Kyle Walker-Peters is flat out on the Camp Nou turf. Ousmane Dembélé has just robbed him on the halfway line and run away to score. Barcelona are 1-0 up. Tottenham are heading out of the Champions League. And at this very moment – 9.07pm on 11 December 2018 – a 21-year-old right-back has hit rock bottom.
Two years on, Walker-Peters is reliving the experience. “I wanted a black hole to just swallow me up,” he says. “I was laying on the floor. And I remember Danny Rose picking me up. Harry Kane said to me: ‘Don’t worry, you’re playing well, we’re fine, keep going.’ It was a big, big moment for me.”
And so Walker-Peters picked himself off the floor. He carried on showing for the ball. Tottenham would draw the game 1-1, scrape out of their group, beat Manchester City, beat Ajax in miraculous fashion to reach a first-ever Champions League final. But without Walker-Peters, and his heroic block to prevent Philippe Coutinho from making it 2-0 in the second half, none of it would ever have happened.
“I learned more about myself in that one game than in my whole career,” he says. “Now, if I make a mistake for a goal, it’s not going to affect me. It’s not going to make me go into my shell. It’s going to be: ‘OK, you’ve made a mistake. How are you going to rectify that?’”
Not that he is making many at the moment. A win over Sheffield United on Sunday afternoon would be Southampton’s sixth out of their last eight Premier League games, and since moving to the south coast Walker-Peters has been instrumental in their surge. Tottenham gave him a start in the game: a footballing education, lifelong friends, unforgettable experiences. But Southampton, where he has a regular first-team place and the freedom of the right flank under manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, is where he has come of age.
It is a vindication of the decision Walker-Peters made in the summer to leave his boyhood club. After a successful loan spell earlier this year, he had options: make the Southampton deal permanent, or return to Spurs and fight for his place at a club where his involvement had largely been restricted to “a few cameos here and there‚” as he puts it. “I might play one game and then not play for five. That was really hard.”
Not that there are any hard feelings over it. “I’m still in contact with all my mates there,” he says. “I talk to Dele [Alli] every day. And they’re all happy for me. Of course it was tough leaving Tottenham. I was training and playing with some of the best players in the world. I got to play in the Champions League. But I was at a stage in my career where I needed to show everyone what I can do.”
And Southampton gave him a good feeling. Off the pitch, he moved into a house in Winchester, hired an interior designer to establish his preferred aesthetic (“modern, but quite minimalistic – I’ve gone for whites, greys, creams”). On it, there is the sensation of a club going places, pulling in the same direction under a bold and likeable manager. “He’s actually really chilled, really funny,” Walker-Peters says when asked what Hasenhüttl is like behind closed doors. “But when it comes to work time, he’s focused. Most teams change slight things depending on the opposition. But our intensity and pressing always stays the same: aggressive, doubling up, winning your 1v1 battles.”
How does the press work? “We leave it up to the strikers. The forwards make the decision when to press. And because they’ve become so good at it, they know they can go 100%, because the rest of the team’s behind them. We don’t really focus on what happens if you get beaten. So what? If I get beaten, my centre back’s behind me, sliding across. It’s that togetherness, everyone willing to fight for each other, which is why I believe we’re doing so well.”
With the ball, Walker-Peters has licence to run at players, to use his pace to get in behind defences. He was a winger until the age of 16, and remains a ferocious student of the game. “I mean, I watch a lot of football,” he says. “Anything I can, really. You can never stop learning. And so when I started playing right-back I watched Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm a lot. I want to be able to play more than one position. I feel like I could play left-back.”
Just as well, really. English football is experiencing an unprecedented glut of quality right-backs, and even if Walker-Peters is still a little way off adding to his nine caps at under-21 level, he knows the standards required if he is going to overhaul Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Reece James and Ainsley Maitland-Niles to catapult himself into Euro 2021 contention. “It inspires me, actually,” he says. “I like competition. I’m not thinking about it too much, but there’s no reason why I won’t get selected if I keep doing well.”
For now, though, all this is noise. The season is still young, and with just 32 Premier League games to his name, Walker-Peters still has plenty to prove. But perhaps he has already proved something: to those who saw in this small, callow full-back a player who would never hold down a place at elite level. Who was destined to be remembered as the guy in the All or Nothing documentary whose name José Mourinho struggled with. (“Walker or Peters, what do you like? Both? It’s too long, man!”)
Walker-Peters still hasn’t seen the TV show. He tries not to read too much of what he sees on social media. “You have to understand that people are going to have opinions,” he says. “Whether it’s positive, and you start thinking you’re the best thing since sliced bread. And then on the flip side, when it’s negative. You’ve got to be strong enough to say: Well, OK, fine. I’m going to show you you’re wrong!”
And from rebirth at the Camp Nou to revival on the south coast, it’s a truth he seems to live by.