Welcome to the Wharton age
Introducing Adam Wharton: the low-socked Blackburn prodigy on growing up, his developing England career, and how Busquets and Frenkie shape his game.
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Adam Wharton is just 19. He’s tall, his head is shaven, his words are soft and well-measured. When we ask, he insists his media training has not been too intense - but you can still feel a gravity to his words. He speaks with the care of a young person who understands every sentence could be picked apart.
That’s not to say he is defensive or reserved. In fact, as we chat over lunch, the opposite reveals itself to be true: Adam is expressive and well spoken. Of course, we’re sitting with his agent, James Featherstone, in the headquarters of his agency, OmniSports - a decadent industrial building ten minutes from Manchester Piccadilly - so his safety net is obvious. Upstairs is a recording studio complete with a well-stocked bar and signed pictures of David Bowie.
As we introduce ourselves, the conversation dances casually around: we speak of the World Cup in Qatar and living around the corner from his training ground and his favourite trainers and what we’d ordered for lunch (Tom was very proud to order the same salad as the professional athlete) and any concerns about the teenager’s affability faded.
We met Adam late in December, as the rest of the world was preparing to rest. No such respite is offered to footballers, no matter how young. I ask Adam how he feels about Christmas as a professional; with Boxing Day games a regular fixture, most managers still hold training on Christmas Day.
“Except [Tony] Mowbray,” he says. “Mowbray never did.”
Unfortunately for the prospect of a full roast dinner, Tony Mowbray left Blackburn Rovers, Wharton’s current and childhood club, in May 2022. He was replaced by Jon Dahl Tomasson, a decorated ex-player and young coach with big ideas.
Since Tomasson’s arrival, Wharton has become a key member of Blackburn’s first team. He’s made 25 appearances in the league this season, received his England U-20’s debut, and even made the SCOUTED50 list of the world’s most exciting young players, an accolade of which we’re sure he’s most proud. He’s an all-action, low-socked midfielder and he’s drawing serious attention from across Europe.
But that’s not a discussion for our Christmas-time meet. After lunch we move upstairs to a boxy, glass-walled room overlooking a dreary parking lot. As we discussed Tomasson, Wharton’s upbringing, his burgeoning England career and much else, the sun broke its cover and washed through the room. For most of that hour, it hardly felt like December at all.
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“Playing anywhere and everywhere,” Wharton says, when we ask about his earliest football memories. “I had two older brothers so I was always kicking about with them, in the garden, at school, for my local club, and then I joined Blackburn’s under six team. That’s all I wanted to do.
“I got in through my brother (Scott Wharton) who joined a bit later, at under-12 level. After he signed they asked him ‘have you got any brothers?’ So I started going once a week, on a Friday after school, and I never looked back. I’ve known Blackburn basically my whole life.”
Within sporting families, the success of older siblings can place unwarranted pressure on the younger’s shoulders. We tiptoed around this theory but the teenager chose his words carefully - and not just to avoid an extra kick in training.
“Of course there were elements of friendly competition to our relationship but I was just happy to see him make it, and I’m sure he was the same for me,” Wharton explains. “It was never about me feeling pressure or needing to match my brother.
“It definitely helped with him being older, seeing him develop through the academy and what you needed to be successful. It’s a little bit different because he’s a defender but I always looked up to him.”
There is something undeniably romantic about an academy graduate breaking through after years of education and refining, but Wharton’s case feels notably different. Adam is a local lad in every sense - he lives five minutes away from Blackburn’s training ground in Brockhall Village and has spent effectively three quarters of his life with the club - which makes his success that bit more special.
“I think my first game was in 2008,” he recalls with squinted eyes to recall the moment. “I was a mascot with Danny Simpson against Chelsea. I would have been four at the time, unfortunately they lost 2-0 on the day but guys like Roque Santa Cruz, Benni McCarthy, Chris Samba, Ryan Nelsen and Paul Robinson definitely made an impact on me.
