abbeydale Grange and you could see even then at seven or eight years old that he had something very special about him.
“After that we didn’t get much chance to see him at the coaching schools because we had Paul Archer, who was working with Sheffield United at the time there with us, and he immediately recommended that Kyle go to United.
“He wasn’t supposed to play with us but he’d always still come back and play with his mates in the Street Kicks, a mobile football pitch that we had.”
“I just remember this little lad,” adds Howard. “He was so much smaller than the rest but because he was so good, he played against older lads and was just so much better than them.”
Looking at Walker now, every inch the strong, powerfully-built athlete, it’s hard to imagine a scrawny youngster kicking around the streets.
“He was like that until well into his teens. Small and slight, “ recalls Howard. “Then he had a growth spurt and started developing into what he is now. He’s bulked up but he’s always been so quick and is still that way. That’s really why Manchester City have spent so much money on him. He’s a very modern footballer.”
Howard is understandably proud of Walker and his big move, “Manchester is a bit closer so hopefully we’ll get to see a bit more of him now,” he adds. While footballers are often ridiculed for the amount of money they earn at the high end of the game, little criticism has been thrown the way of the England international.
Perhaps part of that is his down-to-earth personality. Someone who has never forgotten where they came from.
That includes the area and the club he supported and, albeit briefly played for. It was only a few games into Walker’s senior career that he made the move south from United to join Tottenham.
He said in an interview earlier this year: “Hopefully one day I’ll get to play for Sheffield United in the Premier League, hopefully that’s a dream that can come true.
“They put a lot of faith in me and hopefully I can finish my career there, just to say thank you.”
Where he came from in Sharrow shaped him as a person, but as will have happened to many whom Walker grew up with and around, it would have been so easy for him to be sucked into a life far removed from the spoils of a footballer’s life.
“Kyle comes from a very supportive family,” says Howard, 70, who has now semi-retired from FURD but remains as chairman of the trustees. “He didn’t have a sheltered up-bringing but he was an only child and had parents who helped him achieve everything he has.
“The area where he grew up, like many around Sheffield, has had its problems over the years, but Kyle had a family that really supported him and kept him on the right lines.
“Until very recently his dad never missed a game he was playing in, travelling all over the country to watch him. It’s always been like that, right from he was very young, playing for Sheffield United’s academy.
“There are plenty of kids who Kyle will have known growing up that did end up getting into trouble. Kyle was kept away from that but other kids around there wouldn’t have been quite so fortunate to have that stability and guidance and many of them from the same area and around the same age as him did end up in trouble with the law for various reasons.”
The group that helped Walker, too, has never been far away from his thoughts either.
“He’s come back a few times and helped us out with some of the projects that we have been running,” adds Howard.
“Any time he’s been available to do it, he has come along. It’s not easy with him having been in London and with his own life there and the travelling around that comes with being a footballer. Now he will be based in Manchester we are hoping that he’ll be able to do a little bit more with us.
“We are so incredibly proud of him. It’s a fantastic move - he’s going to a club that have genuine ambitions to win big trophies and he’ll be playing under Pep Guardiola, one of the best managers in the world.
“It’s amazing really to see a young lad that has come from the Landsdowne Estate become a world-renowned footballer.
“We as a city, in Sheffield should be proud of him for what he has achieved. Like Jess (Ennis-Hill), you have got two people who were brought up about 150 yards from one another and look what they have done. It’s incredible really.”
Now, in the wake of this big move, Howard is hoping that Walker can inspire young people from places like Sharrow.
“That’s what we have always wanted,” he said.
“We want kids from those sorts of areas to look up to Kyle and see what he’s done and think to themselves ‘ that can be me if I work hard at it.’
“That’s what FURD is all about.
“Trying to help young people be all they can be.
“We have been going for 22 years now which is a long time for a community and charity organisation and it’s difficult with national and local government funding being cut.
“Having people like Kyle around can hopefully bring people to us and we can continue to carry on the work at our base at the U-Mix Centre.”