Tom Huddlestone: Teenage kicks

Tom Huddlestone has crammed a lot of football into his 19 years and, after stints at Derby and Wolves, is heading back to Tottenham ready to stake his claim for club and country
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At just 19, he is a regular in the England Under-21s' midfield, he played more than 20 senior games before his 17th birthday and, in the dawning of the Premiership's age of teenage footballers, he will be back at White Hart Lane later this month to claim his place among the emergent young stars of Tottenham Hotspur's British revolution. Tom Huddlestone has spent the first part of the season on loan to Wolverhampton Wanderers but Martin Jol's clear-out of midfielders this month has meant that one of the brightest English teenage prospects will finally get his chance in the Premiership.

Should they sign Theo Walcott this month, Arsenal will believe they have the best young player in the Championship - Tottenham felt the same this time last year when they paid Derby County £2.5m for Huddlestone, who had then just turned 18, and loaned him back to Pride Park until the summer. He has remained one of the Championship's best kept secrets this season, flourishing in Glenn Hoddle's midfield and establishing himself in Peter Taylor's England Under-21 team that narrowly failed to qualify for the European Championship finals. As one of the Englishmen tipped to succeed the Beckham generation Huddlestone is among those young enough to count the 2014 World Cup as a genuine target.

The teenage stars of England Future are - with the exception of those such as Huddlestone, Walcott, Tottenham's Aaron Lennon, Manchester City's Nedum Onouha, Luke Moore of Aston Villa and Cardiff's Cameron Jerome - still lurking unknown in their clubs' academies. Leeds and Middlesbrough are believed to have an exceptional crop but few of these young players will get their break quite as early as Huddlestone, who was famously picked by John Gregory on the Derby County bench aged 15, made his debut at 16 and had played 22 senior matches before he turned 17 - more than Wayne Rooney managed for Everton.

It means that battling for a place against Michael Carrick, Jermaine Jenas and Edgar Davids will hold little fear for a player who jokes that the Monday mornings he was allowed off school to train with Derby at the age of 15 were "like an advanced PE lesson". "Spurs are flying this season and you would always want to go back to a club that is doing so well rather than one that is struggling," Huddlestone said. "I think if they can do what they have been doing then a top-four finish is not out of the question. It is going to be more difficult for me to break into the team but I feel confident, it's something I have to do."

Sixteen may sound like an early age to start playing professional football but one glance at Huddlestone will tell you that at 6ft 2in tall he is big enough to take care of himself in the uncompromising world of Championship football. His has been a fast-tracked development from kicking a ball around with the substitutes at his uncle's games for the old Hucknall Rolls-Royce semi-professional team to being picked up by his hometown team Nottingham Forest and playing in their Under-10s team at the age of just eight.

He spent four years at Forest although he missed much of his last season suffering from the knee condition Osgood-Schlatter disease and was told by the academy director at the time, Paul Hart - who also famously released Shaun Wright-Phillips - that he had not quite qualified for a place in the academy.

It was then that Huddlestone joined Derby, who he had played against in his last match for Forest, and rose through the ranks in a strong academy team that also featured the England Under-21s' goalkeeper Lee Camp. His development at Derby, who have earned a strong reputation for nurturing talent under academy director Terry Westley, was astonishing and, having played a year beyond himself every step of the way, found himself selected for the bench by Gregory in a game against Millwall in October 2002. His football career developed alongside his schoolwork, a part of his life which his mother Maxine insisted he continue with and, with 3 B grades and 6 C grades at GCSE, he qualifies as one of English football's best educated young players.

"My mum really wanted me to get my GCSEs done so I had something to fall back on," Huddlestone said. "It was difficult but it was one of those things that have to be done and if you are going to do something then you may as well do it to the best of your abilities. When I was 15 I had a week off school and I was on the bench for Derby on the Saturday, the Wednesday and the following Saturday as well. I was in line to make my debut against Brentford [January 2003] in the FA Cup but I got injured in training and was out for 13 weeks.

"I was having Thursday mornings off school to train and Monday mornings as well but that was when I had PE lessons anyway - this was an advanced PE lesson. That was the only difference. I had good people around me like my mum who kept my feet on the ground and my mum said the most important thing was doing well at school. And then football. So it was a shock but I took it in my stride.

"When I got in the side [aged 16 in 2003] the results were getting on top of us and that is mentally tiring but, as for playing football when I was 16, it was just a buzz to be there. Every week for the first 10 or 15 games I was just thinking, 'I need to play well to stay in the team'. That was my main objective and I ended up doing that for the whole season. It was weird but obviously George Burley had faith in me so I felt I should have the confidence to perform on a Saturday afternoon for him. As long as the manager shows you confidence, you should be confident in yourself."

Halfway through his second season at Derby, Tottenham's then-director of football Frank Arnesen made his move with a £2.5m bid for Huddlestone as his reputation as an emerging star in the Under-21s grew. Since then he has been back to Pride Park once with Wolves, where he scored his one goal of the season so far, and at Southampton in November he got a close-up look at Walcott who Huddlestone describes with a raised eye-brow, and a degree of understatement, as "rapid". With Pedro Mendes and Sean Davis now at Portsmouth, Martin Jol wants Huddlestone to challenge for a place in his midfield.

"I had just turned 18, and when a big club like Spurs come in for you, and the club accept the offer, it is going to be difficult for you, as a young player, to turn down such a big opportunity," Huddlestone said. "Spurs' approach of buying young British players gave me confidence and should be good for the future. Playing for the Under-21s, and speaking to players there, they said that Tottenham were an excellent club to join."

Huddlestone is young enough to consider the arrival of Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola as among his earliest memories of football and is still amazed at what Glenn Hoddle can do in training ground matches - "I don't even know which one is supposed to be his stronger foot."

Even as a 16-year-old football debutant he is proof to the likes of Walcott and the next teenage English generation that you have to wait for your chance - now at White Hart Lane, Huddlestone's has arrived.

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