England captain and Middlesbrough wonderkid who turned down Chelsea.

WHEN Josh Walker was 13 he had a boot deal with Adidas; when he was 16 he turned down Chelsea; when he was 17 he made his Middlesbrough debut. He captained England youth sides on 40 occasions and was one of the most in-demand youngsters in Europe.

But by the age of 23, he was considering retirement, the victim of rotten injury misfortune and without a club.

Then, out of the blue, thanks to a former teammate and close friend, Walker had the opportunity to extend his playing career in India. That move, says Walker, “saved his life”.

Aberdeen cult hero Josh Walker opens up on moment he knew career was done - Daily Record

And almost a decade on, Walker can now look back on his career and what he achieved with pride rather than with bitterness and regret at what could have been and, in a wide-ranging and incredibly honest interview with The Northern Echo’s You Are My Boro YouTube channel and podcast, the 34-year-old reflects on the highs and lows of his time in the game.

Turn back the clock 20 years and Walker was one of the most highly-rated and sought-after young players in the country. At 13, he was playing regularly for Boro’s Under-17s and went on to captain England teams that included the likes of Kieran Trippier, Daniel Sturridge and Theo Walcott. He was skipper in the 2009 Under-20 World Cup.

“It was all very surreal,” he says looking back.

“I was 14 or 15, playing for England, all these teams in the country and Europe are talking about you and wanting to sign you. It was very surreal but my parents kept me very grounded.


“When Chelsea were taken over by Abramovich and wanted to invest in their academy, they were constantly interested; Arsenal would ring my house and ring my dad.”


At one stage, Walker had decided to join Chelsea. It was too much of a “massive opportunity” to turn down, he says. But Steve McClaren – then manager of Boro – had other ideas.


Walker says: “One day, after I’d told Boro I was leaving, McClaren phoned my mam and dad and asked us to go in. We went in for a meeting with him and that was me, I was sold and never leaving.


“He knew everything about me, he said I’d play in the first team the next season. He told me he wanted to fast track me, told me what I could achieve. I believed every word he said. To his word, everything was spot on.”


Walker’s debut came in that famous game at Fulham on the final day of the 2005/06 season, when 15 of the 16 players in the squad were born within 30 miles of Middlesbrough. He would have played earlier that season had it not been for injury, which was an early indication – not that he knew it at the time – of the torment to come.


McClaren’s exit for England was a major blow for Walker.


“Honestly, it felt like a dagger at the time,” he says.


“When he left I was gutted because I knew how much he loved me but I thought things would be the same under Southgate, I was still flying.”

Walker’s progress under Southgate was disrupted by a string of injuries. It wasn’t that he was constantly breaking down with the same issue, rather he was desperately unfortunate. There was a broken ankle in training, a medial ligament injury from a tackle in a friendly and fractured ankle in a game against Sunderland.

He had a couple of loan spells, including a stint with Aberdeen where he put in a Man of the Match display in a UEFA Cup game against Bayern Munich, but was never able to get that run of games he craved at Boro.


He says: “It just didn’t go to plan, Southgate lost his job, Strachan came in and Jesus Christ….”


Strachan eventually let Walker leave to join Watford but what the midfielder didn’t know at the time was that a knee injury suffered in an innocuous training ground challenge with Boro teammate Joe Bennett would plague him from that point onwards and cut short his career. After Watford he moved to Scunthorpe but was released.


He says: “Before you know it I’d gone from being one of the most in-demand young players in the country to 23, I’m getting released by Scunthorpe because I’m injured.


“Physically I couldn’t play my game any more. The demands and stress was just unbearable at times. Mentally for two or three years I found that really difficult, it was horrendous.


“Nobody would touch us. No-one would sign us. I was with my partner, we’d just had our daughter and I was thinking what am I going to do? My pal was the manager at Gateshead, asked me to go there. I felt so lucky in a way that I still had that.”


He was released by Gateshead after just a year at the club.

“It was a very difficult time in my life, I’m not going to lie, for me and all my family” he says.


“My dad could’t watch footy anymore. I couldn’t watch footy without slating people, which isn’t me. I’m seeing lads who I was miles ahead of playing for England in the World Cup and I’m thinking I’m sat here with a busted knee.


“Honestly it was a horrendous time in my life for all of us.”


Walker was “spiralling” but a phone call from his former Boro teammate John Johnson, who was playing in India, helped to get him back on track. He joined Bengaluru and for 18 months managed his injury as best as he could. After his spell in India, he returned to the UK and finished his career with Edinburgh City, and it was in the Scottish capital that he set the ball rolling with his own coaching academy.


Foot Forward has been a huge success and Walker, a dad of two, is now at peace and can look back on what he did achieve with pride.


He says: “For a lot of years I couldn’t see what I’d done well, I could only see what I didn’t achieve.


“But now I’m happy, at peace and have accepted things. To have Chelsea and all these clubs ringing, playing in the Premier League at 17, to have captained England 40 times, playing in the World Cup captaining England, playing and scoring in the UEFA Cup, all before I was 18. That’s not bad. Who knows what I could have went on to achieve but looking back I’m very pleased at what I was able to do because so many don’t get that opportunity.”

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