Jarrad Branthwaite is in the front room of the family home in Wigton. His parents and sister can see him, but they cannot talk to or touch him.

This is because Branthwaite has materialised not on the sofa, but the television. Wolverhampton Wanderers are playing Everton and the teams are emerging for the second half. 

Because of Covid-19, the game is being played behind closed doors. This means that the proudest mum and dad in Wigton have to watch their boy, their Premier League son, on a screen.

And here he is. Everton’s Leighton Baines has succumbed to an injury and manager Carlo Ancelotti has opted to give a teenage substitute, the defender signed from Carlisle United a few months earlier, his debut. 

Donna, Jarrad’s mum, will never forget the moment.

“We’d been sitting watching the match, as we had the previous four when he didn’t play,” she says. “It was upsetting that we couldn’t go to the games, but we didn’t want to miss his debut when it happened.

“He was on the bench against Wolves, but we didn’t think he was going to get on. Then, all of a sudden, he was just there, walking straight towards you on the screen.

“It was surreal. It still is. You can’t believe it’s your son. I was a nervous wreck...” 

After that debut, in Everton’s 3-0 defeat, Branthwaite made three more Premier League appearances in the delayed conclusion to the 2019/20 season. Each one was impressive, whether it be a second substitute performance against Aston Villa, a full debut against Sheffield United or another start against Bournemouth.

Branthwaite, strikingly composed in defence and on the ball, displayed no nerves himself, and immediately earned high approval. Ancelotti was impressed. Jamie Carragher was a declared admirer.

Cumbria’s newest top-flight player was already established, having not long turned 18. It was a remarkable and exciting story. The boy from Wigton had come a long way, fast. 

But how had he got there? 

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The story also starts in the front room. This time Jarrad is 18 months old.

“We had these little sponge building blocks, six inches by six inches,” says his dad, Paul. “These things weren’t really for kicking, and normally if you dropped them on their corner, they’d fly off at an angle.

“But this one day, we'd moved the sofa into the middle of the room, and Jarrad was actually drop-kicking the blocks over the top of it, with either foot. 

“Another family member came in, saw him and said, ‘Have I just seen that…?’” 

These were the first hints at an aptitude with his feet which would, 18 years later, mature into Premier League ability. They had also noticed this at the Stepping Stones nursery at Denton Holme, Carlisle, who reported to his parents that Jarrad, most of all, preferred to be outside, kicking a ball. 

This was not surprising news to the Branthwaites, for Jarrad had been around ball games from the outset. Paul was a fine rugby player as well as being a talented squash player. “Our garden was a wreck because he [Jarrad] would just kick a football around all the time,” Donna adds. “When he went to infant school, my dad would go and pick him up, and he would always take a football with him. Jarrad would kick it all the way home, left foot, right foot, left foot..."

Jarrad, who went to Wigton Infant School and then Thomlinson Junior School, was six when his parents decided to see if he would enjoy taking this early love of kicking a ball into a junior team environment. They took him to the football club at Abbeytown, but it needed time for him to settle.

“He didn’t have that confidence to begin with,” Paul says. “He wanted to play football, but was a bit scared to mix with other people. He went for four weeks but never really got involved.

"In the fifth week, Geoff Grainger, the coach, took him to one side. Had he not done that, he might not have continued. But that’s how he got started. After that…Geoff said he knew straight away.

"There was a game against Stanwix when the goalkeeper kicked it out, and Jarrad took it down on his knee and knocked it in from halfway." Branthwaite was seven. Grainger, who had been coaching kids for many years, had not seen anything like it.

At this young age Jarrad also accompanied his dad to rugby training at Wigton, but not at the expense of football. Sally Hay, a teacher at Wigton Infants, had written, ‘Remember me when you’re playing for England’ in one report, and, aged eight, he and a friend at Abbeytown, Liam Lightfoot, were spotted by Carlisle United.

“We didn’t know they’d been scouted until we got this call saying Carlisle wanted to take him into their academy,” Donna says. “We wondered if he was too young. But Liam was going, and when we asked Jarrad what he thought, it was a case of, ‘Oh, if Liam’s going…’

"That’s sometimes how it works at that age. So they went together.”

News and Star: Jarrad Branthwaite, front left, with fellow future pros Liam Lightfoot, back left, and Taylor Charters, back second left, with the Carlisle United Under-9s at a Harraby Catholic Football tournament at Gillford ParkJarrad Branthwaite, front left, with fellow future pros Liam Lightfoot, back left, and Taylor Charters, back second left, with the Carlisle United Under-9s at a Harraby Catholic Football tournament at Gillford Park

Jarrad was by no means in front of Lightfoot and other talented Cumbrian boys, and still had aspects of that shyness to overcome. It took a while for him to be confident enough to want to travel on the bus to games with his young team-mates.

