A Different League’s England’s future stars series continues with Tottenham Hotspurs’ midfield powerhouse, Tom Huddlestone.
Having been nurtured through a marvellous footballing education, impressing with England under-17s, under-19s and a dominant figure for the under-21 side, Tom Huddlestone has been tipped for an England future for a number of years. A solid, commanding midfield player who can also provide cover at centre-back, the former Derby County trainee is still only 22 and will surely be adorning the England jersey on a regular basis in the not-too-distant future. His vast frame is not at the expense of creativity however – he possesses an excellent passing range – but it certainly aids his ability to fire the ball goalwards with venom, emulating the speed and assertion that Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink flexed in Premier League stadia not so long ago. This weapon could have been the deciding factor in concluding that Huddlestone should be deployed as a central midfielder rather than a centre-half. This skill was granted recognition after he scored two goals from outside the box against Fulham on December 26, 2007.
Huddlestone is an outside bet for the World Cup squad. Gareth Barry has firmly established himself as England’s midfield anchor and if injuries are kind, he will rightfully find himself in the first XI alongside Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and one speedster, with Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Joe Cole and Theo Walcott seemingly among the favourites vying for the last spot in the midfield quartet. Michael Carrick is a dead cert for the squad, but there may be room to accommodate the Spurs midfielder, whose sheer physical presence could provide something different. If Fabio Capello opts to have a genuine anchor to cover Barry, then it is likely to be a battle between Owen Hargreaves and Huddlestone. It is unlikely that Huddlestone’s versatility will give him an edge, as Capello would be reluctant to deploy an inexperienced player in a less-grooved position in such an intense arena, but Owen Hargreaves’ fitness frailties could work in his favour. But the versatility factor could actually work against him with James Milner – who is more accustomed to the right-wing – currently roaming Aston Villa’s central midfield and David Beckham also adept to shift into the centre.
A product of Derby County’s Academy, Huddlestone made his debut aged just 16 in August, 2003 and went on to make 95 appearances for the Rams in his two seasons. He was a vital cog under George Burley’s command as the Scot looked to blood some of the club’s fine collection of young talent. Similar to the deal that brought John Bostock to Spurs from Crystal Palace in 2008, the White Hart Lane outfit nabbed the talented young Englishman after impressing for a lower league club at a tender age. But unlike many other starlets who are elevated to brighter lights having been identified as possessing tremendous potential, Huddlestone has started to fulfil his predicted path.
An example of an emerging star that has fallen is Giles Barnes – another Derby trainee who impressed as a teenager but has since succumbed to regular bouts of injury and his career has been on pause for the last few years. Loaned out to Fulham last year without making a competitive appearance, he was released by Derby this month and is currently training with Birmingham. Both earned glowing reviews as youngsters but Huddlestone has come on leaps and bounds, utilising his physicality with pace, a huge range of passing, a powerful drive and an intelligent football brain. His Hulk-like frame did have to be tamed, however, when Juande Ramos forced the player to follow a strict diet where sauces were banned and sugar quantities carefully managed. The Spaniard’s stern fitness regime paid dividends and Huddlestone’s lean and hungry look, matched by an increase in stamina and mobility, provided a noticeable increase in self-confidence. His improvement and commitment was not enough to secure him a spot in Tottenham’s starting XI against Chelsea in the 2008 Carling Cup final, but he came off the bench to aid Spurs’ successful quest for silverware.
After joining Tottenham Hotspur from Derby County in January 2005 in a deal reported to be worth £2.5million, he remained at his old club on loan until the end of the season. Despite being heavily praised by Martin Jol and Juande Ramos – Jol likened him to Franz Beckenbauer because of his playmaking abilities, while Ramos rewarded Huddlestone with a new and improved five-year contract in June 2008 – both managers were seemingly reluctant to unleash the prodigy at the expense of the likes of Didier Zokora and Jermaine Jenas. He began the first part of the 2005/06 season on loan at Wolves before making his Spurs debut in January 2006 and by the end of that season people were starting to view Huddlestone as a player with an international future. The versatile and solid midfielder started 23 games in the 2007/08 season and made a further 10 appearances off the bench. Ramos and Jol were both unconvinced by which position he should be deployed and Huddlestone had to wait until the Harry Redknapp era before his potential could be fully realised. He now sits comfortably at the heart of Spurs’ midfield alongside Wilson Palacios, and whisperings of a regular spot in England’s first-team squad are beginning to be treated with respect.
He has been one of England Under-21s’ most talented players, but having been included in Fabio Capello’s senior squad to face United States and Trinidad and Tobago in 2008, it wasn’t until November 2009 that he received his first England cap against the mighty Brazil, coming off the bench in the 81st minute. Many more England airings are predicted and he will be hoping that he gets the chance to prove his worth in South Africa this summer.