AS head of scouting for Notts County, I’m doing something like 3,000 miles a month. And, at the last count, I’d already been to 74 games this season.
So, with a third of the campaign gone, I decided to pick a side of the best XI players I’ve seen so far. Some are already well known, others just kids with a kernel of promise, but all of them are worth the price of a ticket.
GK: Keiren Westwood, Sheff Wed
By far the best goalkeeper outside the Premier League. An international, an imposing build, a good shot-stopper and great kicker of the ball. He’s got the lot – there isn’t a weakness in his game.
RB: Elliott Hewitt, Notts County
And not just because he’s one of ours. Elliott is 6ft 1in, a modern day full-back. He can maraud forward, he can play multiple positions – he’s someone I really expect to kick on after the disappointment of moving to Ipswich at 17 and then getting injured. He’s getting fitter every game and, come Christmas, I think you’ll see the quality he has. He can throw it absolutely miles, too.
CB: Reece Burke, Bradford
A big, strong, strapping lad who heads and kicks it a mile. He came through at West Ham and you can see that Premier League pedigree in his technique.
CB: Tom Lees, Sheffield Wed
Another from Wednesday, who I’ve seen a lot of this year. Tom’s not the tallest of centre-halves but his positioning and anticipation is excellent in whatever position he plays. Why Leeds let him go last year I’ll never know. I can only assume it was a financial decision.
LB: George Smith, Barnsley
In a side that’s been very poor this year, he’s been the shining light. The Tykes have already produced John Stones and Mason Holgate, and this lad is next in line for a big move. He’s got a lot of ability and he’s great going forward. Not as athletic as Holgate, but probably more gifted.
CM: Jermaine Anderson, Peterborough
An England U20 international who is big and strong and can play all over the park. I’ve seen him play at centre-half, full-back, central defence. A tremendous all-round athlete who can play a bit, too.
CM: Louis Reed, Sheffield Utd
He’s tiny – he looks about four foot one! But his array of passing is ridiculous and he constantly makes things happen. The 18-year-old is easily a Championship player – and only his stature will stop him playing higher.
RM: Demarai Gray, Birmingham City
Obvious, I know, but impossible to ignore. Pace, power, hard to deal with, an incredibly talented footballer who will be part of the England squad before long.
LM: Brandon Barker, Rotherham
I’m good mates with England U20 coach Richie Barker and, watching them train, I’ve got a lot of hope for our future. Brandon Barker, who is currently on loan at Rotherham from Man City, is the brightest of the lot. Quick and strong, he’s like Chris Waddle the way he weaves and moves around the pitch. He can cross, finish and take people on. At 18, he has a bright future.
AM: Adam Armstrong, Coventry
I tried to get him for County last season, but they wouldn’t let us have him because they expected him to be part of Newcastle United’s first team. Now he’s showing why by banging in goals left, right and centre for Coventry in League One. He small, but he’s strong and makes fantastic runs.
CF: Chris Martin, Derby
The best out-and-out centre forward in the League. I remember playing against him when he was at Norwich as a kid. He kept dropping into pockets, driving me mad. I smashed him on the halfway line. He got up and shook it off. I did it again and again and again. He eventually got up and said, calm as you like, ‘If you do that again, I’m gonna get you’. I just laughed. I thought ‘This lad is going to make it’. And he has.