“Obviously being in the academy so early, we would see the (first team) players once a year and I remember meeting Chris Samba. Somewhere there’s a picture of me getting my boots signed by him, and another with my mum where his head is basically cut out of the picture because he was so tall and I was tiny.
“He was doing his coaching badges with the club a year or two ago and I showed him that picture which definitely made him feel old. But it’s lovely to have those memories and of course, it does inspire you as a young player to succeed.”
The Blackburn of those times was very different: they were a hardened, physical side who became Premier League furniture under Mark Hughes and later Sam Allardyce. Fast forward fifteen years and the Lancashire club have taken a different approach to both squad building and playing, honed on the unforgiving battlegrounds of the Championship.
Rovers continue to field some of the youngest starting line-ups in the second tier (their average age of 23.6 years is sandwiched between Sunderland (22.6) and Leeds United (24.0) as the second-youngest in the league) under Jon Dahl Tomasson, which Wharton believes is helping the club establish an important sense of identity.
The likes of Harry Leonard (20), Andrew Moran (20), James Hill (22) and Tyrhys Dolan (22) have all played important roles at Ewood Park this season. Since we spoke to Wharton, 15-year-old Rory Finneran became Blackburn’s youngest-ever player when he came off the bench during a FA Cup third-round win over Cambridge United in January.
“It’s definitely a good thing,” Wharton says of the youth-centric approach. “You can probably see it throughout the season, at times you will need experienced heads to help see you through games or crucial moments, but otherwise it’s great to feel part of a young squad that’s learning together and pulling in the same direction.
“Especially with the way the gaffer wants us to play now, expansive, playing out from the back like most teams do, we can maybe adapt to those methods a bit quicker as we’ve been brought up in a different way.
“Even for younger players coming into the first team set up, I think it helps their integration because they are coming into a group that they can relate to, as well as us being able to relate to them. Even for me, last year I was in and out of the team, but this year I really feel part of the team, part of the dressing room.”
The 19-year-old made his senior debut under Tomasson in August 2022. But it was Tony Mowbray, an experienced manager with a strong reputation for developing young players, who first involved him with the first-team setup. Two years ago, Mowbray even labelled Wharton and Ashley Phillips (now at Tottenham) the “future of the club”.
“The first few times I trained with the first team was under Tony Mowbray, a couple of years ago as a second year scholar (U-18s). I remember feeling shy, I wasn’t really demanding the ball in training, I just wanted to get through everything without making a mistake.
“But once you’ve been there for a few sessions your personality can come out, you feel more comfortable and that’s when you start showing everyone what you’re about. Whether it’s scoring a goal, or snapping into a tackle, you need a moment that people take notice of, otherwise you can drown in that environment.
“Even though I haven’t spent a huge amount of time with the first team myself, I feel like I’m in a position where I can really help those guys coming through and making that transition, because it’s not easy and I’ve experienced it myself, how useful it can be having someone in your corner.
“I remember Tyrhys Dolan coming over to me when I first came up, just to have a chat and tell me he was around if I needed anything - that makes a big difference.”
Those who have watched Wharton play will instantly be drawn to his languid style and cultured left foot (because as we know, only left-footed players can be cultured). But there is a straightforward, British charm to his appearance that almost belies his technique - buzzed head, low socks and more often than not, black boots - which depict the midfielder’s style quite accurately.
Only eight Championship midfielders played more progressive passes per 90 (7.6, per FBRef) than the teenager last season, which highlights his penchant for fizzing balls through the lines and although those numbers have dipped slightly this term, he still sits in the 90th percentile for both progressive passing distance and passes into the penalty area among positional peers across the division.
“A lot depends on the way your team plays,” he explains. “Midfield roles can be so different based on what your manager, or your team wants to achieve. I used to play more as a number ten, sitting just off the striker when I was younger and I actually preferred playing there, but you see a lot less of the ball.
“When you do get the ball, you can be more effective and play those killer passes, your contributions are more obvious, so that’s what I enjoyed about that role. When you play deeper - especially with the way teams play nowadays - you are responsible for more during build up which is a different kind of pressure.