He was, though, on his way. But so were fresh pitfalls. 

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Jarrad's development as an adept young player coincided with his growth into one of the taller boys of his age group. This brought its own set of difficulties.

“It started when he was about 12,” says Donna of the pain Jarrad began to feel in his knees which was sometimes so severe it would leave him in tears.

Small lumps appeared around the joints, and were more pronounced than normal after he had trained on Astroturf.

The family took Jarrad to doctors and the issue was swiftly diagnosed as Osgood-Schlatter Disease: a condition not uncommon in growing adolescents.

“I had it as a youngster,” says Paul. “I had an operation on mine. But the doctors said that with Jarrad, all that would work was rest, until he stopped growing so fast – and then it would ease.

“For a young lad who loves sport, rest isn’t easy to do. Jarrad was told that he couldn’t make it any worse, so at times he would keep training and be in agony. But there were spells when he just had to stop.

"He couldn’t do Games at school for a long time. He went through two or three periods with it, one as long as nine months.”

Steven Rudd, PE teacher at Nelson Thomlinson Secondary School, had been aware of Jarrad before Year 7, having seen him stand out at junior sporting festivals linked to the secondary school. He also knew Paul and, from age 11 onwards, identified Jarrad as “one of the annoying ones that’s good at everything without really training for it all."

“He played school rugby,” Rudd says. “Athletics, badminton, basketball, football...you name it. He’d always be one of your better performers. He had that athleticism, co-ordination, agility.”

Jarrad was an obvious graduate into various school teams, and made the Allerdale Schools junior football side along with others coming through at United, like Lightfoot and Taylor Charters.

“From an early age, he could hit 40-50-yard passes,” Rudd says. “In games, he’d be your Steady Eddie – never man-of-the-match, but someone you’d want in your team. With Allerdale Schools, we were in a national cup quarter-final which went to penalties. Some boys can go under in a situation like that, but he stepped up and scored with no issues. It wasn’t a big deal to him. He wasn't flustered.” 

News and Star: Jarrad Branthwaite in action for Allerdale Schools against Trafford in the quarter-finals of the Under-13 Playstation Inter Association Trophy in 2015Jarrad Branthwaite in action for Allerdale Schools against Trafford in the quarter-finals of the Under-13 Playstation Inter Association Trophy in 2015

The enforced breaks due to Osgood-Schlatter were therefore testing. “He struggled at under-15 stage,” Rudd says. “He would play one week and then miss four. He didn’t fall out with football as such, but it was hard for him not to be able to train or play all the time.  

“He’s got a lot of resilience. He could have dropped out at that stage, and I think it did cross his mind – wondering if it was worth it, putting himself through the pain. But his attitude was right. Once he got his head around looking after his body, and resting properly, he got through it better."

Jarrad eventually returned to more regular football, and pushed on at Carlisle – towards another point where his football future hung uncertainly in the balance.

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“It was a split decision,” remembers Darren Edmondson, Carlisle’s academy manager at the time Branthwaite was reaching that stage where coaches sit down and decide which of their players are worth a youth team contract, and who should suffer the crush of rejection.

“When we did fitness testing, at 14 or 15 he would always be miles behind. He was still tall and gangly, which explained some of that, but there was also that question of whether he was a nice kid who wouldn’t push himself.”

Edmondson and his colleagues used this time to set Jarrad a test; spook him, even. Paul and Donna recall the November day when some of Branthwaite’s peers were assured that they would be making the grade with United’s under-18s, but with Jarrad the message was less clear. 

“They told him they weren’t quite sure,” Paul says. “At the time he didn’t have the confidence to ask the question himself, so we asked Darren and Gavin Skelton what he needed to do. They said he needed to go away, think about it and decide if he wanted to be a professional footballer.

“Coming home in the car, he couldn’t take it in. He was absolutely gutted. He’d seen Taylor and Liam get told, 'Yes'. ‘But why haven’t I?’”

No timescale was given for Jarrad to convince his coaches, but it was plain the immediate weeks and months ahead would be crucial. 

"Initially,” Donna says, “he said, ‘I might as well pack in. What’s the point? I’m obviously not good enough’."

That night, Paul remembered a number of positive things that coaches had said about Jarrad in his earlier years. He wrote their encouraging comments down on a piece of paper and pushed it into Jarrad’s room.

