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To play for your hometown club is the dream for a young football fan. If you support your hometown club then the dream is even more vivid, with ideas of lifting trophies and your name donning the back of replica shirts across the land. Very few players get to do this though, with most kids who are deemed good enough at academy level quickly making the drop down the divisions without ever making so much as a dent in their aspirations. All too soon do they fade away from troubling the Premier League. It’s a road well-trodden.
Things looked destined to figure this way for Daniel Noel Drinkwater. Like his middle-namesake Noel Gallagher, Drinkwater was born and raised in Manchester. Brought up on the memory of The Class of 92 and the halcyon era of Sir Alex Ferguson, Danny Drinkwater chased a career as the next Mancunian lad to go from terrace to turf and realise his dreams. All didn’t work out as planned for Danny Drinkwater, but all was not lost.
The current Leicester midfielder had a rough and rocky start to life as a professional footballer. Joining United as a boy aged 9, there was only ever to be one outcome. Supporter and local, Drinkwater fought his way up through the youth ranks, playing at all levels of United’s famed academy set up, but the call from the first team never arrived. Not really, anyway.
Drinkwater, after becoming a reserve team regular, got the call up for the first – and last – time to Manchester United’s 2009 league game vs Hull City. United had sealed the title, so this game meant very little. But for Danny, it was a moment. A moment to cherish and a moment of realisation. When he didn’t get one the pitch, maybe that moment was one that truly sunk in. This was going to be tougher than he thought. Would he ever get a game at United?
Following his first team call up, that summer was one of change. Drinkwater went on loan to Huddersfield Town after discovering that his time at United wouldn’t be fruitful. Not that year, anyway. That season for Huddersfield was one of chances. Chances to play, chances to create. 37 appearances at his temporary club was nothing to be sniffed at, with the player making the grade at League One level at least. With Huddersfield Tow being led by Lee Clark, it seems that Drinkwater had found a manager to trust him to deliver consistently.
Consistency, however, wasn’t an attribute that seemed to follow the United player around post-Huddersfield Town, with his next moves between various clubs, racking up some average seasons with Watford, Cardiff and Barnsley. His next move, he knew, would be vital.
Upon coming back to United in 2012 after his temporary spell in Yorkshire with Barnsley, United had an offer come in for the player from Leicester City. This, Drinkwater says, spelt the end.
“I spent two years out in total and I didn’t really want to go back into the reserves and dip in and out of the first team. I wanted to play.
“People like Paul Scholes were in my way at United — what are you going to do with that?” Drinkwater told Manchester Evening News.
The scene was set and it was clear the player wouldn’t be playing any type of role he wanted for United, so 2012 saw the last year Drinkwater would wear the red of United. Fate would have it, though, right now United could do with a couple of players with Drinkwater’s ability to control and dictate a midfield as he does for Leicester. But the decline of his first club and the meteoric rise of his career this seasons seems to have put a lot into perspective.
This season has been mad. The old guard, or the resting-for-a-year guard, whichever you prefer, seem to be lacking. Chelsea and United, both feeling the dizzy lows of 5th and below have made their case for biggest underachievers in a Premier League season. With Liverpool not challenging and Arsenal and Manchester City faltering, the renaissance of Tottenham and the historic emergence of Leicester City this season has only cemented the idea that the quality gap – for better or for worse – is shortening in the Premier League. The lower teams are getting generally better whilst the teams traditionally at the top of the league are spending and risking more on transfers, with less coming off. This is allowing shrewd operators and determined thinkers – Leicester and Spurs – to change the success model at the Premier League elite. Danny Drinkwater has been towards the forefront of this shift.
The model of Leicester City is all about knowing. Knowing what they need. Knowing how they operate, and in which landscape they operate in. Knowing which landscape everyone else operates in. Football has this strange obsession with sacrificing success for ‘pretty’ football. Pass, move, attack from the go. Harder for teams to do lower down the league to great success, the Foxes decided to play another way. Countering with speed, dedicating their forward line to breading discomfort amongst defenders who are more comfortable with the ball than without. Playing 4-4-2 with two combative, comfortable and well-drilled midfielders. Finding a solid team and sticking with it.
Danny Drinkwater has been starting alongside N'Golo Kanté in the centre of midfield all season. Both Drinkwater and Kanté have enjoyed a meteoric rise, along with teammates Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez – the latter of which has been linked with Barcelona. With a solid understanding between the pair each knows what to do. This solid base of knowledge has allowed Kanté to become the best performing midfielder in the league, whilst allowing Drinkwater to receive plaudits, congratulations and recently an England call-up (winning MOTM in the process).
It seems like Danny Drinkwater has found his niche. I’ve said before and I will say it again, I wouldn’t be leaving Leicester City if I played for them currently. Big moves will present themselves, and Drinkwater will no doubt find offers on the table from numerous clubs, but he has found his niche. A club that rates him for what he can offer and bought him for exactly that too. No player is at Leicester for any other reason. They offer specific attributes that the team wanted. And at 26, the meteoric rise of Danny Drinkwater seems to just be getting going.
The year Drinkwater left Manchester United was the last year they won the title. If he can win it with Leicester this year, they might just come knocking. Knocking for a central midfielder with movement and guile. Yet the reason the player is where he is now is because he left that club behind. Playing regularly and playing well could mean a consistant England squad place is his to lose. And the boy raised in Manchester has found a home down in Leicester. And his accent is just getting started.