Jude Bellingham, 16, Birmingham City
Bellingham was born in June 2003, when a ponytailed David Beckham joined Real Madrid and Gareth Southgate was in the England defence, but the teenage midfielder has displayed a maturity that belies his years. In August Bellingham, who has shone in the crux of the Birmingham midfield alongside the former Arsenal prospect Daniel Crowley, became the club’s youngest goalscorer at 16 days and 63 days, eclipsing Trevor Francis’s record. The son of Mark, a prolific striker at non-league level, Bellingham is the latest Birmingham academy graduate to make a splash in the first team, as Demarai Gray and Nathan Redmond did previously.
A quick glance at the numbers and it is easy to forget that Bowen operates not as a striker but a winger. His return of 45 goals in 105 league appearances is staggering, including nine this campaign. Bowen held talks with Wolves and West Brom after leaving Hereford United but it is at Hull – whom he joined five years ago after impressing the then academy manager and now first-team coach, Tony Pennock – where he continues to flourish. “Jarrod is a down-to-earth kid who just comes with a smile on his face,” said Hull’s manager, Grant McCann. “He just gets on with it.”
Josh Brownhill, 23, Bristol City
The youngest captain in the league, Brownhill is not short on experience with more than 230 appearances under his belt and the former Manchester United schoolboy has matured into one of the division’s best box-to-box midfielders. Brownhill, the heartbeat of a vibrant Bristol City, has scored three goals this season, including a screamer against Cardiff on Sunday and he continues to blossom under Lee Johnson. “He is a very good student and has been since I first took him on loan to Barnsley [in 2016],” said Johnson, who re-signed Brownhill later that year. “I could see that there was a superstar in the making. He probably goes down as one of the value signings in Bristol City’s history.”
Eberechi Eze, 21, Queens Park Rangers
The playmaker continues to flourish in QPR’s illustrious No 10 shirt and the sense is that Eze’s career is going only in one direction. “The first half of last season he was unplayable and then teams did their homework on him,” said Ángel Rangel, the QPR defender. “I think Ebs has improved his game this season – he doesn’t lose as many balls, he holds the ball well and his work rate is a lot better. He is a game-changer.” Eze’s match-winning performance at Hull stands out and he has scored six league goals, eclipsing last season’s tally with half a season to play. Eze received a call-up to the England Under-21 squad in September but remains eligible for Nigeria.
Nathan Ferguson, 19, West Bromwich Albion
Another marauding full-back for those at St George’s Park to get excited about. The flair of Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira may have stolen the headlines for West Brom but Ferguson, who joined Albion aged eight, has equally been a breath of fresh air since a man-of-the-match display on debut against Nottingham Forest in August. Ferguson is comfortable on either flank, as well as in the centre of defence, where he has played for the England age groups, including the Under-20s. “Nathan reminds me of Declan Rice,” said West Brom’s manager, Slaven Bilic. “He is only 18 on paper. But in his mind, I don’t know, he is 25 or 27. It is our job to keep him humble.”
Conor Gallagher, 19, Charlton Athletic
That Gallagher won Chelsea’s award for academy player of the year last season – an accolade given to Reece James, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori in each of the previous three years – speaks volumes for how highly the teenager is regarded. Gallagher, who was born a few miles from Chelsea’s training base, joined his boyhood club aged eight and his eldest brothers, twins Jake and Dan –who spent time on the books of Fulham and AFC Wimbledon respectively – play for Dorking. The midfielder, a presence in both boxes, is relishing his first taste of first-team football. “His willingness and work rate are unreal, so he’s fitted in really well,” said Charlton’s manager, Lee Bowyer.
Karlan Grant, 22, Huddersfield Town
“He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Callum Wilson,” the former Bournemouth captain Tommy Elphick recently said. Grant, a £2m signing in January, is the latest Charlton academy graduate to flourish away from south-east London, following in the footsteps of his former youth teammates Joe Gomez, Ademola Lookman, Ezri Konsa and Joe Aribo. Grant was a shining light in a dismal Premier League season and the Greenwich-born striker has been prolific this campaign, scoring nine goals in 16 games. “It has been a bit of a journey since making my [Charlton] debut at 17 but Lee Bowyer was massive for me at Charlton and Harry Kewell was massive on loan at Crawley,” Grant said.
Kalvin Phillips, 23, Leeds United
Marcelo Bielsa must be running out of superlatives for the midfield anchorman, an imperious performer affectionately known as “The Yorkshire Pirlo” by supporters. Phillips, who grew up in Armley, in the shadow of Elland Road, is Leeds’s Swiss Army knife, seemingly a master of all trades, be it clawing back possession, breathless running or his exhaustive palette of passing. The 22-year-old Brighton loanee Ben White has equally been outstanding for Leeds, with the ice-cool defender excelling after shimmering his way up the pyramid on loan at Newport and then Peterborough. But when it comes to Phillips, the same Bielsa soundbite sticks in the memory. “When he plays well, the level of the team increases clearly,” the Argentinian said.
Joe Rodon, 22, Swansea City
Little more than a year on from returning from a relegation scrap in League Two with Cheltenham Town, Rodon is a cornerstone of a slick Swansea side making impressive strides under Steve Cooper. Rodon, who grew up a few miles outside the city in Llangyfelach and joined Swansea as an under-nine, has been an immense presence in the heart of the defence since being handed his debut by Graham Potter last season and his form led to Ryan Giggs calling him up to the Wales squad in September. Rodon’s current absence owing to an ankle injury has allowed the Watford loanee Ben Wilmot to impress but his return will be a welcome boost for club and country.
Only Aleksandar Mitrovic has more Championship goals this season and Watkins has relished the responsibility of filling the void left by Neal Maupay’s £20m move to Brighton. Watkins has already equalled last season’s goal return and, in combination with the tricky Saïd Benrahma and the record signing, Bryan Mbeumo, purchased from Troyes in the summer, the former Exeter youngster has wreaked havoc. “I think the way he converted himself into a No 9 from a No 10 is impressive,” said the Brentford head coach, Thomas Frank.