“I wasn’t really expecting all that to happen,” says James Trafford as he reflects on a campaign with Manchester City that has seen the 18-year-old training with Pep Guardiola’s first-team stars, and on the bench for Premier League games and cup semi-finals.

The goalkeeper has been back home at the family farm in Greysouthen, able to take stock after a whirlwind period in his promising young career - but only temporarily, since Trafford will be in Lisbon tonight, with the City squad again for the Champions League final.

He has been on City’s books since the age of 12, having joined them from Carlisle United’s academy. He has earned England youth honours and professional status along the way. But 2020/21 has been his most memorable time yet.

“I was coming into the season having not played since December 2019,” he says. “I was just thinking about starting the season well with the Under-23s. But after a month, it went from there.”

“It” was Trafford’s summoning into the first-team environment, which came after he had played for City’s development side against Scunthorpe in September’s EFL Trophy game. “The next morning I was driving into the academy and I was really nervous. I didn’t have a clue what these men were going to be like.

“It was the first time I’d met most of them, other than Liam [Delap, son of Rory]. But they were actually really nice. Fernandinho asked me about the game the night before and everyone made an effort.”

Trafford trained for a few days with Guardiola’s galacticos and then, in October, travelled with them to Bramall Lane for City’s Premier League game. Ederson, the club’s No1, was in goal, with Scott Carson the substitute keeper.

“Everyone went out to warm up as usual, I got a coffee and sat down to watch,” Trafford says. “I then saw Scott was down. I thought he was probably just stretching. But then the kitman was like, ‘Go and get ready, you’re on the bench!’.

“I quickly ran in, put a shirt and some shorts on, and ran out at the end of the warm-up when they were doing the shots. I had [Kevin] De Bruyne hitting it at 100mph at me. I don’t think I saved one.”

Trafford tells the story with a smile, but insists he was relaxed about the idea of being one injury or red card away from a dramatic Premier League debut. “When balls were coming into the box in the game, and Ederson was coming for them, I was thinking, ‘Oh no, what if I actually come on…’ But I wasn’t nervous. I thought, ‘It’s just another game of football’.”

Ederson survived the match, and Trafford could still reflect on his first taste of a top-level matchday. “I was seeing loads of messages on my phone afterwards, saying, ‘well done’. It was quite cool, but I didn’t play, so I didn’t think too much of it. One of my worries afterwards was actually trying to get back into Manchester to watch [Workington] Reds, because they were playing in the area that day. But I didn’t make it. The bus was too late back.”


Trafford was next on the bench in the Champions League against Olympiakos, and was required in first-team training for spells afterwards: keeping goal against extraordinary performers such as De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling.

“It’s a real eye opener at first,” he says. “They’re at it every day, regardless of what they’ve done the day before. They’re sort of like robots – they’re 100 per cent, all the time.

“The small-sided games, even in the tightest spaces…no one loses the ball. And with the finishing, there are no easy saves. Everything’s top corner or bottom corner. The level’s through the roof.”

Were any of City’s stars harder to handle than others? Trafford grins ruefully. “When De Bruyne’s shooting you know it’s going to be a long day at the office…”

News and Star: Trafford has faced shots from Kevin De Bruyne and Pep Guardiola in training - and attracted praise from the Man City boss (photo: PA)Trafford has faced shots from Kevin De Bruyne and Pep Guardiola in training - and attracted praise from the Man City boss (photo: PA)

This is quite some professional environment for an 18-year-old. Trafford says he has learned greatly from it. “You have to be at it. If you’re not, you get hammered. But it reminds you that you can’t drop your levels. It’s helped me grow up and helped my consistency.”

Does even a small part of this young goalkeeper not pinch himself at being around such phenomenal players? He frowns. “Before, I thought, ‘These people are superstars'. But the more you’re with them the more you see them just as team-mates and colleagues, and realise they’re really normal people. They’re just really good at football’.

Trafford says he gets on well with Phil Foden – ‘just a normal 20-year-old, keeps himself to himself, plays Fifa’ – but his closest bonds are with his fellow keepers Ederson, Zack Steffen and his fellow Cumbrian, the veteran Carson.

“Scott’s brilliant. From day one he made a real effort with me. Growing up as a young goalie in Cumbria, everyone would go on about Scott Carson, so it was great to finally meet him for the first time. He helped me a lot, and on the bus he’d ask me to move and sit next to him.”

Trafford had further spells with the first team and was on the bench for the Carabao Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford, also stepping up to the squad for Champions League semis against Paris St Germain. His progress brought an approving comment from Guardiola, who told a January press conference that Trafford was “growing really, really well”.

“That did [lift me],” the teenager admits. “He didn’t have to say that. He didn’t even get asked about me – he got asked about the other goalies. But he went out of his way to mention me. I felt quite good after that.”

