Ben White – a story of rejection and redemption

Ben White was previously profiled along with a number of Brighton’s other U23 team last summer by Tweeting Seagull contributor @seagullsacademy, which you can read here.

Like many footballers back stories Ben White’s begins with rejection. In 2014 the 16-year old born in Poole was released by Southampton. In such circumstances do many prospective football careers end, whilst a small selection of others are formed. Ben White fortunately falls into the latter category after he was given a second chance by Brighton. As he later said himself, “The club gave me a scholarship and took me all the way until now, so I’m very grateful for that.” 

For Brighton, 2014 was largely a disaster, instigated by some terrible recruitment over the year, along with the appointment of the soon to be found wanting new manager Sami Hyypia that summer. But the addition of Ben White would soon become a rarity for much of the club’s 2014 intake, in that they would begin to see the fruits of it.

White impressed so much in his first year as a scholar for the U18s that he was soon also involved with the U21s and by end of the season had earned himself a professional contract and a place in that summers 25-man first team pre-season training camp. After starting a first team friendly against Lewes, an injury halted any further involvement with the first team and he spent the remainder of the following season again in the U18s and U21s.

He was then involved as a substitute in a number of first team pre-season games ahead of the following 2016/17 season, including as a substitute in the club’s showpiece friendly at home to Lazio.

As the season started, with Albion struggling for number in defence because of injuries to Uwe Huenemeier and Connor Goldson, White was heavily involved with the first team squad. Being named as an unused substitute for the first four league fixtures of the season and making his debut in the first round of the EFL cup in a 4-0 win over Colchester alongside Rohan Ince in the centre of defence.

White impressed on his debut as a young Albion defence earned a clean sheet and he earned himself a second start in a 4-2 win over Oxford in the second round. But the signing of Ireland international Shane Duffy for a then club record fee and the continued progression of fellow Albion youth team product Lewis Dunk meant Ben White’s involvement with the first team was limited from then on and he spent most of the season playing for Brighton’s U23s in their inaugural season in Premier League 2 and helping the team get to the final of the Premier League 2 Cup, which they lost 1-0 to Swansea City.

As the 2017/18 season drew near White was again involved in first team pre-season training. But with opportunities in the first team continuing to be limited by the increased competition for places and Chris Hughton’s tendency to not make many changes to team selection, White was sent on loan to League 2 Newport for the season to get some game time.

Whilst there, he came up against England striker Harry Kane in Newport’s impressive run to the 4th round of the FA Cup, which saw them beat his future loan club Leeds in the 3rd round. A 1-1 draw in the original tie against Spurs saw White mark Kane admirably as Newport pulled off a shock draw at home to earn a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home, Wembley Stadium.

Ben said of his time there: “The cup run was amazing, what we achieved and the manner in which we secured the game with Tottenham Hotspur was brilliant. Then we nearly beat them in the home tie, but to then play at Wembley Stadium was a dream come true. Facing Harry Kane was great for me and I feel like I more than held my own against him.”

White came to the attention of many clubs and many Albion fans during this loan spell at Newport. Whilst the club had finished a fairly underwhelming 11th place in the league, he had greatly impressed. Both to the masses in the cup run and the locals throughout the season, winning four of Newport’s player of the season awards, the Doc Heffernan Shield for Young Player of the Year; the Brian’s Tom’s President’s Cup Player’s Player of the Year Award; the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made.

After a successful loan Ben White received a new contract from the club until 2021, with Brighton manager Chris Hughton telling the club’s official website: “I’m delighted for Ben, and he is another example of a young player that has worked very hard to develop his game over the last couple of years. We have closely monitored his progress at Newport, and it is very pleasing to see him adapt so well to a very competitive standard of football in League Two. I was pleased to give him his debut for this club in the EFL Cup match against Colchester last season, and he thoroughly deserves this new contract.”

The following season, after White’s success at Newport, Hughton included White as a part of the 1st team squad, becoming the effectively now fourth choice central defender. At the start of the season Chris Hughton said of his central defence options beyond his top 3, “If I am looking within, the natural ones in that position would be Ben White” Going on to say: “Particularly in that position you would want as much experience as possible but on numerous occasions, not just myself but with other clubs, a young player comes in and surprises a few. So if that opportunity arose for him then you’d want him to take it with both hands.”

But unfortunately chances weren’t forthcoming. As after an injury ruled him out of EFL cup action, and the brilliant form of Shane Duffy alongside then vice-captain Lewis Dunk, plus the experience of new signing Nigeria international Leon Balogun meant he struggled to get a look in. Some were beginning to question by this point why the club wasn’t entrusting Ben with the back-up centre back spot, but as Hughton said in the earlier quote, his is a position where experience is key. And as many young talented English footballers have found to their cost, youth team football and one season in the lower leagues doesn’t fully prepare you for the rigours of the Premier League.

As a result, another loan move looked like a sensible option for White at the time. Especially with first team chances so limited and another centre back in Dan Burn being added to Brighton’s defensive ranks that January. So White that month was sent out on loan, this time to League One Peterborough. Chris Hughton said, “This move is one which allows Ben to play regular first-team football at a good level for his development. At this stage of his career it’s important that he continues to gain as much match experience as possible. He’s someone who we’ve had around the first-team squad for the first half of the campaign, but with competition for places increased with the return of Dan Burn from Wigan, this gives him the chance to go out and play regular football at a level higher than he experienced last season.”

