x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Norwich's Pilkington climb back to the top of the pyramid

Anthony Pilkington, the Norwich City winger, was on the books of two Premier League clubs, before dropping nine divisions and returning to the summit, and he is only 23 years old.

Two weeks after Anthony Pilkington missed a chance against Manchester United - the team that released him as a teenager - he took just 48 seconds to score against Swansea.
Two weeks after Anthony Pilkington missed a chance against Manchester United - the team that released him as a teenager - he took just 48 seconds to score against Swansea.

From ecstasy to ignominy to ecstasy once more, Anthony Pilkington's last four games have involved some dramatic journeys.

It is fitting. They serve as a microcosm of a remarkable career. The Norwich City winger is only 23, but has already scaled heights and plummeted to depths many never reach.

Twice in four matches, he has earnt his club victory in the Premier League. Five years ago, however, he was plying his trade in English football's 10th tier.

Initially recognised as a promising player at a young age, he was headed for obscurity after being deemed surplus to requirements.

"I was on [Manchester] United's books when I was 12 or 13. Then I went to Blackburn [Rovers] and got released from there too," he said.

Preston North End, too, turned him down. He ended up at Atherton Collieries, on the outskirts of Manchester and in the North West Counties League.

"As low down as it was, it helped me," he said.

Indirectly, United played a part in his rise. A hat-trick against FC United, the protest club formed by supporters unhappy with the Glazer family's ownership of the Old Trafford side, brought him to wider attention.

In December 2006, he signed for Stockport County, then in the fourth-tier League Two, and in his first full season in professional football, he helped County to promotion, scoring their second goal and creating their winner in the Wembley play-off final against Rochdale.

With Pilkington's eye for goal evident, a bigger League One club came calling. Huddersfield Town signed him in January 2009.

Two years of progress were followed by another setback, one that might have denied Huddersfield elevation to the Championship last season.

A dislocated ankle and broken leg curtailed last season, but not before a high-profile admirer had become convinced of his quality.

In July, Paul Lambert agreed a £2 million (Dh11.6m) fee to complete Pilkington's swift rise up the divisions. A man who had been on the books of two Premier League clubs as a teenager had taken the long route to the top.

"I was in an academy like a lot of kids are, but then I was prepared to drop right down the basement and climbed up the pyramid again," he said. "It was all part of the process of learning the game and it's paying off now."

His fee, in turn, is being repaid. In Norwich's first Premier League win four games ago, his goal against Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium proved decisive. Two more against Swansea City on Saturday, the first after 48 seconds, clinched another three points.

"It's been a big step up for me and it's one that I like to think I'm thriving on," he said.

Fine planning accounts for his prolific return; two have come when he has been stationed in front of the opposing goalkeeper at corners, allowing Pilkington to show his predatory instincts.

"You just try and make yourself a handful around the keeper and that's what I've done," he said.

Excellent contributions sandwiched an embarrassing moment. As a right-footed player deployed on the left flank, he tends to make angled runs infield. One such, coupled with his dogged approach, enabled him to dispossess Manchester United's Antonio Valencia and bear down on goal at Old Trafford.

It was a golden chance, but the former United trainee shot wide.

"I've seen the chance I missed a few times. It was painful watching it," Pilkington said. "But everyone misses chances. Everyone is human. It's how you bounce back from that. The gaffer said 'just keep doing your stuff and the goals will come,' and luckily they have."

Indeed, the next one came around particularly quickly.

"I have been grateful that I had the chance to put it right after 48 seconds," he said. "I wasn't going to miss that one."

For his manager, it was proof of character as well as ability. "To get two goals after a horrendous leg break and what happened at Old Trafford, he will be delighted," Lambert said.

"What Pilkington does with his deliveries and his influence on the team is excellent."

This weekend provides another of the defining fixtures of the season for the Premier League newcomers as Norwich visit Liverpool on Saturday. For Pilkington, however, the bigger game comes seven days afterwards. He is a Blackburn-born Rovers fan who used to have a poster of Alan Shearer on his wall, so the Lancashire club's visit to Carrow Road assumes huge proportions for him.

A sell-out in Norfolk will offer another indication of how far he has come.

"I've scored goals at grounds where there wasn't even a crowd behind the goal," he said. "There was nothing apart from grass, trees or houses."

sports@thenational.ae