Chelsea rejection, Manchester United and WhatsApp: The making of Sheffield Wednesday's Di'Shon Bernard
As is the case with just about any 23-year-old lad, every now and then, the phone of Di'Shon Bernard will buzz with a message from an old work pal.
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They'll have seen a thunderous tackle on social media or have had word on a stellar performance. If the message arrives on a Saturday evening, there'll likely be word on how their day went, too.
Unlike most 23-year-olds of course, the old work pal won't be a former employee of the local bar or Halfords. Bernard is part of a WhatsApp group comprised of some of the brightest young talents in English football, reared in the youth ranks at Manchester United.
The football life has taken them all over the country and indeed all over the world; in Bernard's case to Sheffield Wednesday. Brandon Williams faced-off against his old defensive partner recently while on loan at Ipswich Town, James Garner is with Everton, Teden Mengi at Luton, Angel Gomes at Lille. On Saturday, Ethan Laird will do battle with Bernard's Wednesday in the colours of Birmingham City.
Far flung they may be, but the WhatsApp group is alive and well - and the friendships built at one of the great sporting institutions of the world steadfast.
In what has been a brutally difficult start to life back in the Championship for Sheffield Wednesday, young centre-half Bernard is surely a silver lining. He plays and speaks with a maturity beyond his years and has quickly developed a fond relationship with Owls supporters.
Bernard grew up in Wandsworth in South West London, seemingly with a football glued to his first pair of booties. The son of Jamaican-born parents, he has a large family - his father is one of nine - most of whom still live in the Caribbean and who he speaks to over the phone as often as he can.
There is a glint in his eye noticeable when he discusses his time spent with the national team, for whom he collected his ninth cap over the weekend. "Playing for Jamaica is a big thing for me," he said in a far-reaching conversation with The Star earlier this season.
Athletic and capable on the ball from a young age, a childhood coach worked at Fulham. That seemed the obvious way in for Bernard before an impressed Chelsea scout collared his mum after a bright Sunday morning outing.
"I was a Chelsea fan so I jumped at the chance," Bernard smiled. "When I was growing up I was playing at right-back. I was up against Tariq Lamptey which was tough! I keep in contact with him. We were in with Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jonathan Panzo, a few others. It was a really good squad and you learned a lot from the people you were around."
It was at 16 that Bernard found himself at the first real crossroads of a young career that had at that stage only seemed to be heading upwards. Released by Chelsea after six years, he spent time being driven from club to club in search of the right opportunity with a feeling of bewilderment. Such was his profile at youth level it was a case of where, not if he'd get back in. Crystal Palace came on strong, but it was in the north that Bernard found a home.
Manchester United arranged for treble-winning legend Andy Cole to be present at the signing of Bernard alongside Jose Mourinho, who was said to have been impressed with a quick look at the 16-year-old during a trial match. Looking back, he remembers an uncertain time that was followed by excitement, with now-Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna his manager with the Old Trafford second-string.
"To be fair we had a really good group of players at Chelsea and they can't take everyone on, so I did sort of see things coming," he said. "It was a really good team and a lot of guys in that squad have gone on to have careers at the top level, so no complaints there.
"But I was lost. I didn’t know where I was going to end up, I had to go out to a few trials and luckily enough my agent at the time knew people at Manchester United, so I got a trial there. They ended up offering me something and I am hugely grateful for the opportunity I got there and how they developed me."
A first team debut arrived in November 2019 under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with minus-10 temperatures freezing out a very youthful outfit in a Europa League defeat at FC Astana. Former Owls keeper Lee Grant played in goal alongside the likes of Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood in a 2-1 defeat.
Bernard chuckles with a sense of fun when asked the obvious question to anyone to have looked up the nature of the result; one that proved to be his only outing in Manchester United colours. He was credited with an own goal, the deciding goal in the biggest result in the history of Kazakh football.
"Oh you want to talk about that do you? OK then," he grinned. "I remember it was cold, really cold, something silly. We played indoor on astro and it was definitely an experience. I’ll always remember that - including the own goal! I can always say that I played for Man United professionally and that’s something I’ll hold with me.
"The own goal was a tough one, a deflected cross. It was great to go across with all those youth teammates and that made it even better. It’s something I’ll always remember. We got a private plane, a nice hotel, the staff there just treat you that little bit better! It was an experience I’ll never forget. It’s a good life that they live!"
As is often the case at Old Trafford, excitement built around the development of a youth squad of which Bernard became a key figure. Loan stints with Salford City (he says he has never watched the 'Class of 92: Out of their League' documentary on which Gary Neville spoke adoringly of him) Hull City and Portsmouth came and went, offering him experience at every EFL level. He was released by United in the summer.
And so to his current challenge. Di'Shon Bernard may only be 23, but he has the shoulders of a much more experienced footballer. Once back from international duty, Bernard and his teammates are tasked with rescuing Sheffield Wednesday's ailing season.
From battling a teenage Tariq Lamptey for minutes to own goals in Astana, he'll be drawing on every corner of his CV to do just that - hoping for only good news to report to the WhatsApp group.