How Wythenshawe – the home of Tyson Fury and Shameless – formed Cole Palmer

Cole Palmer after his hat-trick for Chelsea against Everton and his home town of Wythenshawe

As soon as Cole Palmer was through the front door after getting home from school his dad, Jermaine, would hear those five words. Always those same five words. “Let’s go to the park”. And so father and son would walk the few seconds from their house in Mayfair Road, on one of Wythenshawe’s many council estates, to the park opposite and young Cole would spend hours upon hours each week killing the ball Jermaine would throw in the air, perfecting a touch that has wreaked devastation to Premier League defences this season.

Long before Palmer was making a name for himself at Manchester City, long before he made the £42.5 million switch to Chelsea, long before he was banging in the goals that could see him clinch the golden boot and long before Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final meeting with his old club, Hollyhedge Park was Palmer’s paradise.

If he was not playing with his dad, he was in the cage next to the skate ramps with older kids from the estate - and invariably showing them up despite the huge gulf in size. “All the lads would come in,” Jermaine recalls. “It’s a bit of a rough area and it’s fair to say some of them would not like it when this little kid was trying to take the p--- out of them!”

Palmer was just four at the time. He was, as anyone who knew him will tell you, tiny, this little dot of a kid. But try getting the ball off him. Back home, there was a little bit of grass in the front garden. Jermaine bought some nets and Cole’s friends would come over to play. One kid who lived over the road was a near permanent fixture, a boy called Callum who was a few years older than Cole and at Manchester United at the time. They would play and play. “That taught Cole a lot,” Jermaine says, smiling at the recollection.

Palmer’s talent for football was apparent to all and the teachers at Gatley Primary School would come to realise there was no greater leverage with Cole in those moments he might - in his words - be “acting up” than the promise or offer of a ball.

A young Cole Palmer in a Manchester United shirt
A young Palmer pictured in a Manchester United shirt - X/ @UtdGarnaxcho
Cole Palmer playing for a Manchester City development team
Palmer was slight as a child but his technical ability always stood out - Sport Scan

But his love for the game, that should be evident to anyone who has watched this prodigiously gifted 21-year-old entertain and excite with Chelsea over the past eight months, was not honed simply in those cage matches or kickarounds with mates. Or those early years with local junior side NJ Wythenshawe, when he would play a year up and his coach Graeme Fowler would find himself about to correct Palmer only to realise this young prodigy had already made a better decision he had not spotted from the touchline.

Every Sunday, come rain or shine, Palmer would be on the sidelines watching his dad play for Blackboy FC, who take their name from the pub a short distance from where they lived. Jermaine spent the best part of two decades - give or take a year when he was working his way back from injury - turning out for the Wythenshawe amateur side, as comfortable at centre-half as he was at full-back or right midfield, and Palmer grew up with it. Became immersed in it: men’s Sunday League football.

The Black Boy pub in Wythenshawe
The Black Boy pub in Wythenshawe from which the district football team was formed - Sport Scan

In the early days, his dad would sit him on a bag of balls, wrap him in one of his rain coats and let the young Cole watch players kick lumps out of each other. As Palmer got older, he would revel in the camaraderie on the sidelines at Firbank Park, Blackboy’s home ground.

Cole Palmer's old team Black Boy FC
Palmer's former team Black Boy FC playing against Manchester Rovers this year - Telegraph/Jon Super

“I don’t know about it from a football education side of things, it was just instilling a love for the game in him,” says Jermaine, who has a little chuckle recalling one occasion when Palmer’s mum, Marie, another big influence in his life, popped along to watch.

“You’d have all the subs who were 15 to 18 trying to get into the team. Cole was a cheeky little kid, knew them all so he’d be winding them up playing football on the sides. His mum came to watch him one day and one of the lads said: ‘F--- off Coley you little so and so’ and his mum is there going, ‘Why are you bringing him here!? What’s going on when I’m not here!?’ Cole loved it. He loved the camaraderie, the banter, everything about it.”

Jermaine has always sought to channel Cole’s love for football, to encourage the street footballer in him. He recalls once making his young son cry after a game with NJ in which an opposition player on Liverpool’s books had run riot and vowed afterwards to deal only in encouragement. It is no surprise Palmer’s idol was Wayne Rooney. “I used to encourage him to play with his friends as much as he could, the dribbling, all that” Jermaine says. “I think he likes to entertain, which is a bit street yeah.”

