When it comes to fairytale stories of youth development in the EFL, it’s tough to top that of Ben White. From Wales to Wembley via the Weston Homes Stadium and West Yorkshire, his has been a journey well worth charting.
Just five years have passed since White made his professional debut – fittingly, in EFL competition – as he kept a clean sheet in Brighton & Hove Albion’s League Cup victory over Colchester United. It was the first of five appearances for the Seagulls that season, and first of many defensive shut-outs to come, but proved more than enough to catch the eye.
On 1 August 2017, the defender signed for League Two club Newport County on loan until the end of the 2017/18 campaign, in what was described by manager Michael Flynn as a "big coup for the club."
And how right he was.
Both White and the Welsh side would enjoy more memorable moments in cup competition that season, making history by beating his future club, Leeds United, in the third round of the FA Cup, before taking Tottenham Hotspur to a replay in round four.
White started both games, earning widespread praise for his handling of future England team-mate Harry Kane in the latter, and two months later was named the club’s Player of the Year. Flynn’s judgement had been vindicated and, when taking to the podium at the awards ceremony, the County boss described the youngster as "the best loan signing the club has ever made."
It was to be just the beginning for White, with the loan system taking him up a level during the second half of the following campaign, as he joined League One side Peterborough United, where he would make 16 appearances and score one goal.
Six months later, he was on the move again, this time to the heights of the Championship, and it would be there that he would really make his mark. ‘Bielsaball’ was about to sweep the division, and White was about to play a key role.
July 2019 saw White sign both a loan agreement with Leeds and a new one-year contract extension at Brighton, who had been keeping a close eye on their young prospect. His parent club were soon forced to bat away any transfer speculation, too, as the centre-back picked up the PFA Player of the Month award just four weeks after his Leeds debut, with Liverpool reportedly taking note. There was nothing uncertain about England’s interest, though, with Gareth Southgate in attendance to watch White and team-mate Kalvin Phillips in action in January 2020.
White would play in all 46 league games - and all 49 overall - as Leeds were promoted to the Premier League as champions, rounding off his loan spell with his first goal for the club on the final day of the campaign. Naturally, with more success - including Leeds’ Young Player of the Season award and a spot in the PFA Team of the Year - came more transfer rumours. Regardless, the only way was up.
Following months of speculation regarding his future, White signed a new four-year contract with Brighton on 1 September 2020, and on the opening day of the 2020/21 season came another milestone moment, as he made his Premier League debut for Brighton against Chelsea. A journey that had started in South Wales had reached a new high on the south coast, and despite just three years separating the two, White looked right at home.
Following another 39 appearances in all competitions, it seemed written in the stars that his latest Player of the Season award should arrive on the same day as his first England start. Now, he’ll be hoping to go one better, as he lives out what can only be described as a dream come true.
“It’s been very surreal,” he said, speaking after being named in Southgate’s final squad for the Euros. “It’s mind-blowing; even being in the 33-man squad was enough for me and to make it to the final squad was unbelievable. I just sat and cried for about an hour.
“It’s something I’ve never felt before, because news like that doesn’t come around often, so I was speechless. In 2018, I think I was probably on at home watching the England games. I think I was at Newport at the time.
“I’ve worked hard for 10 years and it doesn’t just suddenly come in a year. I’ve had loans and those helped me build and perform at the level I have. I’ve played in all the divisions and always wondered if I could step up, but I’ve managed to do it.”
Still only 23 years of age, White has a level of experience that others his age, and many older than him, must envy. His route to the international stage via the EFL has been nothing short of incredible, and there’s no limit to where it might yet take him.