“The next morning, he hadn’t come downstairs for longer than usual,” Paul says. “When he did, he was still a bit flat, but he had obviously read those things. ‘Did they honestly say that, dad?’

"I told them they had, but maybe I hadn't told him very often before. I think that was the time it sunk in. I suggested maybe he should have a week off, but he said, ‘No – I’m gonna do it. 

“He took off from that point. He jeopardised going out with his mates, and just went to train.” 

Jarrad took to the school field and the sports hall at Nelson Thomlinson as he set about improving his game. Steven Rudd saw the newly-determined boy at closer quarters, and so did Cassie Crawford, a long-standing family friend and a personal trainer who worked at the gym at Wigton Rugby Club.

She agreed to help Jarrad prove to his coaches that he was ready to make the necessary physical sacrifices. 

“He just needed that bit of belief in himself,” Cassie says. “We would have a crack about it, and I’d say, ‘All they’re looking for is for you to go that one step further than the person next to you’.

“I set up a circuit that worked on his speed, balance and agility – lots of ladder work, fast feet and so on – and core work. A lot of people think the core’s just the abs, but it’s that whole middle part of the body, and it makes the back stronger. That was important at a time he was growing so quickly, with those very long limbs.”

This, Cassie says, was more important than subjecting Jarrad to heavy weights at a key time in his growth, when the legacy of Osgood-Schlatter had also to be considered. 

“He really committed to it," she adds. “That was testament to him. He really seemed to enjoy it. He would be quite shy, but always had that cheeky smile. Never once was he that sulky 14-year-old boy.”

These were clear signs that Jarrad had risen to United's challenge. "I think it was a clever move from his coaches to say they needed to see that from him, to give him a bit more of an edge," Cassie says.

“He was always one for learning. He was surrounded by positive people, but wasn’t wrapped in cotton wool and told he was amazing.

“We’re from Cumbria, aren’t we? We don’t go, ‘Yeah, you’re brilliant, just sit on your backside’. We say, ‘You have to work’. And he did.” 

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The split decision went in Jarrad’s favour. “It was him or another lad who ended up going to Queen of the South,” says Darren Edmondson, who says his casting vote ensured Branthwaite's passage to an Under-18s scholarship.

“He had started to grow into his body, and when you thought of his attributes – composure, what a passer of a ball, and left-footed, a commodity people want – that’s how the decision was made. He was from a good family, and had been at the club donkey's years."

The curve of Branthwaite's progress became steeper at this point.

“At the start of his first scholarship year, you could see the improvement," Edmondson says. "He seemed to fill out, and I remember Paddy Maher, the academy fitness coach, saying, ‘Come and look at some of Jarrad’s stats’. They were unbelievable for a lad of his size.”

Branthwaite was a versatile player who had occupied a number of positions for United’s academy, most often midfield.

“Then we put him at centre-half for a bit…” Edmondson trails off with a noise that suggests he can't quite find the word to sum up the Eureka moment. Branthwaite himself remembers it as a game against Fleetwood, and Edmondson cannot forget how snugly the young player fitted the new position.

“We were all stood there at Creighton thinking, ‘This is where he’s going to play’. He could read the game. He was superb on the football. He could play on either side, to the point where a lot of people didn’t even know he was left-footed. The strength was coming in his legs and it was just a case of training him on certain aspects. He was the youngest in his age group, so it was always going to take time for his body to catch up.

"He was very composed and mature for his age. My question had been whether he had that bite in him. As a young player myself I remember coming through with Rob Edwards at Carlisle, and he was like ice: a man at 17, who knew how to be a full-back and kick people. 

“Because he’s such a nice boy, you didn’t always see that inner belief in Jarrad. But it must have been there. He'd gone away and worked, and he was always wanting to know what he could do better.”

At 16, Branthwaite was invited into first-team training, and his performance in a reserve friendly at Oldham left Carlisle’s new manager, Steven Pressley, open-mouthed. It is said that Paul Scholes, on the sidelines during his brief Oldham tenure, spent much of the game looking at his phone, but United’s leading personnel were more observant, and Pressley sought out Jarrad’s father after the game to assure him his son would be looked after by the Blues.

News and Star: Jarrad Branthwaite with former Carlisle United manager Steven Pressley after the defender was handed a professional contract at 16 (photo: Amy Nixon)Jarrad Branthwaite with former Carlisle United manager Steven Pressley after the defender was handed a professional contract at 16 (photo: Amy Nixon)

The early offer of a professional contract, prepared by director of football David Holdsworth, was quick in coming. Pressley spoke of his belief that Carlisle had a special young player, and others increasingly began to witness this on the training ground – such as Danny Grainger, the experienced captain.

