‘Just what England should be’: inner city estate where Kyle Walker grew up buzzing ahead of Euro 2020 final

In Sharrow, Sheffield, Colin Drury finds one of England’s most diverse, and deprived, neighbourhoods

Saturday 10 July 2021 16:03
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<p>Kyle Walker</p>

Kyle Walker

On the mid-rise Lansdowne estate in Sheffield’s inner city Sharrow area, they still talk of Kyle Walker fondly.

“Lovely boy, big smile,” beams Mohammed Rafiq, the 80-year-old owner of the halal butcher’s and continental food store there. “Penny sweets, that’s what he’d have. Four, five years old, with his mum. Holding his 10p for his sweets. And there he is now [playing for England]. You tell him old Mr Rafiq is so proud. We all are.”

In this corner of the “Steel City”, they have perhaps more reason than most to anticipate Sunday’s European Championship final in which England will play Italy.

For it was here that Man City star Walker – one of the national team’s finest players for a decade – was born, bred and, on a scrap of grass surrounded by flats, first played football. “Morning to night, they’d be out there kicking a ball about,” remembers Rafiq. “Sun and rain, it was all the same.”

If the current England team has been said to encapsulate a certain modern England – diverse, socially conscious, unassuming – then Walker is right at the heart of that.

Mohammed Rafiq

He is mixed race, working class – his dad was a builder from Jamaica – and, from his accent, identifiably South Yorkshire. Those who knew him then and know him now still talk of a young(ish) man who is unafraid of hard work, happy to laugh at himself and, despite being the world’s most expensive defender for a period, entirely grounded.

So attached to his roots does he remain, he has regularly said that he would like to return to his boyhood club of Sheffield United before he retires. It is said he has a tattoo of the Lansdowne estate on his ankle as a reminder of where he came from.

Pertinently, if there has also been the odd controversy in his personal life – reportedly hosting a sex party during lockdown, anyone? – he has never sought to excuse his own mistakes or complained about being called out. He has apologised and got his head back down. He has spoken of being given a stern ticking off from his mum.

Taken in totality, it means that when the 31-year-old walks out at Wembley for Sunday night’s match, his presence will add an extra buzz for many of those watching here in Sharrow – one of Sheffield’s most diverse but most deprived neighborhoods.

“He makes the England team more relatable, because this is someone who doesn’t just look and sound like them...people here walk past his old flat every day, they play football on the grass where he did,” says Simon Hyacinth, the co-chief executive of Sheffield’s much-respected Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) charity based in Sharrow. “That link, especially for kids, it makes them feel more a part of what is happening.”

More widely, he adds, this is exactly what the entire England team is doing in different areas across the whole country.

“They are a sort of image of how a multiculturalism done right can work, because this is a group of players from very different backgrounds that get on well and are doing so well together,” he says. “This is just what England should be, I suspect many people feel.”

Today, FURD is based in a purpose-built £2.5 million complex complete with floodlit pitches as well as dance studios, fitness suite and conference facilities.

But when Hyacinth first welcomed a six-year-old Walker along to a playing session sometime in the mid-Nineties, the whole operation was based out of a crumbling 18th-century stables block which had somehow survived – and stood incongruous – amid the arrival of back-to-back housing and council flats. The pitch they used was a gravel courtyard. “A bit different,” muses the 52-year-old, “to the Wembley arches.”

Simon Hyacinth

Either way, Walker was an astonishing footballer from the get-go. “Fast as a whippet, technically gifted, full of flicks and tricks,” says Hyacinth. “He’d play with kids four or five years older than him and still be the best.”

The youngster, who was introduced to the game by his grandfather, had energy and ambition to burn, too. Hyacinth tells a story of Walker – then seven or eight – taking him to one side during a session where four or five teams had to rotate playing matches on the single pitch. “Can’t you tell everyone you’re my uncle and I have to play in every game?” the lad asked.

When he signed for Sheffield United, he stayed in touch with FURD, and is today an ambassador. On multiple occasions he has lifted his own head above the parapet and spoken out about racism in sport. “I just give a bit of advice [to youngsters],” he once told an interviewer. “Just be yourself. It don’t matter if your Asian, black, white, we’re all the same. We all have a heart, we all have blood in our veins.”

It is exactly this kind of thing that makes Walker such a good role model, reckons Richard Caborn, the former Labour minister for sport and Sheffield Central MP whose constituency included Sharrow.

“This is not an easy area to grow up in,” he says. “It has so many strengths and so many fantastic people, but it is tough because those families are often at the bottom of the economic ladder. Life can be more of a struggle than it should be. So when someone like Kyle comes from that and achieves so much, it can’t fail but inspire aspiration.”

It helps build a mindset among others – especially children and teenagers – he reckons: if the lad from round the corner can do it, why can’t I?

Certainly, the teachers at his old school – High Storrs – try to tap into that.

“He’s still an inspiration to our students,” said one, Andria LePage, in a statement sent out by the school. “When we take new Year 7s on a tour around school we always go past his shirt that hangs in our PE department. Students get very excited to see he studied here. He’s a legend.”

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