“You need to be brave on the ball, you have to demand it from your centre-halves, but that also means you are pressed more intensely with teams wanting higher turnovers. You have to be more progressive in your passing, you can see the pitch from another viewpoint and naturally, that affects the way you play.”
After signing a new five-year deal in December, Tomasson claimed that Wharton was “Champions League level on the ball” whilst simultaneously acknowledging there were still improvements to be made off it. But beware the wolf in number ten’s clothing; there is a steel and tenacity to the teenager who has clearly embraced the physical side of being a midfielder in the second tier.
Only Sondre Tronstad (2.9) averages more tackles per 90 than Wharton (2.4) for Blackburn this season, whose reading of the game continues to impress in a deep block - where his technique is patient and precise, to help stab the ball away at crucial moments - and also in transition where crunching recovery tackles have become increasingly regular in his game.
“Honestly you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been told that,” he says with a puff of his cheeks as we repeat Tomasson’s comments - you could almost feel his apathy on the subject.
“It’s always great to hear compliments like that from your manager but of course, there are two sides to the game. It was something I heard all throughout my academy life, that I didn’t work hard enough out of possession, the classic number ten.
“The higher up you go, your margin for error basically disappears. Every time you switch off, every time you’re a second late to track a runner - that can be punished. But it’s something I’ve really tried to work on since making the move up (to first-team football) and I think I’ve got a lot stronger out of possession.
“Even on the ball, there’s so much for me to improve on. Whether it’s the timing of my passing, the intention of my passing, you never stop. I’ve never been somebody who gets ahead of themselves.”
So what is his favourite position? “I don’t really have a preference,” he says, evading our leading questions like a sharp turn away from pressure. “I like to play deeper, I like to play further up, but I can also thrive in a more box-to-box role. I’m happy to play anywhere as long as I can affect the game.”
“This might sound weird, but I love wrapping passes through to the number ten so they can turn and drive at the defence - maybe more than a goal or an assist. Because I was a number ten myself, I can appreciate how difficult those passes are to make, but also how valuable they can be; especially if you’re being found between the lines.”
Inspiration comes in many forms when you’re a football-crazed kid.
Growing up, my socks were always pulled above my knees to imitate Thierry Henry. Every playground goal was crowned with a Shaka sign, because that’s how Ronaldinho celebrated on Revista de La Liga. Wharton may have grown up in a slightly different era but his judgement still gets our seal of approval.
“I wouldn’t say there’s someone I have directly drawn inspiration from,” he claims. “I like to watch a lot of different players and add aspects of their game to mine, which makes you a more rounded player in the long run.
“Obviously I love watching Lionel Messi but I’m sure everyone does. Frenkie de Jong too, I really like how he plays. Sergio Busquets manages to make everything look so simple with one or two touches but it’s so effective - I think Rodri at Manchester City would probably be a more current comparison.
“More casual watchers of the game probably won’t realise how much players like Busquets or Rodri affect the game, or how valuable they are. That’s why I like to take different bits from lots of top players, but I’m my own player in my own way - and that’s just as important.”
But football isn’t always about fulfilling your dreams. According to research conducted by the English FA in 2015, only three percent of players recruited by Premier League academies (under the age of ten) go on to make top-flight appearances, with 70 percent not even receiving professional contracts across all four divisions.
Wharton was one of the lucky few to push through the glass ceiling but his wasn’t an overnight success. Years of hard work and sacrifice went into forging his path, even with the knowledge that everything could be snatched away in a moment.
“Because I’ve been involved in football from such a young age, it’s difficult for me to see the negative side,” the midfielder explains. “But I’ve never really lived a normal life. Every day since I was young, football has been on my mind.
“I always enjoyed it so much that I never really considered the things I was missing out on. But it does require sacrifice which can be difficult as you’re growing up, especially during your teenage years when you can’t really go out or socialise with your friends.
“But to me - that is normal. If other people were told they couldn’t go out on the weekend, but instead get up at 7am on a Sunday morning to travel to Birmingham or wherever for a game, I’m not sure they would be too happy. It’s all about perspective.”
