It is a measure of Ben White’s ability that Leeds United offered £25 million for his services last summer, and also that Brighton turned it down. Both clubs clearly recognised the defender’s potential, which had been so obvious during a brilliant season on loan at Elland Road in 2019/20.
For Brighton, £25m represents a significant amount of money. They are a smart club, though, and they have been proven right in holding on to a player who joined their academy at the age of 16, after he had been released by Southampton. Having been called up by England for the first time, and with a full season of Premier League football under his belt, White is already worth much more than the £25m proposed by Leeds.
In his first season of top-flight football, White has started all but two league games for Graham Potter’s side and has played more Premier League minutes this season than any other Brighton player. A progressive defender who is comfortable on the ball, he has shown himself capable of playing as a centre-back, right-back, defensive midfielder and in a back three. Gareth Southgate, asked about White on Tuesday, described the 23-year-old as “flexible” and “exciting”.
This inclusion in England’s provisional squad represents just the latest step up for White, who has been climbing the footballing ladder at a rapid rate. He spent 2017/18 on loan at Newport County in League Two and was so impressive that Michael Flynn, the club’s manager, described him as “the best loan that the club has ever had”.
White represented Peterborough United in League One the following season, before joining Leeds on loan in the summer of 2019 and playing every minute of their promotion campaign. With each year he has moved up a level, and one assumes that the next step will be European football. There are plenty of admirers at the top end of the league, including Liverpool.
In terms of his style, White is perhaps the most obvious understudy to John Stones in the England squad. Both defenders are capable of bringing the ball out of defence, and both are accustomed to operating in a system that relies on short, accurate passing. White is unlikely to make the final squad but, if Stones was to get injured, then he would provide Southgate with a similar option.
There have been moments this season, especially in the first few weeks of the campaign, when White has learned harsh lessons about the quality of international forwards. Against Manchester United in September, he was twice sent to the floor by Marcus Rashford. “I had seen him do it before on YouTube,” White told Gaffer magazine last month. “I still fell for it, didn’t I?”
He is not afraid of a fight, though. Against Crystal Palace in October, he had a running battle with Wilfried Zaha, both on and off the ball. Zaha was not happy but White gave as good as he got. He had no fear then, and he has no reason to feel any fear now.
An under-the-radar signing who became a defensive leader
By Chris Bascombe
In the summer of 2020, Everton set their sights on a young, versatile and ambitious defender who, by fulfilling his potential at Goodison Park, might force his way into Gareth Southgate’s European championship squad over the course of 12 months.
That player was Chelsea’s Fikayo Tomori.
Sporting director Marcel Brand had been tracking the defender who had already been capped at senior level and recognised he would struggle to get into the first team at Stamford Bridge.
Although they saw the merit of Tomori making a loan move for the season, Chelsea were reluctant to negotiate with Everton. Carlo Ancelotti’s side made a promising start and new signings James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure seemed to be having a transformative impact on Merseyside.
Everton’s hopes of Chelsea softening their stance were effectively ended by their early excellence as they were perceived as potential rivals in the quest for Champions League qualification.
So Everton turned to plan B, which may explain why the subsequent £20m signing of Ben Godfrey from Norwich City did not garner much attention as the deal went through just before the transfer window closed.
What has transpired since is a prime example of a player seizing an unexpected opportunity and turning a transfer which almost never materialised into a masterstroke.
Since Godfrey’s Everton debut 12 days after his signing in October – a 31st-minute substitute in what turned out to be a notorious Merseyside derby – he has been Everton’s most consistent and reliable defender.
The moment he truly announced himself was in December, when a fearsome but fair challenge put Arsenal’s Dani Cabellos on his backside, delighting the 3,000 fans allowed into Goodison Park during the brief respite from lockdown football. It was obvious then Godfrey had – as the expression goes – ‘a bit about him’.
“As a young lad I have always enjoyed flying into tackles,” Godfrey told Telegraph Sport in January. “Unfortunately, you are seeing it leave the game slowly and I have had to adapt to that as well to keep myself within the laws of the game. I think it is slowly disappearing which is sad, but I think that is something that Everton fans can expect more of and look forward to because it is something I look forward to doing myself.”
Each time Gareth Southgate visited Goodison Park ever since, presumably to keep tabs on Michael Keane and Mason Holgate as much as Jordan Pickford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, it would have become clearer to him which defender he should pencil in.
Ancelotti predicted an international promotion as far back as February. “If Gareth is watching Ben Godfrey then he is right,” said the Everton manager. “Gareth doesn’t need advice from me but to see and watch Ben Godfrey at this moment, in this period, is a pleasure for any manager.
“He has surprised me because I didn’t know him so well (when he signed). He was a signing from the club, from our scouts, and he has been really good. He has been able to adapt very quickly to different positions.”
Keane’s omission at Godfrey’s expense is an echo of some of Ancelotti’s picks during the course of this season. It is in the 23-year-old’s favour that he has excelled in both full-back position as well as centre-half. His aggression and fearlessness should not overshadow how comfortable he is on the ball. His elevation is such that the battle at Goodison next year will be for the right to play alongside him.
And if he was in the shadow of Rodriguez, Allan and Doucoure in terms of the profile of Everton signings eight months ago, Godfrey rapidly surpassed them all as the most satisfying deal, although it should be acknowledged – like the rest of his team – the final couple of games of the season were probably his least impressive.
Nevertheless, although he has only been named in the provisional squad, the York-born defender looks the type who excels the bigger the challenge. It would be no surprise if Southgate sees even more of his quality when working at close hand and Godfrey makes the final cut. That may depend on the fitness of others.
Now, as Godfrey fights for a place in the 26-man Euro squad, both he and Tomori can reflect on how a career is shaped by the whim of executives scrambling around in those final hours of the transfer window.
Tomori spent the second half of the season on loan at AC Milan, possibly wondering what might have been had he, not Godfrey, made that Goodison move.