“I’d helped out before in the academy at under-14 level, and at that time Jarrad was quite a way down the pecking order,” Grainger says. “I know he was given that ultimatum, and I know how hard he worked to get himself into shape. 

“By the time he was with the first team, you could see his talent straight away. There was a 11v11 on one of his first days, and he pulled this ball out of the sky, put it onto his left foot and smashed a 70-yard diagonal.

“There was another occasion when he was one-v-one with Hallam Hope with half the pitch behind him, and Jarrad showed Hallam the grass as if to say, ‘Go on – knock it’. 

“I thought, ‘This is trouble. What are you doing?!’ But he showed him the line, Hallam knocked it past him…and Jarrad just turned the afterburners on, breezed past Hallam, moved him out of the way, got the ball and sent it back to the keeper.

"That was the first time I thought, ‘Do you know what, son? You’re ready for this."

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Branthwaite returned for more gym sessions with Cassie Crawford and, after Carlisle’s pre-season friendly against Hibernian in the summer of 2019, Pressley reflected on his mature performance at right-back as that of a “white Cafu”. There was humour in that description, along with his dubbing of Branthwaite as a “baby giraffe”, but the player’s potential was now achieving wider recognition.

If anything, the surprise was that it took Pressley until late September to give the 17-year-old his senior debut. It came in a Leasing.com Trophy tie against Wolves’ Under-21s when a scratch United side lost 4-2.

That night also brought the debut of another centre-half, Aaron Hayden, in the final half-hour. It was a big moment for the older Hayden, but even he was struck by the boy to his side. 

“My first impressions were of something really unusual in a positive sense,” Hayden says. “For his age, he [Branthwaite] was really calm in the environment, really composed. 

“Sometimes you have to lead a young player through, and cover them. But with Jarrad, it didn’t feel like I was playing with a youngster. 

“Every time I played with him after that he looked comfortable – he had pace, read the game well. Late in the game it was just a case of making sure he stayed focused. But I had no doubt he was going to go onto really good things.” 

This became obvious as Branthwaite finally stepped into Pressley’s regular side. His league debut came at Plymouth in mid-October and Branthwaite was named man-of-the-match in his home league debut against Northampton. Although Carlisle were struggling, there was immediate transfer chatter surrounding the Wigton boy.

This was hardly defused when, in another Trophy game at Morecambe in November, Branthwaite became the club’s youngest ever goalscorer as he stepped onto an interception, glided halfway up the pitch and drilled the ball into the bottom corner. He was 17 years and 138 days old, beating Rob Edwards' record – which had stood for 29 years – by 112 days.

News and Star: Branthwaite becomes Carlisle United's youngest-ever goalscorer against Morecambe in November 2019 (photo: Barbara Abbott)Branthwaite becomes Carlisle United's youngest-ever goalscorer against Morecambe in November 2019 (photo: Barbara Abbott)

Only 802 people were in the Globe Arena. Jarrad’s family were among them. Paul, his dad, smiles. 

“We were sat behind the same couple of people we’d been near previously,” he says. “They didn’t have many positive things to say about any of the Carlisle players. But that moment when Jarrad scored, this fella took his cap off, put it down on his seat and turned with a look on his face, as if to say ‘Is that for real?’.” 

Later in the game, when Nathaniel Knight-Percival was substituted, Branthwaite also took the captain’s armband at 17.

“It brings tears to your eyes to think things like that could happen,” says mum Donna. 

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It was now apparent that the sight of Branthwaite in United’s shirt was not long for this world. The calls, nudges and approaches were under way and it was common, in this period, for the list of scouts attending games to be extremely long.

David Reeves, the former Carlisle captain and 1990s goalscoring star, had been engaged as his agent on Edmondson's recommendation when Jarrad was 16. He is credited by Paul and Donna with being a protective and practical voice at a time others in the game’s shadows were threatening to be less scrupulous.

In terms of up-front interest, it would be simpler to list those elite English clubs who did not have him in their sights. From Germany’s Bundesliga, meanwhile, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund sent pairs of eyes to Carlisle games.

Some of this would be known to Jarrad, some not. “There might have been 17 clubs watching, say, but we’d tell him there was a couple,” Paul says. “We wouldn’t put pressure on him that way. We’d just say, ‘Carry on doing what you’re doing’. Reevesy was the same: ‘It’s about you’.” 

Everton’s approach turned out to be the most comprehensive. The Goodison Park club impressed the Branthwaites with the care they had taken both in researching Jarrad and in offering a credible pathway. Their presentation made Jarrad feel he could follow other young players from the Under-23s to Everton's first-team, rather simply than make up bloated academy numbers.

