James Tarkowski’s first England call is a proud moment for a key figure in his early development.
Former Clarets striker Tony Philliskirk was the 25-year-old’s youth team coach at Oldham Athletic, and also gave a young Tarkowski a sustained first team opportunity at Boundary Park as caretaker boss of the Latics.
Philliskirk always knew the New Moston lad had the talent to be a big asset for Oldham in League 1, but even admits he didn’t foresee him pulling on the Three Lions back then.
He said: “He was always a very good defender, but he was accomplished on the ball as well.
“He gets his head on things in both boxes, and though I know he hasn’t scored this season, he looks a threat from set plays, and that is a fantastic attribute to have.
“We’re very proud to have seen his rise.
“If I’m honest, I probably didn’t envisage him being an England player when he was at Oldham - he had fantastic potential and we knew he would be a very good defender for the level we were at in League 1.
“He’s developed himself since, and all credit to him.
“He has a wonderful attitude on and off the pitch.
“With the guidance of ourselves, Brentford, and Sean Dyche, he has become even better, and it is fantastic news.
“It is a very proud moment for himself, his family and, as his first club, for Oldham Athletic.”
Philliskirk feels his upbringing in the lower leagues has served him well at a higher level.
Tarkowski is statistically one of the better performing Premier League defenders in terms of clearances and blocks: “He was always very good on the ball, and, ironically, when you watch the Premier League, the team in possession often has more time.
“You are playing against better, quicker, cleverer players, but it’s not the hurly burly of League 1, up and at ‘em, back to front.
“He had to learn how to defend, how to head the ball in both boxes, and be dominant.
“He has always been composed in possession, but he’s a very good defender first and foremost.
“He has a very good football brain, he’s intelligent and senses danger.
“We said that early, he just needed to add a bit positionally and tactically, and we dug him out from time to time, which I’m sure he remembers, but it’s all gone into him becoming the player he is now.”
It is a proud moment for Oldham, but Philliskirk feels young players have to be given a chance - and opportunities are becoming more scarce as the pressure and prize money is amped up: “We had James in the academy from a young age, and sold him to Blackburn when he was 13/14, and he came back after he was released when he didn’t get a scholarship.
“We offered him an apprenticeship, which he served before turning pro.
“He got him opportunity at a young age in the first team, which is vital, before he moved to Brentford and then obviously to Burnley.
“A big word in football is opportunity, and he was given that at Oldham, and he grabbed it with both hands and moved on to bigger and better things.
“We have a long list of players who have come through - in football it is about that opportunity for young players.
“The game has changed so much. Managers don’t have the time to bring them through any more, if you lose three or four games, you’re under pressure.
“You have to be brave and give them that opportunity.
“I don’t agree that you can’t win anything with kids - players affiliated with your club from an early age have big hearts, and you are guaranteed 100 per cent, lock, stock and barrel.
“When I was playing, you made your debut at 7, 18, 19, but that is becoming rarer.
“Lower down the leagues it is even more important, from the financial aspect, you have to produce your own.
“He was in and out of the side, not really a regular, but there was a spell where we lost the manager and I took over for a short period and I gave him an opportunity, and said he was going to play, whether he made a mistake or not.
“I’d seen him since a young boy, and he came all the way through, he had a lot of adversity as well, he broke his leg and had an operation on both feet, he had them shaved to make them smaller and he had a lot of pain, and we went through it with him.”
Sean Dyche - who Philliskirk jokes will remember the odd battle with him in the mid-1990s: “I’m sure I’ve still got scars on my calves, and he’ll have a few bruises from my elbows!” - deserves huge praise for how he has managed Tarkowski as well.
Tarkowski had to be patient with Michael Keane and Ben Mee the first-choice centre back partnership, with Keane making his England debut as a Claret last season.
Keane left for Everton for an initial £25m in the summer, and there was some consternation that Dyche didn’t use the money for a replacement.
He knew Tarkowski was his man, and Philliskirk said: “Sean deserves great credit for his role in his development. He probably wasn’t the finished article when he signed him, and he has nurtured him well.
“He didn’t play a lot at first, but he knew he would develop into a good Premier League defender, and when Michael Keane moved on, Tarky was a ready-made replacement, and he has stepped up.
“It has been the next stage of his development, at a higher level, and fair play to him, he’s taken his opportunity with both hands.
“And if he makes his England debut, that will be the pinnacle.”
Philliskirk hopes he brings any England caps along to show off back at Oldham: “I still see him, he comes back to Boundary Park often, and you know he will answer if you give him a phone call.
“He’s a really good lad, very humble, knows where he’s come from, and is grateful for his upbringing here, that he had a very good learning experience.”