Wheater has that extra something to take leading role

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The Independent Football

It was meant to be all about Bryan Robson at Bramall Lane today and in a way it still will be. Elements at Sheffield United will be delighted by Robson's Thursday departure but it is an opinion that will not be heard in the visitors' dressing room: Middlesbrough as a club revere Robson and while there is realism about his end at the Riverside, there feels like increasing affection for what Robson did in his seven years on Teesside.

The past fortnight, Boro's manager Gareth Southgate has been long and loud in his appreciation for Robson's work – "A lot of it was overlooked but not by the people here" – but it is not just that generation. David Wheater was 21 on Thursday but recalled this week an early encounter when the fast-improving centre-half was starting at Middlesbrough's centre of excellence more than a decade ago.

"I can still remember how kids alongside me would be training in Newcastle and Man United strips at a Middlesbrough coaching school," Wheater said. "Robson walked in one day and I heard him say, 'I'm not having that'. It was not long after that we were all having to wear the Middlesbrough gear, just how it should be.

"It's a shame Robbo has lost his job at Sheffield United. Those days were fantastic. I would head up to Tolesby Road where the club used to train and there would be occasions when we could see the likes of Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli. They were like celebrities. I wanted to be like them."

Wheater is getting there. Although the 6ft 4in Redcar-born defender has featured in only 29 games for Boro, his form this season has seen the club enter lengthy and fruitful negotiations with the player and his family over a new contract, and there is the far from insignificant detail that Boro sold Jonathan Woodgate to Tottenham last month in the knowledge that they have an even better centre-half at home.

"It made me feel fantastic when he was sold, from a personal point of view," Wheater said. "At the start of the season I was fifth or sixth choice. Jonathan is a fantastic player, so if they are selling him because I'm doing so well, then that's a fantastic feeling for myself."

Then there is Fabio Capello. But for England Under-21s' qualifier against the Republic of Ireland the night before, Wheater might have made Capello's first senior squad against Switzerland. Capello said so, yet when he heard, Wheater felt dismay rather than pride.

"The weirdest I've felt really was the way I felt disappointed when I did not play for England that night," he said. "Stewart Downing had to put me straight there. To be disappointed that I was not called up for England just shows you how far I have come this season."

Southgate does not shudder at England speculation but less than 12 months after Wheater was on loan at Darlington playing at Rochdale and Barnet, Southgate is not shouting about the idea: "I'm very conscious that I don't want to start touting David for England. I know people are watching him and he's doing exceptionally well in a tough league but there's a long way to go. What we don't need to do is start putting him ahead of where he is." Part of Southgate's shield is that Wheater has been allowed only to speak to the Northern Echo lately.

"He's playing with a maturity beyond his years but I do think that young players are more confident now. I think David is progressing well but there's a lot to do still, he's got to maintain it year after year after year. It's wrong to say anyone could have one good season, because they can't, but you have to maintain that consistency. It doesn't always happen but when I see his family background, he has a chance."

Wheater's father, Colin, has been part of the contract negotiations, a man whom Southgate described as "refreshing". The manager can see where the son gets his "level head" from. "His father and grandfather, he's from a strong family unit," Southgate said. "David has matured a lot in the last 18 months, he's realising he has to be more disciplined in his lifestyle."

It encompasses the odd game of Bingo along Redcar front, where some of the war scenes of the Oscar contender Atonement were filmed. Wheater even had an extra's part, which may have helped when he led Middlesbrough's moody season-ticket campaign video. In it, Wheater was the main man.