Sheffield United: When fantasty became reality for Dom
If Dominic Calvert-Lewin features against Port Vale tomorrow, and if he scores in front of The Kop, it will be his very own Jimmy Muir moment.
Proof that fairytales really do happen when Saturday comes.
“It’s a thought that goes through my head maybe 10 times every 24 hours,” the Sheffield United turned supporter admitted. “Probably more than that in fact. I’m not quite sure how I’d celebrate, I haven’t figured that out just yet. I’d try and stay professional, mind.”
Being professional is something Calvert-Lewin has been doing ever since progressing through the League One club’s youth system last term. But, as he acknowledged at its Steelphalt Academy training complex earlier this week, representing United is more than a job. The teenage centre-forward, who made his full debut for United against Doncaster Rovers six days ago, might have grown-up within shooting distance of Hillsborough but, he told The Star, has always been a Blade.
“I’ve been working for this for so long now so, even though I had to focus on trying to make it eventually happen, it was still all a bit surreal,” Calvert-Lewin, recounting his experiences at the Keepmoat Stadium, said. “I watched from the stands as a kid so that’s why, I’m not going to deny, it felt a bit strange. Brilliant but strange.”
Calvert-Lewin, aged 18, had been identified as a potential first-team player of the future long before appearing as a second-half substitute when United, then managed by Nigel Clough, visited Leyton Orient in April. But, after impressing his successor Nigel Clough during pre-season, it was during a spell on loan with Northampton Town were he discovered raw talent is not always enough. A lesson hammered home, quite literally, by Barnet defender Bira Dembélé during a visit to The Hive.
“My first game was Blackpool in the Johnstone Paint Trophy and I scored in that one,” Calvert-Lewin recollected. “My second was Barnet away and the centre-half just smashed me at a header. It was like ‘Welcome to League Two.’
“I’m a big lad and so I’m bound to attract that. I had to get used to it. You can’t let it bother you. You’ve just got to get up and smash them even harder back.”
Chris Wilder, who has transformed Northampton from relegation candidates into title favourites, also left his mark while another former United youngster inadvertently provided guidance off the pitch.
“Chris was very good for me,” Calvert-Lewin said. “He’s a Sheffield United fan so he looked after me. But he taught me a lot too about how to deal with the professional game. I’m tall and athletic but the difference between academy football and proper football, as it were, is that I probably wasn’t aggressive enough.
“He drilled it in to me that I needed to be even more aggressive. Chris is honest, he’ll tell you how it is and that’s all you can ask for really.”
“I was down there three quarters of the week and then came home a bit as well,” Calvert-Lewin added. “I lived in a flat with a lad from Rotherham - Ryan Cresswell - and became good friends with him. Actually, there were three of us in the flat. Sam Hoskins was the other lad and Ryan told us that if we cooked, he’d buy the food. It didn’t really work out like that to be fair. We bought and we cooked most of the time. Salmon pasta was our signature dish. Every single time.”
Calvert-Lewin, who hit the target eight times in 11 starts before being returning from Sixfields, convinced Adkins he was ready for action during a midweek training session. “He took the ball with his back to goal, controlled it and popped an overhead kick straight in the top corner,” the United manager, speaking before Tuesday’s defeat by Bury, said. “Brilliant stuff.”
But, now ninth in the table with 15 matches remaining, Adkins must decide whether youthful exuberance or experience is most likely to reinvigorate his team’s faltering promotion challenge. After drawing with Swindon Town last month, United were scoring an average of 1.66 goals per League One game. Less than a month later, they prepare to host Vale having found the back of the net only once in four. A worrying statistic for a squad which, Adkins hoped soon after taking charge, could mask its deficiencies elsewhere by carrying a razor-sharp attacking threat.
“Being away from Sheffield allowed me to mature a lot,” Calvert-Lewin said. “And also to see a different first team environment as well. That taught me to be more confident in myself and to back my ability more.
“The people here really monitored me though throughout. They watched all of my games and studied them on video as well so that made me feel a part of things.
“The first team lads here have been brilliant as well. I’ve been in the group for a while now and hopefully I’ve got their respect. They often asked me how things were going on down at Northampton and then, when I made my first start here, they all congratulated me on that too. They’ve been a real help and always encourage the young lads coming through.”