Does he have much interaction with Guardiola, day to day? “Not a great deal. But we always do a lot of penalties after training, and he [Guardiola] gets involved. I went through a period when I was having a stinker against him. But then the more I faced him, he struggled to score in the end…”

On social media, Trafford posted a photo of him facing the legendary Aguero. Yet he says of this exceptional company: “You don’t really think about it too much. It’s your job to save shots. If you save one in training, he’ll have another five or 10 at you. You just get on with it.”

Trafford says he now feels he “belongs” in this environment, and has also taken a great deal from his goalkeeping peers. “The biggest thing is the work ethic, and also how calm they are. Ederson never looks flustered. He just sees everything in the game. Zack’s experienced different things, played a lot of different levels.

“When you study them, and other keepers in the Premier League, you realise how close you are to making it – but also how small the things are that determine it. You have to be a sponge and take in as much as you can.”


Trafford particularly enjoyed the experience of being sub in the Manchester derby, not least because another Cumbrian, Whitehaven's Dean Henderson, was in goal for the opposition. City’s social media team enjoyed the idea of “young Trafford” at Old Trafford. “My dad’s said that for years – he thinks it’s his saying,” Trafford smiles. “I remember walking out to warm up and the stadium seemed massive. It was brilliant. It was me and Zack, but all these cameras were on me.”

News and Star: James Trafford was a substitute for Manchester City at Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-final (photo: PA)James Trafford was a substitute for Manchester City at Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-final (photo: PA)

Do Trafford and Henderson have a rapport? “We do message from time to time. It was good to see him that night. I look up to him quite a lot, what he’s done, his mindset.”

Trafford will also seek out Henderson’s advice this summer. The plan for 2021/22, he says, is for a loan move, similar to those experienced by Henderson, in order to give him a first blast of first-team football. League One is the likely level. “It’s all I’ve wanted to do,” he says. “Playing in front of lots of fans, being one of the main men, contributing. I’ll try and play as many games as I can, and after that try and get to the Championship, and keep trying to get up the leagues.”

Whilst Trafford is on the brink of his next big step, life is also progressing. He passed his driving test last year and is settling further into Manchester life, having lived away from home, whether with house parents or in the club’s academy accommodation, since he was 12. “There were times when it was tough, but all in all I’ve enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s made me grow up as a person, made me a lot more independent.”

Trafford says that, while he knows he has missed out on some normal teenage activities – nights out with his friends, for example – he loves his football life and the opportunities it has presented. He is, though, clearly pleased that he will have some time at home this close-season in order to share some quality time with dad James, mum Alison and sister Charlotte, and to catch up with the friends with whom he has remained in close touch since Year 7 at Cockermouth School.

Summer will also, with any luck, improve his culinary skills. “In January I went into an apartment by myself,” he says. “Meals…that was a bit of a car crash.” He shakes his head at the memory of burning some pigs in blankets and ashamedly leaving the blackened sausages in the oven for a month. “It was cereal and coffee for a month,” he laughs. “I need to buck my ideas up. I’ve got my mum trying to teach me…”

Trafford’s family and friends are otherwise proud of his progress – as they are of other aspiring Cumbrians. He is close friends with Newcastle’s Joe White, while he admires the defender with whom he trained with England Under-19s in November.

“I really enjoyed being with Jarrad [Branthwaite],” he says. “It was great to have someone else from up north, from Wigton. We played head tennis a lot, spent time in each other’s rooms. I’d never really spoken to him before; he was a year above me at Carlisle. I was getting him involved with the other City lads, with it being his first time with England. He’s brilliant. He did really well.”

Trafford, who remains in regular touch with Cumbrian coaches such as Ben Benson and Steven Rudd, clearly enjoys the idea of being part of a wave of young talent from his county. “I enjoy seeing people from the area doing well,” he says. “I remember Scott [Carson, who is from Cleator Moor] saying, ‘No-one gets out of Cumbria, but there’s two in a changing room here at City!’ Even though it’s a really big area, everyone knows each other and looks out for each other.”

News and Star: Trafford and fellow Cumbrian Scott Carson with the Carabao Cup (photo: Manchester City)Trafford and fellow Cumbrian Scott Carson with the Carabao Cup (photo: Manchester City)

Last month Carson and Trafford posed with the Carabao Cup, having been with the City squad for their win over Tottenham at Wembley. The younger keeper had taken part in the pre-match warm-up in front of a Covid-restricted 8,000 crowd. “It was my first experience with the City fans,” he says. “That, and then watching us win and being on the pitch afterwards, was brilliant.”

These are priceless moments, but Trafford knows the real experiences lay ahead. His career now has an enviable grounding but getting his gloves dirty in someone’s first team will define his next moves. “I was on the bench in a Champions League semi, but I don’t really think it’s a massive achievement,” he says. “It looks good, but if I retired now I wouldn’t be telling everyone about it.

“I suppose not many can say they’ve been a second-year scholar and on the bench with Neymar in front of them. But the moment you start getting complacent and thinking, ‘I’ve cracked it’, then you stop eating healthy, stop working hard, and slowly go downhill. That’s how I feel.”