Palmer grew up watching two parents who worked hard in a close-knit family with sister Hallie. Jermaine is still a dental engineer. Marie is a dyslexia assessor having previously worked with underprivileged kids in Sure Start centres. Jermaine’s family originate from St Kitts and Nevis, which is why you see Palmer’s boots sporting a flag of the Caribbean island alongside an England flag. Palmer’s grandfather, Sterry Cole, came to England in 1960, five years after his parents had travelled to the country as part of the Windrush generation.

“I went over for the first time in January and it was great,” Jermaine says. “Speaking to my dad’s cousins who are still over there they said the island is going crazy about Cole. So when he does go himself he’s probably going to need a police escort! They’re all Chelsea fans over there now!”

Cole Palmer's old team Black Boy FC playing in a cup final
Palmer still comes back to watch Blackboy and says hello to players in the dressing room - Telegraph/Jon Super

Thursday night in Wythenshawe was wet, but the weather was never going to keep the crowd away. Hundreds had poured into Wythenshawe Town’s Ericstan Stadium to watch Blackboy take on Manchester Rovers in the Altrincham & District FA Sunday Senior Cup Final. Palmer had been at the same venue 12 months earlier to watch “Blackie” beat the Carters Arms 5-2 in the final and he was here again with his dad and a smattering of friends to see them retain the trophy with a 4-1 win. Blackboy are managed by Steven Leigh, a friend of Jermaine’s who just happened to be one of those subs Palmer would try to tease all those years ago. Indeed, in another lifetime, Palmer could have been one of the kids who enjoyed taking up residence in the dug-outs during the half-time break and who now dream of one day walking in Palmer’s footsteps. “He’ll go into the changing room to see the lads,” Jermaine says. “They all love it. Cole is down to earth, grounded. He doesn’t want to be famous. He doesn’t want stardom. He just wants to be a footballer.”

Cole Palmer and his parents after the 2023 Champions League final
Palmer with mother Marie and father Jermaine after last year's Champions League final - Alamy/Jonathan Moscrop

But not just any footballer. The best. He has certainly been one of the star attractions this season. Twenty Premier League goals, which puts him level at the top of the scoring charts with City’s Erling Haaland, nine assists in the competition, countless “take a bow, son” moments (the street footballer you see), a senior England debut and surely now an important part of Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2024 plans this summer.

It has been a difficult season for Chelsea, but Palmer’s bewitching brilliance has thrilled fans and helped to temper frustrations. And the last thing City will want at Wembley after their crushing Champions League quarter-final penalty shoot-out exit to Real Madrid on Wednesday is Palmer adding to the disappointment and igniting the debate about the wisdom of selling a homegrown player scaling extraordinary heights.

‘We get forgotten but estates breed hunger’

He is not the first sporting success story to emerge from the tough south Manchester streets of Wythenshawe and he is unlikely to be the last. From the United forward and child food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford to the world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury, it has produced plenty of household names and not just in the world sport. Caroline Aherne, the late comic genius behind Mrs Merton and The Royle Family, former Take That singer Jason Orange and the Game of Thrones actor Jack Bradley all hail from the area.

The hit comedy drama Shameless charting the chaotic life of the Gallagher family on the fictional Chatsworth council estate was set in Wythenshawe, which has long had its own battles with crime, anti-social behaviour and socioeconomic deprivation. When David Cameron visited the estate in 2007, a photograph of a local hooded teenager pointing an imaginary gun at the Leader of the Opposition’s head became a symbol for “Broken Britain” and such stigmas have, at times, been hard to shift. Spend any time in the area, though, and what hits you in the face is the strong community spirit.

Council housing in Wythenshawe near Manchester
Housing association property in Wythenshawe close to where Palmer grew up - Alamy/Mike Robinson

It is a five minute drive from the Blackboy pub to Jimmy Egan’s Boxing Academy, where a 14-year-old Tyson Fury took his first purposeful steps to domination of the men’s heavyweight division. Jason Orange even once trained there. For Fury’s former trainer, Steve Egan, who has helped turn out 33 national amateur champions in the two decades since his father Jimmy’s death, the sight of another sporting star in Palmer emerging from the place he has called home for 61 years brings a smile to his face. “There are lads in here who know Cole,” Egan says. “It’s great when someone off the estate does something. You feel proud coming from Wythenshawe. It gets a rough ride at times, this feeling ‘Ah, it’s easy to forget them, just leave them’. We do get forgotten. But estates like this breed hunger, that inner desire.”

