An incredible XI of players that were in the Football League back in 18-19

The depth of the football pyramid is arguably the best thing about English football, with some truly exceptional young footballers developing their skills below the top tier. 

Key senior England internationals like John Stones, Harry Maguire and Harry Kane all received invaluable experience playing as youngsters in the Football League, and that tradition continues to this day.

Not only is it fertile ground for Premier League clubs to send their highly-rated academy prospects for game time, but it’s also perfect for scouts to spot up-and-coming players breaking through.

We’ve made a brilliant XI made up of players that were plying their trade in the Football League back in the 2018-19 season, arranged in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

GK: Dean Henderson

Having previously been loaned out to Stockport, Grimsby and Shrewsbury, Manchester United’s Henderson first caught the eye as a young goalkeeper to watch during Sheffield United’s promotion-winning 2018-19 campaign.

He remained at Bramall Lane as one of the standout performers for Chris Wilder’s Blades as they finished 9th in their first season back, while Aaron Ramsdale struggled to fill his boots as they suffered relegation the following year.

Henderson, meanwhile, was welcomed back into the fold at Old Trafford, challenged David de Gea for the No.1 spot and earned his England debut in November 2020.

He was named in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad for Euro 2020 but had to withdraw due to injury and has since found himself on the fringes at Old Trafford as De Gea has emphatically reasserted his place. It will be interesting to see what’s next for the promising goalkeeper.

RB: Reece James

James had been earmarked as a player with a big future ever since his exploits with the Chelsea youth team, winning a pair of FA Youth Cups and named as their academy player of the year in 2017-18. Sure enough, he bossed a Champions League final at the age of 21 and is now a regular for England.

But the first hint of his special talent at a senior level came on loan as a utility man at Paul Cook’s relegation-battling Wigan Athletic in 2018-19. The teenage prodigy was named the Latics’ Player and Player’s Player of the Season, as well winning their Goal of the Season for a long-range wonder-strike against Barnsley.

CB: Ben White

White joined illustrious company as one of the Premier League’s few £50million defenders with his well-earned move to Arsenal last summer. It’s been quite a rise for former Brighton centre-back.

The 23-year-old replaced the sidelined Trent Alexander-Arnold in England’s 26-man Euro 2020 squad, and Leeds fans will tell you he was destined for the very top after playing every minute of their promotion-winning 2019-20 campaign.

Prior to that, he’d impressed during stints on loan at Newport County (2017-18) and Peterborough United (2018-19).

READ: Forget Ben White’s defending, this ace pass is why Arsenal paid £50m

CB: Ben Godfrey

Having previously played non-league football for his boyhood club York City, Godfrey continued his development at Norwich and was a key player as they romped home to the Championship title in 2018-19. They weren’t able to stave off relegation in 2019-20, but he’d shown enough in the Premier League to earn a £25million move to Everton.

Like White, Godfrey was handed his England debut in defence in the final pre-Euro 2020 friendlies against Austria and Romania.

He’s had a difficult time of it in his second season at Goodison Park, but it should prove valuable experience for the 24-year-old.

LB: Stuart Dallas

Leeds United’s Player of the Year in their first season back in the Premier League was actually a fairly peripheral figure during Marcelo Bielsa’s first season in charge. 

The Northern Ireland international only made 12 starts in 2018-19 but showed what he can offer with both goals in Leeds’ painful 4-2 play-off semi-final defeat to Derby County. He’s been a favourite of Bielsa’s and a Leeds mainstay ever since.

CM: Kalvin Phillips

Phillips had made almost 100 Championship appearances for his beloved Leeds before Bielsa took over in 2018. The midfielder’s transformation over the last three years is a testament to what the Argentinian tactician has achieved at Elland Road.

If you’d said after England’s World Cup 2018 elimination to Croatia that Phillips would dominate the midfield against Luka Modric and co. the next time they faced off at a major tournament, not even his biggest admirers at Leeds would have believed you.

England’s Player of the Year for 2021 – a year in which the Three Lions reached their first major final in over 50 years. Some going, that.

READ: All hail Kalvin Phillips, England’s (Sixty) Six Million Dollar Man rebuilt by Bielsa

CM: Jude Bellingham

We’re cheating a little here – sorry John McGinn, you’d have been a worthy candidate – to include Bellingham, who didn’t actually make his Birmingham City debut until August 2019, with a prominent role in the 2019-20 campaign before his big-money move to Borussia Dortmund.

The midfielder was unthinkably just 16 years old throughout that breakthrough year but was training with Garry Monk’s first-team at age 15, with his prodigious ability resulting in him travelling with the seniors after being fast-tracked to the Under-23s.

Birmingham were so proud of the player that they’d nurtured that they famously retired his No.22 shirt. We’re torn between thinking that’s a lovely, sweet gesture or just a bit naff.

He’s now shining in Dortmund’s midfield and looks destined to return to England for a big-money fee in the coming years.

RW: Emiliano Buendia

Argentinian playmaker Buendia had 20 direct goal contributions (12 goals, eight assists) in Norwich’s Championship-winning 2018-19. He only scored once in the Premier League as the Canaries sunk back down like a stone, but he registered seven assists and was one of Europe’s top chance creators that year.

He since went from strength to strength since and ripped apart the Championship with 15 goals and 16 assists for Norwich as they claimed the top spot again in 2020-21. Aston Villa acted early to secure a club-record £38million transfer, reportedly beating Arsenal to his signature.

AM: Mason Mount

The jewel of Chelsea’s academy had already done well at Vitesse before joining Frank Lampard at Derby County in 2018-19. He scored nine goals and registered four assists for the Rams as they finished runners-up in the play-off final.

Things haven’t gone too badly since.

LW: Jack Grealish

Aston Villa were staring down the prospect of a fourth successive season in the Championship while their talisman Grealish was sidelined midway through the 2018-19 campaign. 11th in late February, they’d won just three of their last 15 matches and looked incapable of going up without him.

But their homegrown superstar’s return to fitness sparked a remarkable 10-match winning run at the end of the season, which eventually culminated in a play-off final victory over Mount’s Derby.

Grealish has looked just as good upon Villa’s return to the Premier League, which eventually resulted in his £100million move to Manchester City.

ST: Tammy Abraham

The king of Rome. It should have been obvious when he was firing Villa to promotion that he’d become a world-beater.

Chelsea will be checking whether they can swap him back for Romelu Lukaku soon enough.

READ: Tammy Abraham’s derby heroics show Chelsea what they’re missing

Substitutes: Sam Johnstone, Luke Ayling, Craig Dawson, Adam Webster, Ezgjan Alioski, John McGinn, Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma, Daniel James, Eberechi Eze, Jack Harrison, Ollie Watkins, Patrick Bamford, Ivan Toney. 

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