“A huge amount of time and effort goes into pursuing this career, not just from the players but their families too. Many people wouldn’t be prepared to make the changes needed to succeed, but I always felt ready to do that.”
“Making sacrifices is one thing, but what gets overlooked is how brutal football can be. You’re under constant evaluation and circumstances out of your control - injuries, style of play, even how your coach is feeling on the day - really impact on your chance of making it.
“I didn’t concern myself with that too often because I think it can affect your game. There were some difficult moments as a first year scholar (U-17s) because I barely played. I had some injuries, I wasn’t making the team, I must have played three or four 90 minutes all season.
“That was the first time I thought, “what if this doesn’t go to plan?” and things don’t work out for me here. Thankfully the season after, I stayed injury free and everything improved from there.”
Curious to learn more about Adam the person, we ask what occupies his time away from football and the training ground. Naturally your mind jumps to a million-and-one things within reach of a young man with the world at his feet, but his answer was firmly in keeping with somebody laid back, low key and with their feet on the ground.
“I do like playing golf. Maybe not so much now when it’s like this outside,” Wharton says with a chuckle, gesturing with his eyes as Storm Pia hurls rain towards the room’s glass windows. The sun has long since disappeared.
“Otherwise I’m quite easy going, I like to watch movies, I like gaming although I don’t play as much as I used to. Things can be so intense at football, so it’s nice to be at home and relax with friends and family.”
With the rain worsening and a long, dreaded trip back to London still ahead of us, we move to wrap things up - and throw some quick-fire questions Adam’s way.
Who’s the best player he’s played with? “I would probably say Cole Palmer or Rico Lewis,” he tells us, after pausing briefly for thought. “Both of them are doing incredible things this season.” We point out that older brother Scott didn’t make the cut. That solicits another smile, although Wharton insists he wouldn’t take the omission personally.
The next answer requires considerably less thinking - who would he most like to play with? “Messi, easy. Next question.”
We finish by asking the teenager for one piece of advice that has stuck with him throughout his life - whether from a teammate, senior player, coach or any other influential figure.
“Singling out one piece of advice is difficult,” he says. “Something I’ve been told a lot is not to waste what I’ve got, or the opportunities I’ve been given because I didn’t work hard enough.
“It’s all about squeezing what you can out of your experiences and making the most of everything, and that’s something which has clicked for me in the last couple of years.”
Clear throughout our conversation is the pride with which Wharton talks about Blackburn. Almost every answer includes an anecdote or reference to the club, and his desperation to succeed feels tangible; as if you could stretch out and grab it with both hands.
So when we finally press him on his aspirations in the game, we were hardly surprised by his answer.
“I’ve already achieved one huge dream by playing for Blackburn,” he stresses, leaning forward with genuine authenticity. “I would love to get promoted too. I think we share that determination as a collective, which would obviously be a huge source of pride for me and my family.
“Our objective is definitely to be in and around there (the play-off positions) come the end of the season. The Championship is a tough league, it’s draining, you play a lot of games and obviously after last season where we missed out on goal difference - even the season before we were close - we want to go one step further this time around.”
A difficult six-week period over Christmas and New Year means Blackburn currently sit 18th in the Championship with 19 games left to play, but stranger things have happened in this league. There is a natural frustration at how recent results have transpired, coupled with an arguably more important conviction in how the club continues to operate both on and off the pitch.
Wharton finds himself at the centre of a storm for his boyhood club but there was never any suggestion to us he was overwhelmed. In fact, the teenager seemed to welcome that responsibility.
And if this young Blackburn side are to navigate such choppy waters, they will need their academy product pulling the strings - with his socks pulled low and his passes sharp.
We’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to OmniSports, Yugansh Agarwal, James Featherstone, Blackburn Rovers and, of course, Adam himself for allowing us to interview one of our favourite emerging talents.
Please note: If you would like to use quotes from this exclusive interview elsewhere, please reference SCOUTED Notebook and link to this piece.