Adam Wharton: The ‘Wilpshire Pirlo’ who was hiding in plain sight in the Championship

Adam Wharton – Adam Wharton: The 'Wilpshire Pirlo' who was hiding in plain sight in the Championship
Adam Wharton could be an underrated option for Gareth Southgate this summer - Getty Images/Ryan Pierse

When Crystal Palace signed the teenager Adam Wharton from Blackburn Rovers in January, they did so with little competition for a midfielder who has progressed in five months from Championship prospect to a place in the provisional England squad for Euro 2024.

That Wharton, now 20, has accomplished it in a late-season surge of form for Crystal Palace that propelled them a tenth-place finish in the Premier League, equalling their best-ever season, has been a source of great satisfaction for the club.

That he is one of four Palace players in the 30-man squad named by Gareth Southgate is another record for Palace. That he fulfils a role on the pitch – the deep-lying playmaker – which English football has so singularly failed to address may be the most remarkable of all.

For years now, English club academies have produced all flavour of top players – ball-playing central defenders, marauding full-backs, box-to box No 8s, flying wingers, and goalscoring strikers. What they have never quite managed is a scheming No 6 in the tradition of Jorginho, Marco Verratti or – the best in class – Luka Modric.

There was passing interest in Wharton from Wolves, Everton and Bayern Munich – and Palace’s old rivals Brighton looked closely. Tony Bloom has created arguably the greatest value-for-money acquisition club in the game. Dougie Freedman, Palace’s director of football, identified Wharton as a player capable of receiving the ball in tight spaces and taking out opponents with his passing range. Steve Parish, the club’s chairman, sanctioned the deal. In the end, the total cost to sign Wharton was just £18 million.

He started inauspiciously on his debut against Brighton on Feb 3, caught in possession for the turnover that led to the first goal in a 4-1 defeat. But since then he has made extraordinary progress. As Palace took 19 points from their last seven games, Southgate was there to watch Wharton in the 4-0 win over Manchester United at home on May 6. His assistant Steve Holland came to Selhurst Park to watch the final day 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa.

Adam Wharton (L) – Adam Wharton: The 'Wilpshire Pirlo' who was hiding in plain sight in the Championship
The Crystal Palace midfielder (left) has adapted superbly to the Premier League and has fast-tracked his way into the England squad - Getty Images/Andrew Kearns

Wharton had been just as good in the home wins over West Ham and Newcastle. He is an unusual player. Comfortable taking the ball in difficult situations, he draws opponents in and then picks the pass. He is tall, and effective in the air. There was a suggestion that scouting reports for other potential interested parties had questioned his capacity to cover the distance required of a modern midfielder. But it has been no problem at Selhurst Park, or indeed Anfield, where he covered more than 11km in Palace’s shock 1-0 win there on April 14.

Nicknamed “the Wilpshire Pirlo” after the Lancashire village just north of Blackburn in which his footballing family live, Wharton has proved the quality of Championship academy football. In particular Blackburn, who nurtured the player with an impressive programme led by academy director Stuart Jones. Wharton’s older brother Scott, 26, is a regular in the first team at centre-half.

When he arrived at Palace, Wharton had just 44 Championship appearances to his name going back less than 18 months to his league debut in August 2022. Roy Hodgson selected him immediately, and in his successor, Oliver Glasner, Wharton has found a strong ally. The Austrian is a great admirer of the midfielder’s “preorientation” – an ability to know his pass, and his way out of trouble, even before he receives the ball.

For Palace it has been a golden four weeks. “I’m delighted for Adam,” Parish told Telegraph Sport. “It is well-deserved for him and for Ebs [Eberechi Eze], Marc [Guehi] and Dean [Henderson].

“The fact that Adam put his faith in us, and that players can get picked for England playing for Crystal Palace – is hugely beneficial in terms of attracting talent. It’s an exciting [England] squad with four Palace players in it.

“So a very proud moment for me, the manager, the fans and the recruitment department as well, of course, for their families, the coaches and the clubs that developed them along the way. It’s made even better that the four of them are such lovely lads.”

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