Kyle Walker faces the biggest game of his career for England on Sunday but has helped carry the fight for an even greater cause for most of his life.
The England defender’s talent was first spotted at Football Unites Racism Divides (FURD), a youth and social inclusion project based in Sheffield.
Win or lose in the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley, FURD co-chief executive officer Simon Hyacinth said Walker would always be a hero in the charity’s fight for equality.
“We’re immensely proud of him,” Hyacinth told the PA news agency. “He epitomises what the organisation is all about.
“We’ve been a football-orientated organisation since our onset back in 1995. We use football as a tool to help young people and communities develop.
“To build skills, not just football-related, but other life skills and various other things and we use Kyle as a role model for the young lads to aspire to achieve what he has.
“We’ve had a number of lads who have gone on to trial at academies, but Kyle is our biggest success story. He’s a very good role model for young lads.”
Walker’s jet-heeled ability to sweep up at the back for England and snuff out danger during Euro 2020 has been key to their success.
Hyacinth, a FURD volunteer when Walker first attended their football sessions, recalled the youngster standing out from the crowd.
“He was always smaller than his mates and playing with the older lads, but was quick enough to stay out of their way and run rings round them. That’s what I remember of Kyle,” he said.
“I knew Kyle before he started coming here because he grew up on the estate where I lived with my kids, which is close to where FURD is based.
“You could tell he would become a really good player. He had two good feet. He was always quite small for his age, probably until he got to mid-teens to be honest, but he was so quick.”
One of FURD’s coaches at the time, Paul Archer, was also a scout for Sheffield United and, while Walker was quickly signed up by their academy, Hyacinth said he did not just disappear.
“He stayed involved with us,” Hyacinth said. “We used to host events during the summer in parks and at carnivals and Kyle would turn up.
“He’s a great lad, well rounded. He’s had good parenting. I’ve known his parents for quite a few years as well.”
Hyacinth said he had taken “enormous satisfaction” from following Walker’s career, first with the Blades, then Tottenham and now Manchester City.
“He was immense against Denmark,” Hyacinth added. “He’s one of the most experienced members of the team now.
“He won’t thank me for reminding him, but he’s still got that blistering pace and has been crucial role for the team at the Euros.
“Let’s hope they can do it. We’re massively proud of the whole England team because they’ve galvanised the whole nation in many ways.”