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A statement performance.

F*cking hell: Leeds United’s Archie Gray might actually be the future of England’s midfield

Sometimes you look at a player and you just know. 

Leeds United’s Archie Gray belongs in that category. The 3-2 defeat away to Chelsea was the 17-year-old’s first competitive experience of playing against Premier League opposition, and to say that he didn’t look out of place would be underselling it.

Academy striker Mateo Joseph might’ve stolen the headlines, scoring twice – his first senior goals – and pointing to the Stamford Bridge pitch in celebration, declaring “I’m here”.

Gray didn’t need to do that explicitly. His unerringly mature performance said it all.

“I can’t believe he’s 17,” a stunned Lee Dixon declared from ITV’s commentary box midway through a second half that Gray was integral in Leeds largely dominating.

“He just has that look about him that he’s played 300 games. I know how hard it is to play right-back and it’s not even his position and he’s been playing there most of the season.”

The fact it was Gray who picked up the Player of the Match award, and not any player from the winning team, nor the scorer of both Leeds’ goals, told us everything about his performance.

Leeds United’s prize asset turns 18 in a fortnight. He’s played almost every minute of the club’s promotion-chasing campaign so far, and has now played more Championship minutes before being able to legally buy a pint than Jude Bellingham did for Birmingham.

It’s no surprise that there’s already Gray-for-England chatter. He’s risen through the ranks of the Young Lions and appears destined to appear on the biggest stages, breaking rank from the Gray dynasty of great uncle Eddie and dad Andy, who famously represented Scotland.

Just two Leeds players have represented England over the past two decades. One was Patrick Bamford, who played once against Andorra.

The other was Kalvin Phillips, who was handed his first call-up by Gareth Southgate in September 2020, shortly before he made his Premier League debut for Leeds.

His performances in Leeds’ promotion-winning campaign had been enough to convince Southgate. The midfielder was the first player since David Nugent in 2007 to receive an England cap before playing in a top-flight European league.

He went on to become a vital cog for the Three Lions as they reached their first major final in over half a century and that year was named their Player of the Year.

There were parallels in Gray’s performance to Phillips’ coming-of-age, look-at-me display in Leeds’ FA Cup clash with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in January 2020. Bielsa’s men lost 1-0 but they produced a statement performance that hinted they belonged in the Premier League. The following season, newly-promoted Leeds finished top half, just two points behind Arteta’s Gunners.

Time will tell what the future holds for Daniel Farke’s team, but you don’t need a crystal ball to see Gray following in the footsteps of Phillips. And you just know that Southgate is keeping tabs on Gray, who looks for all the world like the next great England international made in the Football League.

Just look at the way he handled playing against Chelsea’s £200million double-pivot, wounded and desperate to prove they weren’t blue bottle jobs after Sunday’s chastening cup final defeat to Liverpool. Yet Moises Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez were outshone by an actual child once again.

Gray has spent the vast majority of the season playing at right-back, where he’s excelled, but the trip to Stamford Bridge offered him a rare opportunity to show what he’s made of in his natural position in the centre of midfield.

He seized that chance, showing us that’s where his future really lies.

Unfortunately for Gray, this outstanding breakthrough season has come a little too late for him to be seriously considered for an England debut next month, or a spot in England’s Euro 2024 squad. Phillips might have made his England debut before he played in the Premier League, but Southgate isn’t changing the cautious habits of a lifetime to throw a teenager straight into a major tournament in the summer.

From Declan Rice to Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, John Stones and Bukayo Saka, there are nailed-on, exceptional candidates for almost every spot in England’s XI.

The one major question is who slots into the three-man midfield alongside Rice and Bellingham, after Southgate stalwarts Phillips and Jordan Henderson have endured 2023-24 campaigns nothing short of disastrous.

There’s a place there to be won for the next cycle. Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo and Liverpool’s Curtis Jones are two names with a lot of clamour behind them. But Archie Gray has everything in his locker to make that claim himself in the coming years.

Sometimes you just know.

By Nestor Watach


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