From cruciate ligament heartbreak to a first-ever England call-up, Leicester City’s James Justin’s rise has been quite remarkable…
One Sky Bet League Two promotion, one League One winner’s medal, two Luton Town Young Player of the Season Awards, a place in the 2018/19 PFA Team of the Season and an FA Cup winner’s medal with Leicester City.
After looking through James Justin’s career honours, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he is still only 24 years old. It’s quite a list of achievements for the Hatters academy graduate.
Naturally talented and technically gifted, the versatile defender has risen through the ranks since making his professional debut in League Two six years ago, achieving plenty along the way. Now competing at the highest level on the Premier League stage and having earned a first-ever England call-up from Gareth Southgate, his is a story worth celebrating.
Luton born and bred, Justin’s EFL journey began in May 2016, but the signs of his potential had been evident long before his introduction to professional football.
Having joined the club in 2005, the defender first tasted success in a Hatters shirt as early as 2009, where he was part of the Under-11 team that famously defeated Bayern Munich 3-2 to win the Aarau Masters. After receiving an early call-up to the U18 side - aged just 16 - and establishing himself as a key figure in the Development Squad, Justin was part of a side that went on to become champions of the Central League Southern Division, win the Youth Alliance South East title and lift the Youth Alliance Cup. In the very same season, they also reached the Quarter-Finals of the FA Youth Cup. An impressive campaign for Luton’s next generation of rising young stars, who had deservedly caught the eye.
There’s no doubt that the future looked bright, particularly for Justin, who had been tipped by staff to become a future first-team fans’ favourite. And they were right.
The defender made more than 100 Luton appearances before signing for Premier League Leicester in the summer of 2019, his rise something to be proud of.
“I’m not sure it’s sunk in that I’m a Premier League player yet,” says Justin, speaking exclusively to the EFL last year.
“It’s quite surreal, because it’s something I’ve been working towards my entire life and now I’m here, hopefully this is just the start."
Justin’s professional debut for the Hatters came as an 18-year-old, on the final day of the 2015/16 League Two season, ironically on the very same day that Leicester famously lifted the Premier League trophy for the first time in their history. Little did he know that, just a few years on, he’d be wearing the Leicester City shirt and competing in the Premier League himself…
“I remember coming on as a substitute towards the end of the game,” he recalls. “It was okay, it was just one substitute appearance, but it was the start. I knew that, going into the next pre-season, I had something to build on and work towards."
Justin’s potential continued to be noted and, in the 2016/17 campaign, the defender truly burst onto the scene for Luton, becoming not only a regular for the side, but arguably one of their best players too, despite being just 19 years of age.
Thirty-nine first-team appearances in League Two earned him a new contract at the club, and although Luton lost out in the Play-Off Semi-Finals to Blackpool that season, a first professional goal and a Young Player of the Season Award made it a campaign to remember for Justin. It was to be just the beginning, with those first steps in professional football just a sign of things to come.
The following season saw Justin - and Luton - go from strength to strength under the guidance of Nathan Jones. The defender was disciplined, positionally intelligent and - having featured in numerous positions throughout the campaign - one of the most versatile players in the league.
“That’s always been a key aspect of my game,” he continues. “I always used to be a central midfielder, but I remember playing in the U18s once and the right-back was injured. I had to fill in for him and that was that. Since then, I’ve played left-back, right-back, centre-back and in midfield.”
Mature beyond his years, here was a player very much on the up.
Automatic promotion at the end of the season marked a huge achievement for Luton, as their rise back up the EFL began, with Justin more than playing his part. After just one season competing in League One, a second promotion followed as the Hatters returned to the Championship for the first time since the 2006/07 season.
“It was really crazy to be playing for Luton at that time, it was a special time for the club. When I got into the team, I was content with just being in the team, but then, as time goes on you want more and I wanted to push the club forward and I wanted to achieve promotion.
“In my first full season, I remember losing in the Play-Off Semi-Finals to Blackpool - that was a really bitter pill to swallow. We knew the following season that we had to go one better and win automatic promotion, which is what we did. We always felt that we were one of the best teams in the division, and we felt that when we got promoted to League One as well
“He [Jones] had such a belief in us as players, even when we were pushing for promotion to the Championship. That’s the mindset that we had throughout and we got there.”
Following two promotions in as many seasons, coupled with an array of individual accolades, Justin’s mature and composed performances saw him become one of the most sought-after players in the EFL, and it wasn’t long before the Premier League came calling. A club-record move to Leicester City ended his 13-year association with the Hatters, as he prepared for life in the top flight.
“It was a bit crazy, to be honest. I was only playing in League One at the time, so to have Leicester come in for me was a real honour.
“I remember having a meeting with Brendan Rodgers and I was overwhelmed by how well he came across. I know how good he is with developing young players and that’s the main reason I wanted to sign for them.”
