I remember Alex Smithies’ first start for Huddersfield Town. He’d come on as a late replacement after Matt Glennon was sent off at Southend the week before, 2-1 down had gone to 4-1, and the young goalkeeper had not impressed. These were not auspicious times for the Terriers, and despite that, young Smithies kept the gloves for the next match, a trip to Leeds.
As so often at that stage, Leeds had Huddersfield’s number and the poor lad was walloped. It was 4-0. Smithies did not feature again during the 2007/08 season.
This summer, after two and a half seasons with QPR, Smithies moved to Cardiff City and the Premier League. He’s one of our own, and one of few Huddersfield products that have made the step so high. He is, in truth, one of few English players who have worked their way through the leagues to the top flight and will be hoping to make his debut sooner rather than later.
To balance that memory out, I also remember Smithies’ most important kick in a Huddersfield shirt. At Wembley, against Sheffield United, he took Town’s 11th penalty in an interminable penalty shootout and smashed it into the net. His opposite number Steve Simonsen stepped up and put his kick into orbit. Huddersfield were promoted.
While Harry Maguire converted for the Blades that day, that match came too early for another player who is hoping to make an impact on the Premier League this year, Bournemouth new boy David Brooks.
Brooks & Maddison
The 20 year old has been turning heads at Bramall Lane for some time, and it was inevitable he would get a chance at the top table sooner rather than later. His star was in the ascendant long before his performance against Sheffield Wednesday in the Blades’ 4-2 win last year, but that game arguably earned him a call-up to the Wales first team and he has gone from strength to strength since then.
Bournemouth may be a difficult side to call this year, but if they can get the best out of Brooks, they will provide some spectacular football.
Another young forward who will be hoping to make the step up for the first time is Leicester City’s James Maddison. Recruited from Norwich City for a reported fee of around £22 million, there is a fair amount of pressure on his shoulders, not least with the Foxes’ previous creative force Riyad Mahrez moving on in the summer as well.
That said, Maddison was at the heart of nearly everything good that the Canaries produced recently, his vision and ability to pick a pass shining in the Championship, but sure to be tested at the higher level; 14 goals and 8 assists speak for themselves, but averaging 2.8 key passes per game give a little flavour to those figures.
One of Maddison’s team mates at Carrow Road last year has also taken the plunge to secure himself Premier League football. Despite being contracted with Manchester City for seven years, since leaving Norwich City’s youth system, Angus Gunn never made an appearance for the Premier League champions.
The son of Canaries legend Bryan, Angus has worked his way up through the various age group sides within the England set-up, but the last two years have seen him striking out looking to establish himself. Last season’s spell with his hometown side was a success, encouraging Southampton to shell out £10m on the youngster. With Fraser Forster to usurp, Gunn may not start the season between the sticks, but (just like Smithies) he will be hoping to pounce on any opportunity should it arise.
The same is likely to be true of Watford’s Ben Wilmot, signed from just down the road in Stevenage. The England Under 19 international made only 10 appearances for the Robins before the Hornets pounced with a deal that is likely to be ‘one for the future’.
West Ham newcomer Ryan Fredericks is another of those players who didn’t make it first time around at a Premier League side, so is back for a second bite of the cherry. The ex-Fulham full-back began his career with Tottenham but although he did play some competitive games for the North London side, he never stepped on to a Premier League game, instead going on a number of loan spells, to Brentford, Millwall and Middlesbrough, before permanent deals to first Bristol City and then Fulham.
Fundamental in his side’s promotion last season, Fredericks is one of the new breed of full-backs; all aggression, pace and passing ability, almost the same player going forward as a winger, with only the ability to work backwards if needed defensively to hold him from constantly bombing forward.
It will be an interesting test for both Fredericks and West Ham as to which part of his role he will get to demonstrate more, but it would be better for the London Stadium faithful if it were the attacking part.
Buying from the English lower leagues is a trend that has almost entirely died out in the top flight, with the above players the only examples of England-based players who have never been so high before, clubs either favouring the lower price tags of continental leagues or tried and tested players.
The Premier League is starting soon, and it will have its usual cavalcade of new and old faces. Fewer and fewer of them have been recruited from the Football League, however, as the gap between the two grows ever wider.