Financial terms were agreed with Carlisle, and the transfer was announced in January. 

“We did talk long and hard about the right way to go,” Paul says. “We did think about whether he needed to stay at Carlisle longer,” adds Donna. “As parents, you want to keep them at home as long as possible. But we also knew he wanted and needed to progress.” 

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It has, the family say, been a “whirlwind” since then: from the tearful drive home after settling Jarrad in with house parents in Liverpool, to the surreal sight of their boy on their television screen, excelling against the best players in the land. Local pride has naturally followed.

“We can’t go to the shop in Wigton without people stopping us, saying how well he’s done,” Donna says. “It’s lovely. But again, you think they’re talking about somebody else, not Jarrad. You have to stop yourself. ‘God – it’s my son’. 

“When we watch him [on TV], our phones never stop. We have to put them to one side now, because otherwise you’d miss the match through replying to everyone.”

News and Star: Branthwaite made his Premier League debut for Everton against Wolves on July 12, 2020 (photo: PA)Branthwaite made his Premier League debut for Everton against Wolves on July 12, 2020 (photo: PA)

Jarrad is in the process of buying a house and, until then, his shirts are at home in Wigton. “He doesn’t want his first Everton one washed,” Donna says. “He’s giving one of his others to Abbeytown, and one to his cousin who’s a big Everton fan.” He has also signed a shirt for someone in his home town who is raising money for Cancer Research. 

“In the last six months or so, he’s definitely grown up,” says Donna. “But he’s still a normal 18-year-old, very down to earth. For a lad who’s playing in the Premier League, he doesn’t talk about it much. He will if you ask him, but it’s not in your face. It’s more matter-of-fact, as though this was meant to be."

Time away from the job is also important even for a football-mad boy. “He’s getting into golf,” Paul adds, “and like a typical teenager, he’ll have a bit of time on the X-Box. He knows how to regulate that now. When he was younger, he was seeing zombies on the landing, sleepwalking, and we had to take it off him…”

In the close-season, after a break to Cyprus with his parents and younger sister Evie, Branthwaite did more work in the gym at Wigton, with personal trainer James Speakman. “When I saw him last year, I was like, ‘Oh my god – he’s a man’," says Cassie Crawford, James’ cousin. "His physique had changed, he had shoulders…he looked so well and physically fit. My little boy’s 12 and always wanted to be a rugby player, but he supports Everton now. Jarrad’s inspiring a lot of children around here. It gives kids the feeling it can happen, that it’s possible."

Branthwaite also touched base with Steven Rudd in Wigton during the summer. They did some drills in a park and were spotted by a group of kids. “They were talking to him about Fifa," says Rudd. "Jarrad went over and had a little kickaround with them.

"With some young lads, you don’t know how attention and fame will affect them. But I’m 99 per cent sure it won’t change Jarrad. I was so proud watching Carlo Ancelotti’s interview, after his Everton debut, saying how humble he is.” 

Pressley, the manager who gave him his first-team debut, keeps in touch, while Branthwaite messaged Aaron Hayden to congratulate him upon being appointed United’s vice-captain. “He’s a humble lad who’s going to do well in the game,” Hayden says. “As well as ability, his mindset will take him really far. It’s a real inspiration for everyone at Carlisle to try and catch him up.”

Regular doses of cod liver oil have helped him deal with after-effects of those growing pains, and Jarrad is also now attuned to his profession's nutritional needs having, at a younger age, been the sort of boy who’d “open the fridge and eat anything,” according to Paul.

An ankle injury early this season has been quickly overcome and Branthwaite is back in the Everton squad, keen to take the next steps on a road which judges such as Pressley are convinced will one day put him in the white shirt of England. 

The Under-19 set-up took a look while he was still at Carlisle, and this week he has been with the squad for the first time.

Paul reaches for his phone and finds a treasured photo. It is of a blond-haired toddler, some 16 years ago, wearing a tiny England shirt.

“When the Under-21 squad came out a few months ago, he did say he had a look,” Paul says. “I said, ‘One day, pal...'

"The fact he’s thinking about it shows where his mindset is. He believes he can do it."

News and Star: A young Jarrad Branthwaite in an England kit. Now the Wigton boy is in the England Under-19 squad.A young Jarrad Branthwaite in an England kit. Now the Wigton boy is in the England Under-19 squad.

News and Star: The shirt worn by Jarrad Branthwaite for England's Under-19s in a behind-closed-doors game this weekThe shirt worn by Jarrad Branthwaite for England's Under-19s in a behind-closed-doors game this week