Palmer’s journey to the top has not been without its battles, to say the least. Despite his size, he had always been among the standout academy players at City, whom he had chosen to join despite being a United fan. Yet, by 14, his slight physique began to present more pressing challenges as team-mates and opponents shot up and bulked out. It may be hard to believe now but there were coaches at City who were ready to release Palmer at 16 only for the club’s then academy director, Jason Wilcox, a huge champion of the player, to emphatically veto such a move in a meeting.

It is interesting listening to Wilcox discuss that episode now, six years on. There is no finger-pointing from Wilcox, no point-scoring. Rather, he draws parallels with a decision he had made several years earlier on David Brooks, whom he had released from City in 2014. Brooks would overcome the setback to go on to excel at Bournemouth and then underlined his fight and character by recovering from a cancer diagnosis to resume his playing career 18 months later. The situation came full circle in January when Wilcox took Brooks on loan at Southampton.

“I released David and he was a similar player to Cole in that he was very talented and a little dot,” Wilcox explained. “I never saw at the time what I see now in David Brooks because I was learning. With Cole, I’d learned from that experience. It helped inform my decision on Cole.

“It’s not detrimental to any of the academy staff who had that opinion on Cole, it’s that they were probably where I was when I released David Brooks.

“Cole was small, we didn’t know how big he was going to get and he’s surprised everybody there. He’s 6ft 2in now. No one would have seen that.

“But he had elite characteristics - an amazing vision and awareness and level of desire. He was just really clever in his play, saw things that sometimes the coaches weren’t even seeing. With players like him, you need guidelines but can’t put too tight a straightjacket on them. You don’t want to overcoach these players.

“For me, it was a no-brainer he stayed. I wanted to see what the next two or three years looked like for Cole. There was no risk for me. I just wanted to make sure we were going to be in control of his development and not someone else.”

‘You saw the desire in him – talented players were ducking out’

The trust and respect between Wilcox and the Palmer family and his representatives was rock solid and to this day, despite both parties having left City, remains very strong. Wilcox and Jermaine, for example, agreed that Palmer’s development would be best served by staying down another year in the Under-18s, despite Palmer’s peers like Tommy Doyle and Taylor Harwood-Bellis all moving up to the Under-21s. Palmer embraced the decision and excelled as captain of the Under-18s. By 19, Palmer had gone from being around 5ft 6in 18 months earlier to standing at more than 6ft but, crucially, never lost that silky touch.

Wilcox tells one story that offers a perfect illustration of Palmer’s mentality and will to win. City had arranged a cross-country race at Prestwich’s Heaton Park, a few miles north of Manchester city centre, one pre-season. Local running clubs had been brought in to help organise the event for City’s Under-15 teams right up to the Under-21s. All times would be recorded and shown on a big screen back at the club’s training ground. It was part of their “creating and recognising winners” initiative. Palmer wanted to know everything he could about the race, the length of the course, the terrain.

Cole Palmer playing for Man City's academy
Palmer playing for City's academy against Blackburn Rovers in 2021 - Getty Images/Chris Donnelly

Whereas there would be others complaining about a hamstring or sore back or cutting corners, Palmer - who had come back from the summer with the bit between his teeth - just wanted to win. He would finish second but the hunger resonated. “He was gutted but what everyone saw was just desire in Cole Palmer, an ability and determination to run hard,” Wilcox said. “You see the winners. There were talented players ducking out. It’s not about being on the podium but you see the ones who are going to give every ounce of effort to do the best they can possibly do. They’re the ones who get a career at the end of the day.”

Palmer had some other strong supporters at City, too. For Scott Sellars, some of the challenges Palmer went through evoked memories of the same struggles he had faced as a young, small winger trying to make the grade at Leeds in the 1980s. “I’m not saying I was as talented as Cole but as somebody who went through similar things - technically good but struggled with some things physically - I could relate to it,” said Sellars who, as the former academy manager at City, oversaw the progress of youngsters between nine and 18 at the club. “His size was never an issue for me. Maturations can be cruel but sometimes you’ve got to be patient. I look at the talent and personality first. He had a great drop of the shoulder which got him out of trouble even though he was small and Cole always had a massive determination to be a professional footballer.”

Sellars remembers Palmer going away to Germany for a tournament aged about 10 and overwhelming the opposition to such an extent that City would use footage of the player from the competition in a video to showcase the technical talent in the squad to the families of would-be recruits.

Suffice to say Palmer has a much bigger audience and army of admirers these days.

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