It was a tough start to his loan stint, which saw a 5-0 defeat in a FA Cup 3rd tie away to Middlesbrough in his first game. But despite this White was described as “a ray of light amid the Middlesbrough gloom” by the Peterborough Telegraph and given a 7 out of 10. Once again whilst out on loan White impressed with his calmness, intelligence on the ball and awareness when defending. And as the season went on, he was a key player for Peterborough as they just missed out on the playoffs. Yet more signs of greater things to come.

Part way through that season Dan Ashworth was appointed Technical director at Brighton and soon started putting his stamp on the club. In particular with the club’s summer transfer business including a number of young talented English player to add to the first team competition for places. This included Adam Webster and Matt Clarke, both signed from Championship clubs adding competition to Ben White’s position at centre back. And with Graham Potter replacing Chris Hughton as manager and keen to not change too much too soon or introduce too many of Albion’s talented young U23s into the first team, another loan move for Ben White made sense.

And he would be one of a large group of youngsters at the club that were sent on loan that season. That summer Dan Ashworth, head of loans David Weir and head of recruitment Paul Winstanley attended an event as Stamford Bridge dubbed a “transfer speed dating event”, which they attended in order to promote its young loan players to other clubs. And given the clubs U23 team finished 3rd in the Premier League 2 and the team’s top scorer Aaron Connolly won the league’s player of the season it’s no surprise there was a lot of interest

But considering how well Ben had done at Newport and Peterborough there was no real need to advertise his availability, many clubs had already taken note of his talents. And a loan move to Leeds United in the Championship was agreed for the upcoming 2019/20 season. Like a number of clubs, Leeds had been tracking White’s progress for about two years, around the period of time which had passed since they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Ben White’s Newport County in fact.

White’s U23 boss Simon Rusk said of the loan: “This is an exciting move for Ben and one that make sense in his natural development. Ben will have to adapt once again, as he joins a new group of players and experiences an increased standard of quality and athleticism in the Championship.”

Brighton were only willing to sanction a temporary exit for White to Leeds, who were initially keen on a permanent move or a loan with an option to buy in 12 month’s time. To further protect their investment Ben White was tied down to a longer term deal until 2022, a big coup for the club given there was serious talk of Spurs amongst others being interested in signing the youngster that summer.

At Brighton it was the newly appointed head of loans David Weir who’d keep the club in contact with Ben. His role at the club is to manage the relationships with the club’s loan players. A role that’s been created by the significant amount of loan deals the club are sanctioning for its youth players to encourage their development with a view of them either being promoted to the first team or sold on at a profit.

David Weir said of his role: “It’s also about meeting people who might be interested in our players and find markets and clubs who might potentially be interested in taking our players. It’s a really good tool for me – to meet a lot of clubs in a relatively short period of time and open up some new avenues.”

Ben White’s loan was a real coup, not just for Leeds to get such a sought after player, but for Ben too. Having experienced mid table finishes in League’s 1 and 2, to now get the experience at a club in the Championship with the expectations that Leeds had was huge for his development. Having narrowly missed out on promotion the season before there were now increased expectations that the club would go one better the following season. Whilst being able to work with a manager of such global and almost mythical renown as Marcelo Bielsa too, it had the potential to be a massive season in his development.

So it turned out. It wasn’t long before heads were starting to turn toward Ben’s performances. He won widespread praise on his debut in a 3-1 win over Bristol City and never looked back. Sky Sports pundit that day Louis Carey described Ben White’s debut for Leeds as “one of the best Championship debuts I’ve seen.”

David Wier told the Athletic part way through season: “You could argue that he could play for Brighton now. He has got better and better, and has done better than anyone could have expected. He’s right up there in terms of the top defenders in the Championship. We’re all thrilled by how he is doing and the progression he has made. He’s a great example of a loan programme working well.”

And Ben White has been getting praise from far and wide for his performances at Leeds with Alex Stewart of the Athletic saying: “While White’s defending is intelligent and proactive, it’s his work with the ball that marks him out as an outstanding prospect.” Going on to say “What’s clear, though, is he has the skills to succeed almost anywhere.”

Ben White certainly left a lasting mark at Leeds United. As the fans celebrated the Championship title and promotion, Ben White joined his teammates on the steps outside Elland Road to join in the celebrations and Ben revelled in the moment as the fans urged him to join the club permanently. And the subsequent #FreeBenWhite social media campaign shows just how highly the young defender is thought of by the Leeds faithful. Something all those who have been involved in his development over the past 6 years at Brighton can take great pride in.

With the season now over, according to reports in the Brighton Argus, Albion have continued their stance that they held the previous summer by telling suitors that Ben White isn’t for sale. But just because of his recent success and hype, he isn’t simply going to walk into the Brighton first team next season. As David Weir said on the clubs official website recently, the reality that Ben White now faces at Brighton is: “Now he has to come back to us and prove that he is a Premier League player. He has shown that he is good enough to be promoted out of the Championship and be consistent.”

That said, the transfer window still has a long way to go and whilst Albion have said White is not for sale, every player has a price. Whether White is playing at Brighton, Leeds or another club next season, it’s almost certain that the Premier League will be his destination for the season ahead.

Whilst there is still plenty for White prove. If his track record tells us anything, it’s that he has continued to rise to every challenge he’s faced. It’s not been a completely smooth ride for him into English football’s top level over the last six years, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the 2020/21 season will see further success for Ben White.