7 Championship wonderkids that have the potential to play for England
Twenty-three of England’s 26-man squad for the last World Cup came through a Football League academy, have played in the Football League (via the loan system) or made their professional debut in the Football League.
England internationals including Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Reece James, Kalvin Phillips and Ivan Toney were all playing in the Football League as recently as the 2018-19 season, and the English football pyramid looks set to continue nurturing the country’s best young talent for years to come.
We’ve picked out seven of the best English youngsters that are well worth keeping an eye out for in the Championship this season.
Manchester City academy graduate Doyle is now into his third loan away from his parent club, at Championship favourites Leicester City. In 2021-22, was played a key role for Sunderland as they got promoted from League One via the play-offs and last season was a near ever-present for Coventry City as they ended up a penalty shootout away from reaching the Premier League.
The 19-year-old defender has risen through the ranks at international youth level and was part of the Young Lions squad that won the European Under-19 Championship in 2021-22, while after the Sky Blues’ play-off heartbreak he jetted off to take part in England’s Under-20 World Cup campaign in Argentina.
He’s passed every test he’s faced in his fledgling career to date and looks set to be an important player for Enzo Maresca’s Foxes this season.
One of the headline-makers from 2023-24’s opening weekend, Millwall winger Esse scored the match-winner in their surprise 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough – a lovely finish to notch his first senior goal.
The 18-year-old Lions youth product is yet to start a Championship match, but Gary Rowett is bedding him in gradually and he looks set for an increased role this year after his eye-catching cameo appearances last term.
— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) August 6, 2023
One of the more established Championship starlets, Blackburn Rovers midfielder Wharton is already garnering Premier League interest and has been a frequent fixture of the gossip columns this summer.
The England Under-19 international enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last season, having been named as the Man of the Match on his full Championship debut in a Lancashire derby victory away to Blackpool last August.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for the 19-year-old, but for now he’s staying put – and another season developing with his hometown club would surely be the best thing for him. If Wharton does remain at Ewood Park, he’ll certainly be one of the Championship’s youngsters worth keeping an eye out for in 2023-24.
Leeds United’s dearth of midfield squad depth has meant that Gray has been thrown into the deep end under Daniel Farke already. He’s started both of Leeds’ competitive outings so far this season and looked an outstanding prospect in the middle of the park alongside new recruit Ethan Ampadu.
Gray might only be 17 but it’s felt like this opportunity has been a long time coming. He was named on the bench by Marcelo Bielsa for a Premier League trip to Arsenal back in December 2021; just 15 years old at the time, he would’ve broken Peter Lorimer’s long-standing record as Leeds’ youngest-ever debutant had he made it onto the pitch.
Those that have watched Gray in Leeds’ youth set-up have raved about the versatile midfielder as a world-beater in the making. A member of the Gray dynasty, he follows grandfather Frank, great uncle Eddie and dad Andy in representing the Whites – each of his relatives famously represented Scotland at international level, it looks as though Archie may break rank and play for England, having already made appearances at Under-16 and Under-17 level.
Archie Gray vs. Cardiff City:
89 minutes played
78.3% pass accuracy
54/69 successful passes
8 ball recoveries
6 final third passes
2/4 accurate crosses
2 duels won
1 chance created
1 tackle won
1 time fouled
An incredibly mature performance by the 17-year-old… pic.twitter.com/Sk3S0abg2J
— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) August 7, 2023
“I thought his performance justified why he’s been with the first team all pre-season and why I played him in the game,” Stoke City boss Alex Neil told BBC Radio Stoke after the 16-year-old’s outstanding full senior debut in a 2-1 League Cup victory over West Brom.
“I had no concerns over him. He’s a terrific talent but he’s also really mature, for being so young. He did exactly as I expected him to do – he did wonderfully well and he’s played in a Stoke team that won the game, and played the majority of the match. I think when you’re 16 years old, most players of that age could only dream of doing something like that.”
Born in Stoke-on-Trent in 2006 while his father Mamady Sidibe was representing the Potters, the teenage midfielder has already represented England at Under-15 level. He’s also eligible to represent his old man’s national team, Mali.
Stoke have made some ambitious and eye-catching moves in the transfer market this summer, and they could be set for a decent season. Sidibe doesn’t turn 17 until next February, so it’s unlikely he becomes a regular Championship starter any time soon – but he’s already shown he’s already a useful squad option at the very least.
“Chris Rigg is pushing really hard for a starting place in our team I would suggest, and I don’t say that lightly, he’s a 16-year-old boy,” Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray said during pre-season.
“He knows where the goal is and wants to run forward, he’s got energy to burn and can keep running all day. He looks you in the eye and wants to please and do what you want him to do.
“Rigg is doing really well and is a real positive for our football club. I’m eulogising about him there, we shouldn’t overly build him up. He’s still a young boy but he has wonderful qualities and wonderful attributes.”
He only turned 16 in the summer but Rigg is already demanding plenty of column inches as one of the most prodigiously talented players in the country. Newcastle United have reportedly been looking to poach the midfielder, but he looks set to stay at his boyhood club for the foreseeable future – and it could well be the best place for him.
The midfielder made a handful of appearances in the FA Cup for Mowbray’s Black Cats last term, but 2023-24 could well be his proper breakthrough season. Rigg demonstrated why there’s so much hype by becoming the youngest-ever goalscorer in League Cup history in midweek.
— Carabao Cup (@Carabao_Cup) August 9, 2023
Sunderland were a real breath of fresh air with a young and vibrant team that punched above their weight to reach the play-offs last season and they ought to be just as watchable in 2023-24.
Mowbray was already blessed with a hungry core of talented youngsters and now – as well as Rigg emerging – he’s got Jude Bellingham’s younger brother.
Jobe followed in the footsteps of his Galactico older brother by breaking into Birmingham City’s squad at a terrifyingly young age. He’s still just 17 but left St. Andrew’s in the summer to continue his development on Wearside.
The England Under-18 international, who can play in midfield or as a forward, was named in the starting line-up for Sunderland’s opening day defeat to Ipswich Town and looks set to continue getting regular minutes under a coach that isn’t afraid to call upon youth.