‘He was different’: the story of Adam Wharton’s swift ascent to Euro 2024

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Adam Wharton;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Adam Wharton</a> with his <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Crystal Palace;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Crystal Palace</a> teammate <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Marc Guéhi;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Marc Guéhi</a> (right). ‘Football moves fast but this is incredible,’ says his agent James Featherstone.</span><span>Photograph: Greig Cowie/Shutterstock</span>

Adam Wharton’s meteoric rise to England’s Euro 2024 squad has taken many supporters by surprise but it was the culmination of a plan hatched in his brother’s kitchen two years ago. Wharton Jr had just been handed his first professional contract by Blackburn after turning 18 and sat down with Scott – who is six years older and plays in defence for their boyhood club – and their agent to discuss his ambitions.

“You have to set goals,” James Featherstone, the agent, says. “At the time he had reached a level where we knew he was going to have a career, so it was all about at what level. I’ve always said he was special, although I don’t think Adam’s ever necessarily been someone who would characterise himself like that. So he needed some encouragement that he could shoot for the stars. Adam’s not the sort of person who would have said when he was 18: ‘I’m going to play for England.’ It was all about setting some specific metrics for him to try and achieve and how he was going to do it. We put a plan together and ultimately he committed to it.”

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Featherstone, the owner of Omni Sports, admits he had to pinch himself when he watched Wharton make his brilliant senior England debut as a substitute against Bosnia and Herzegovina last week. With him in the stands was Wharton’s father, John. It capped an astonishing four months since he made his debut for Crystal Palace two days after transferring from Blackburn.

“Football has always moved fast but this has been incredible,” says Featherstone, who paid tribute to Wharton’s achievement with an emotional post on Instagram that recalled that night in Scott’s kitchen. “I’ve just had some of Adam’s shirts framed for him and I noticed that the date of his Palace debut against Brighton was 3 February, and that his England debut was on 3 June. I was like: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s only four months ago.’ Just seeing those two dates really brought home how quickly it’s all happened.”

Wharton, who joined Blackburn aged six and also excelled at cricket, representing Lancashire at several age groups, had made a similar impression on his first appearance at Wembley in the Utilita Kids Cup nine years earlier. Footage of Wharton helping Salesbury Church of England primary school win the tournament before the 2015 Championship playoff final between Norwich and Middlesbrough went viral after his faultless display off the bench at St James’ Park sealed a spot in Gareth Southgate’s final 26-man squad.

Wharton was described by his father this week as a “bit of loner”, and the former Blackburn defender Daniel Ayala recalls meeting the gangly midfielder for the first time when Wharton was called up to train with the first team by Tony Mowbray towards the end of the 2021-22 season.

“From the first training session, I just felt he was different,” Ayala says. “He always seemed to have time on the ball, even though he was under a lot of pressure, and he would never lose it. That was the sign of a good player. Adam did not talk too much but he was just coming through the academy. He was shy on the outside but it did not reflect on the pitch and he played the way he always had done.”

Ayala believes the presence of Scott in Blackburn’s first team helped Adam’s adjustment, especially when Jon Dahl Tomasson replaced Mowbray that summer.

“They got on really well,” he says. “You could see maybe sometimes that the manager wanted something else from him and his brother would need to speak to him sometimes because ­Adam was really laid-back, so his brother sometimes needed to tell him they needed more from him. Sometimes you felt like he could be more aggressive and the manager would tell him this but he never changed. Maybe that is why he has gone so far so quickly.”


Featherstone also picks out Scott’s importance. “To have an older brother that has already made a career in football has given Adam a constant sounding board,” he says. “To be in the stands at Ewood Park watching his brother gave him the belief that he could follow in his footsteps. Most lads or young girls in football don’t have that advantage.”

Wharton made an instant impression when named man of the match on his full Championship debut against Blackpool in August 2022. “He was different to everyone on the pitch; the way he would move the ball, see the pass and he would try to play forward at every opportunity,” Ayala says. “What should not be forgotten is that he was great in the tackle; because he is so laid-back people think he does not go in for tackles and things like that but it is the opposite: he tackles really well and is just clever enough to wait for the right moment to do it.”

Premier League scouts became a regular sight at Ewood Park over the next 18 months and Wharton was called up by England ­­­­Under-19s and Under-20s last summer. Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham were among those believed to have shown an interest but Palace’s sporting director, Dougie Freedman, took the plunge.

“Dougie in particular was excellent in framing the opportunity,” says Featherstone. “To see three players like [Marc] Guéhi, [Michael] Olise and [Eberechi] Eze, who have all played for Championship clubs and are making good progress on their own journeys, was very comforting when he was deciding whether to join them.”

Wharton’s grandmothers were “worried sick” about him moving to south London, the player’s father has revealed, but he hasn’t looked back. After the nightmare of his Palace debut when he lost possession to concede a goal in a 4-1 thrashing against arch rivals Brighton, he started their remaining 15 matches and became an integral part of the new manager Oliver Glasner’s exciting team that recorded six wins in their final seven games.

“There’s many more seasoned professionals who would have wanted the ground to swallow them up after that,” says Featherstone of the moment at the Amex Stadium three days before Wharton turned 20. “But he just wanted the ball again straight from kick-off. Adam is a person who is extremely present and in the moment. He doesn’t dwell on the past or speculate on the future … I spoke to him afterwards and his very brief reflection was: ‘You don’t get as much time as you do in the Championship and any mistakes will be punished. So I need to smarten up.’”

Blackburn are believed to be due a significant payment from Palace should Wharton make a competitive senior international appearance. He celebrated confirmation that he had made the final 26 last week by video calling his parents.

“He’s a very level-headed and humble guy but naturally he’s very proud of what he has achieved,” says Featherstone. “Adam takes it all in his stride. I think his exact words to me were: ‘It just keeps getting better and better.’ Now the next test is to see if he can get into the team and I’m sure if he does well enough in training, he will get an opportunity.”

Ayala is delighted for his former teammate: “To go into the England team the way he is doing it is incredible. No one saw it going like this, not even him. It shows you how good he is.”