CHRISTMAS 2011. Jacob Butterfield is the talk of the Championship. Captain of Barnsley in his first full season, a call-up to the England U21s, a place in the GB Olympic squad.
Sat in the hole behind Ricardo Vaz Te, the midfielder’s perceptive passing and a slew of spectacular goals from range have got the scouts piling into Oakwell.
Newcastle are preparing a £2m bid. Rangers have expressed an interest. Even Liverpool are mentioned, while Ian Holloway – then at Blackpool – has been informed by Tykes boss Keith Hill that he “can’t afford” the talented 21-year-old.
“Jacob is the best midfielder in the Championship,” added Hill. “And the most sought-after.”
The world was at his feet. But a few days later it got up and kicked him savagely between the legs.
On New Years’ Eve 2011, just four minutes into a fraught Yorkshire derby with Leeds, Butterfield was cynically taken out by infamous clogger Michael Brown.
Though he limped back on, the stretcher was soon summoned. Butterfield’s knee ligaments were shredded. His season was over, his dream move to the Premier League cancelled. For Barnsley, who had hoped to cash in before Butterfield’s contract expired that summer, it was an equally devastating blow.
Hill called Brown’s hack an “old pro’s challenge that belongs in the past”. Butterfield went even further.
“I can’t prove anything,” he said. “But in my opinion there was intention to get me off the pitch from Leeds.
“I am not saying it was Michael personally but I believe they thought that if they could stop me they could stop Barnsley. It doesn’t change what happened but I have to say that I’m devastated and disappointed at their tactics.”
So now, almost two years later, Butterfield is sitting in a Middles- brough tracksuit, talking about “starting from scratch”.
“I’ve spent too much time in the shadows,” says the 23-year-old. “But I’m in a good place now. I’m ready to re-invent my career and start again. It’s about time that I reminded people what I can do.
“I was in great form those last couple of months at Barnsley. I was made captain at a young age, got the call up. It’s something I look back on with a lot of pride and fond memories. It was probably the last time I really enjoyed playing football. The injury was just unbelievably bad timing. New Year’s Eve, one day before the transfer window. And I was almost certainly going to move to the Premier League that January. The interest was real.
“As a young kid, I worked so hard to become a footballer and always dreamed of getting in the Premier League. To get so close to a move and then have it snatched away puts a lot of doubt in your head. The first few weeks I was very down.”
Little did he realise, but worse was to follow. In August 2012, with a comeback still months away, the Premier League dream did come true with a move to Norwich City, who paid Barnsley around £1m in compensation.
Unfortunately, it swiftly became a nightmare. Having agreed to sign for Paul Lambert, Butterfield arrivedto find that the Scot had left for Aston Villa. Perhaps unsurprisingly, replacement Chris Hughton had little time for an injured player he hadn’t bought.
“It’s frustrating, because you just want to jump in and start impressing people straight off the bat. Instead, I had to spend six to eight weeks in the physio room.
“By then, the season has started and I was playing catch-up. It was difficult to get going from day one.”
He played just three cup games for Norwich and spent most of the season on loan at Bolton and Crystal Palace. He says he felt “excluded” by Hughton. “I think under a different manager I would have played,” adds Butterfield, who joined Boro on deadline day for £500,000. “But I wasn’t in his plans and that was that.
“It was probably a backwards step. But I’ve had some valuable experiences. I’ve had to grow up, learn to deal with frustration and boredom. They are things every footballer has to cope with at some stage in his career. So I think I’m mentally a much stronger player than before.
“And it probably made me realise what was important. I realised I didn’t care about anything but playing and enjoying my football again.
“That’s why I realised I had to kick-start my career. I made up my mind to start all over again.
“So when the interest came from Middlesbrough, I just wanted to get it done. The manager, Tony Mowbray, invited me up, showed me round and we had a good talk.
“I think we have a similar philosophy on the game and I think he’s the man to help me produce my best stuff. It just feels like the right club to get me back on track.”
And as an added bonus, Butterfield is just a few miles away from his Yorkshire roots.
“I was born in Bradford so I’m about an hour from home,” he adds. “It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it was a nice bonus.
“I made a big commitment last year to go down to Norwich. It was the first time I’d lived away from home and it was four hours away.
“To be away for a year, especially with it being so difficult at times and not really having football to play, was tough. It’s good to be back up this end and have friends and family around. Everything about the move just feels right.”