Having played more than 100 games for Luton during his time at the club, the EFL experience has no doubt proved pivotal in Justin’s ongoing development, and he was quick to thank - and praise - Luton for their role in his rise on and off the pitch.
“I’ve grown up in Luton all my life,” he says. “I came through the Luton Town Academy and they’ve been there for me throughout my entire career. I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me. I wouldn’t be where I was today without them; they gave me first-team football and helping them get back to the Championship was one of my main goals as a youngster, so thankfully I helped them do that before I left.
“When you come through the academy and you play first-team games or you win promotions and you have success, the end goal is always to play as high as possible, more often than not in the Premier League.”
It was a well-earned move for Justin who, having made the step up, featured 18 times for the former Premier League champions in his debut season. But, by his own admission, it was no easy transition.
“I did find it quite hard initially,” he admits. “It took me a couple of months to get tuned into the way Leicester played and trained. I was training with some of the best players in the world and I had to work hard to adapt to that. I knew I would get there because I had the mindset to succeed, but both mentally and physically it was tough.”
When handed his debut by Brendan Rodgers in a Carabao Cup fixture, however - against none other than Luton Town - the youngster made no mistake in taking his chance. Away at Kenilworth Road - the place where Justin’s professional career began - how fitting that he should record his first-ever Leicester City goal in front of the Luton faithful. A special moment - albeit bitter sweet - and one he’s unlikely to forget.
“It was crazy,” Justin says, reflecting on his return. “As soon as we drew them in the cup, I was really looking forward to the game. I can’t believe that’s the game that I scored my first goal. I got a really nice reception from the fans, even when I scored.
“I wanted to show that I was ready for a Premier League club and I like to think I’ve done that, it’s just a shame I had to score against my old team in the process! It’s definitely one of those moments that I won’t ever forget.”
Fast forward to 2020/21 and Justin stepped up a gear once more, making 31 appearances in all competitions for the Foxes and becoming one of their most consistent performers. Until a cruel ACL injury ruled him out for the rest of the season, he had in fact played more games than anybody else in City’s first-team squad, earning many plaudits along the way.
“My performances definitely went up a gear, but that came with the experience of playing more games. Last season, I played 10 or so league games at the back end of the campaign and they definitely helped mould me into the player I was at the start of this season just gone.”
In what was becoming a standout campaign for the then 23-year-old, Justin was on the brink of a first senior England call-up before his season was ended prematurely through injury, keeping him sidelined for a year.
Despite his long-term injury, last season wasn't without success however, and Justin’s name went firmly in the history books following Leicester’s famous FA Cup triumph at Wembley Stadium last spring.
He may have missed the Final through injury, but he more than played his part in the club’s cup-winning campaign, scoring what he describes as “the best goal of my career” in the first round against Stoke City.
“I’m proud to have written my name in Leicester’s history where the FA Cup is concerned, even though I didn’t play in the Final. When I scored that goal in the first round, it was incredible, definitely the best goal of my career so far.”
No fewer than four times between 1949 and 1969 had the Leicester City faithful seen their side fall at the final hurdle while bidding to win the oldest cup competition. In more recent years, however, they have been starved of even the hope of lifting the trophy, having not appeared in the last four since 1982, or indeed the Final for 52 years.
So, for this current crop of players to have achieved such a feat, made it even more triumphant. The outpour of emotion at the full-time whistle was clear to see. Players sunk to their knees, overcome by the achievement, as they celebrated one of the most memorable days in the club’s 138-year history.
“You don’t actually realise until you’re in that position quite how much it means to the club, the fans and yourself, and how big the occasion is. I’m so proud to have that winner’s medal, it’s amazing.”
Still only 23 years of age at the time, Justin had done things that many can only aspire to achieve, growing into a player that has more than earned his place in the Premier League.
But, like so many others before him, where would he be without those EFL experiences, and just where do they rank in his career?
“The best of my life,” he answers. “And some of the most important, too. Luton turned me from a boy into a man. I had to grow up very quickly and learn on the spot in the EFL, and with the help of the players around me and the manager too, I was able to do that.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Nathan Jones and the way he looked after me and mentored me. He always told me that I’d be a Premier League player. I didn’t necessarily believe him at the time, but he knew how to help get me there. He’s one of the reasons why I am where I am today.
“I’ll never forget my time at Luton and how much it helped me become the player I am. Hopefully, I won’t be the last player to make the jump.”
After the most difficult of years Justin returned to Premier League action earlier the season, making 13 appearances for the Foxes.
No stranger to St George’s Park and the England set up either, he has previously been a regular in the England Under-21 side and, as he continues to progress, now he will join up with the likes of Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Mason Mount, all of which introduced themselves on the EFL stage.
This article featured in the June 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.