Humble origins

The main aim of Towns of Two Halves is to encourage you to go and take a look at places that you might never have considered. All those towns have something to offer.

But the football is the common denominator and it needn’t be the lowest. As England’s success in the World Cup demonstrates, a trip to somewhere obscure might give you a glimpse of the football stars of tomorrow.

The goalkeepers in the squad are the most exotic examples. Over the past five years you could have gone to Darlington, Alfreton, Burton Albion, Carlisle, Bradford City or Preston North End and seen Jordan Pickford between the sticks. His back-up Nick Pope was even more widely travelled: Bury Town, Welling, Cambridge United, Aldershot, York City and Bury. Jack Butland confined himself largely to the Midlands and Yorkshire; he played for Birmingham, Cheltenham, Stoke, Barnsley, Leeds and Derby before moving to Stoke.

Of the outfield starting XI, Dele Alli’s origins are probably the humblest at Milton Keynes Dons. But five years ago you might have seen Harry Kane turning out on loan with Millwall and Norwich; John Stones was still at Barnsley, Harry Maguire was at Sheffield United in League 1 and Jesse Lingard had a spell on loan with Birmingham City.

How will you know you’re watching a star of the future? You probably need to talk to the home fans. Dele Alli was among the scorers when MK Dons put seven past Oldham in 2014. I had no idea I was watching a World Cup warrior of the future. Besides, Geoffrey Boycott’s grandmother batting with a stick of rhubarb could have scored against Oldham that day. But Tottenham signed him just three months later, so somebody clearly knew.

It’s a little like watching bands on the way up. You see people you’ve never heard of playing in the back room of a pub. Sometimes you only know they’re special with hindsight, and with the perspective that comes from kissing a large number of frogs. But it does mean that there’s always a good reason to go, just in case…