Tottenham youngster Anton Walkes was thrown in at the deep end in front of massive crowds on loan at Atlanta United. Now he is using those experiences to help Portsmouth in their push for promotion. Adam Bate caught up with him to find out more…
For most young players loaned from the Premier League to English football’s third tier, the crowds at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park could be a daunting experience. A first taste of what it means to be playing for points in front of expectant fans. But for Tottenham’s Anton Walkes it is nothing new. Not after his Major League Soccer adventure with Atlanta United.
This time last year, the 21-year-old defender made his professional debut against New York Red Bulls in front of 55,297 supporters. In October, the season concluded with a surprise play-off defeat to Columbus Crew in the brand new Mercedes-Benz Arena. There were just the 67,221 people there that day. In between, Walkes had the time of his life.
“You’re not used to playing in front of people in youth football,” he tells Sky Sports. “Our home attendances were ridiculous. They recently broke the MLS record. That shows what direction the league is going in. When you are playing your home games in front of 70,000 people it is always going to be something that’s massive and it pushes you on.
“The lifestyle was amazing in Atlanta. It is a great city in a great country with lots to offer. I have always been a fan of basketball but out there it allowed me to be around it more and go to the games. I went often. You get to see the players because you are all representing the same city, especially the American Football guys because we shared a stadium.”
It was the first year for the Atlanta United franchise and a steep learning curve for Walkes but he had plenty of people around to learn from. Not least former Barcelona and Argentina boss Tata Martino, the team’s coach and a former colleague of Mauricio Pochettino at Newell’s Old Boys.
“He knows his business,” says Walkes. “This is a guy who has coached the world’s best player in Leo Messi. You have to give double respect to someone like that.”
As for team-mates, they included veterans of the English game such as Kenwyne Jones, Tyrone Mears and Chris McCann who had “been there and done it” as well as younger allies Brandon Vazquez and Harrison Heath. “I am still in touch with them,” he adds.
“I met people who I want to keep around me regardless of the time difference. They had my back and were very supportive. It made my life a lot easier. To be fair, I knew I was going to enjoy it. I never underestimated it, but the whole thing still caught me by surprise. It was more than I expected. Everything was better, more challenging and more competitive.
“The opportunity came along and it was tough but there is so much that I have learnt from it and added to my game. At that stage, I was just desperate for an opportunity so I could prove myself out there in the men’s world. I am always hungry to play football no matter where it is. As long as I am playing and competing, that’s what motivates me.”
It is easy to imagine why the return to Tottenham’s reserve team would have been difficult for Walkes. “In the space of a couple of months I went from playing regularly in front of over 50,000 people to playing reserve games for Tottenham in front of 20 to 30 people,” he explains. “Now I’m playing at Fratton Park in front of 18,000 again.
“The football has been challenging, of course, but it has not been too hard to adjust to the mentality here thanks to my experiences in Atlanta. I have settled in very quickly. That change in style going from youth football to men’s football can be very different. The games have a lot more pressure on them. There is much more focus on the three points.
“In youth football, the victories don’t matter as much as long as you have produced the better performance. In the real world, you would always take playing badly and getting the win. It is just about making sure that everything you do is about getting the best results. All the preparations through the week, all the little details, are geared towards the game.”
Things have gone well for Walkes at Pompey with manager Kenny Jackett aware of his potential from his time working at Tottenham last season. Playing at right-back, he scored within 20 minutes of his debut in a 2-2 draw against Doncaster – “a perfect start but not the perfect result” – and despite a dip in form, the prospect of the play-offs remains.
“You cannot rule anything out because there are nine games left and you never know what could happen,” says Walkes, referring to the team’s five-point deficit. “Fortunately, we have a few of the experienced lads coming back from injury so we are going to get stronger. We are coming off a victory so hopefully we can get another this weekend and keep pushing.”
With a contract at Tottenham until 2019, success could offer the chance to add to the one League Cup appearance he made for the club in 2016. Not that he is thinking of that. “The long term cannot happen without the short term,” he says. “I have to focus on what I am doing now. Hopefully, I can use this Portsmouth experience to make myself a better player.
“I want to push on and win something here. If we can make the play-offs then all the focus will be on promotion. Playing at Wembley was my dream as a kid and it is something I have visualised over and over again.” And thanks to that time in Atlanta, the experience of playing in front of that huge crowd would not be completely alien to him.
Don’t miss the Sky Bet League One clash between Portsmouth and Oxford on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event from 3.40pm
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