Football: Learning to let the ball do the work: At the age of 18, Chris Bart-Williams of Sheffield Wednesday is already a player of poise and purpose. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
WHILE the millstone of injuries that has dragged Liverpool towards mediocrity has been well chronicled, Sheffield Wednesday have also been quietly picking up casualties at a rate of one a point. Their player-manager, Trevor Francis, knows which team he would like to put out against Tottenham Hotspur today, but the doctors probably know better.

Of the 11 players who began the season 43 days ago against Everton, only three were available to Francis this week, the absentees including the goalkeeper, an entire back four, the principal playmaker and the leading scorer. The story of the Premier League's first season will, in Wednesday's case, be one in which many of the leading characters are missing from entire chapters.

Even these thunder clouds, however, have a silver lining. A beneficiary of the escalating medical bills at Hillsborough is Chris Bart-Williams, who has, by necessity, gained a regular first-team place ahead of his time and, at 18, is exciting those who anticipate his arrival in the England team in the medium future. Just as Gazza arrived late to propel England towards the semi-finals of the World Cup in Italy, there is a stirring of hope that 'Bart' might do the same if Graham Taylor's squad make it to the United States in 20 months.

It has been a season of ripening promise for Bart-Williams, who graduated to the England Under-21 team to general applause against Spain three weeks ago. Francis's preference would be to use the fledgling midfield player sparingly, as his relatively few appearances (15) last season showed, but this season he has played in all of Wednesday's games, filling in principally for the disabled John Sheridan.

'He has the potential to be very good,' Viv Anderson, Wednesday's former England defender, said. 'Obviously there's a difference between being outstanding at 18 and still being there at 26, which seems to be the next stage when players move on, but if he continues to listen and learn, there's no reason why he shouldn't be there.

'I played with Ryan Giggs at Manchester United, and although he plays in a different position I would say Chris's ability is comparable. He can beat players but he also has an old head on his shoulders. He has enough sense to know when to let the ball do the work.'

It was Bart-Williams's maturity that set him apart from the moment he scored within 10 minutes of his debut for Leyton Orient at 16. Born in Sierra Leone, his parents emigrated to Britain when he was four and he was brought up in Bounds Green, north London. Within four years of signing scholboy forms at Orient he was in the first team and so impressed Wednesday in two League Cup matches 12 months ago that Francis moved quickly when the Londoners required a goalkeeper at short notice. Chris Turner was sent on loan while Bart-Williams went north for a trial period and then a transfer that will ultimately yield Orient pounds 800,000 if he plays for England.

'We didn't want to let Chris go,' Frank Clark, Orient's managing director, said, 'but we couldn't stand in the way of what was a good move for him and the club. I'm not surprised he's done well because he has a wonderful temperament. He can provide the unexpected, but has never fallen into the trap of trying to be spectacular for its own sake.'

Against Hartlepool United in the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday, Bart-Williams kept the more flamboyant touches down to one bewildering run that gave a hint of his quick feet and put him beyond the tackles of two opponents before he pushed the ball a fraction too far, and an exciting dribble that was halted by a huge lunge from a defender's boot.

Elsewhere he impressed more with his intelligent passing and the timing of his runs into the penalty area, mainly late and frequently without a marker. He has stamina (his work for the England youth team this summer restricted his close season to little more than a fortnight), he is insistent in his demands for possession, and he has the instinct that even some international players never acquire - of knowing where to go to get it.

'People say I took to playing in the First Division very quickly but I found it quite a shock,' Bart-Williams says. 'Everything was so fast. You had to think more quickly, play more quickly, move more quickly. It took me quite a time to adapt. The manager and senior players taught me a lot, and Paul Williams used to give me a lot of advice before he was transferred to Crystal Palace.

'I'm aware that there are one or two things I need to improve, like my tackling and my heading. I've also got to get into the box more often and score more goals.'

The learning process is progressing quickly enough, however, to ensure he gives as good as he gets in verbal exchanges with his team-mates. 'I've just had a go at him in the dressing-room for always moaning,' Anderson said. 'I wondered if something was wrong. Instead he told me he did it because he's a perfectionist. A perfectionist at 18? I thought: 'That'll do for me.' '

In the future it might do for England, too.

(Photograph omitted)