Adam Wharton: Quiet Crystal Palace rookie out to make big England noise at Euro 2024

Adam Wharton: Quiet Crystal Palace rookie out to make big England noise at Euro 2024

“I think ‘loner’ is a bit harsh…” Such has been the speed of Adam Wharton’s breakthrough and the assured, quiet manner with which he has gone about his business in the blink-of-an-eye since he entered wider conscious, the only character reference those outside Crystal Palace and England have had to go on came from his father, John, in a local radio interview last week.

“I don’t have a million friends,” Wharton the younger said on Wednesday, facing the media for the first time as an England international and attempting to both explain and laugh off his old man’s assessment. “I sort of keep myself to myself, that is how I’ve always been really. That works for me.”

The seclusion of England’s Blankenhain base, out here among the hills, trees (and three golf courses) of the old East German countryside, then, ought to suit a young man for whom this first major tournament has come out of the blue.

“It is a surreal feeling,” the 20-year-old said. “Honestly, I wasn’t really expecting it. I have only just gone into the Premier League. It was more of a bonus if I got in, so I’m absolutely delighted.”

Genuine tournament bolters are a bit of a rarity these days, certainly so among the leading nations. Anglo ears may not always have heard much about the next German wunderkind or Spain’s latest midfield orchestrator, but those of native mind will usually have long tracked their progress and, more to the point, so too will Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

The upstarts in France’s squad, Bradley Barcola and Warren Zaire-Emery, already play for Paris Saint-Germain.

But it really will say plenty for the Premier League’s international reach if those watching this summer’s tournament in Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome and Istanbul do not spot Wharton’s name, likely among England’s substitutes and ask: “Who?”

Euros bolter: Adam Wharton could have a big impact for England in Germany (Getty Images)
Euros bolter: Adam Wharton could have a big impact for England in Germany (Getty Images)

For those who have not followed his progress in this London newspaper, there are astonishing elements to the story of Wharton’s whirlwind six months that are worth laying out again.

For a start, it has only really been four (Wharton made his Premier League debut for Palace only on February 3). As recently as January 20, he played in the Championship for the final time, scoring the opener for Blackburn against Huddersfield in what was not a clash between two sides tearing up the league in search of promotion, but racing to the bottom.

Within 150 days, about as long as most people wait for a dentist’s appointment or a budget airline refund, he may yet make his major tournament bow.

Throughout this first England press conference — which got off to an inauspicious start when he lost in the opening leg of the traditional players-versus-media darts competition — there were constant reminders of Wharton’s youth and inexperience.

Born in 2004, his first England memory is of the 4-1 defeat by Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, meaning he was at least inducted on two staples of English tournament failure: injustice and a thorough outclassing by a technically superior side.

His tales of being a scholar at Blackburn and spending time in digs are not of toothbrush-boot-scrubbing or being folded into a washing machine by some nineties journeyman brute, but of the isolation forced by the Covid pandemic.

And so, really, how much is fair to expect? Of the quartet of contenders to partner Declan Rice at the base of midfield against Serbia on Sunday, Wharton still seems the least likely.

Trent Alexander-Arnold looks the frontrunner, while Kobbie Mainoo has started the last two internationals for which he has been available and Conor Gallagher is both most tried in an England shirt and, at club level, most tested.

For those who like reading into these things, during the 15 minutes of open training on Wednesday, Rice played warm-up passes with Alexander-Arnold, while Wharton was paired with fellow rookie Mainoo.

And yet, if whatever combination Gareth Southgate tries fails to hit it off immediately, it will be Wharton for whom the calls grow, the midfielder who, despite buzz-cut and Lancastrian lilt, looks least English in style, who offers the most tantalising possibility of the unknown.

No matter who I am up against, I have got the ability to play my game and play well

Adam Wharton

It may be that the longer Southgate waits, the less likely it becomes. Throwing the youngster straight into a tournament knockout game might just be a step too far.

Yet, the chief impression of Wharton, to go alongside that endearing reserve, is of an unflappable character who, on his swift rise, has so far found no ceiling on the level at which his beautifully simple game might thrive.

“The way I have always felt, even throughout Blackburn and when I was younger, is that I’ve always got that self-confidence,” he said. “No matter who I am up against, I have got the ability to play my game and play well.”