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Ethan Ampadu: Defender, midfielder, talisman

21 Mar 2024 9 minute read
Wales’ Ethan Ampadu. Photo David Davies. PA Images

Leon Barton

It’s perhaps testament to the confidence those involved have in the so-called ‘Welsh way’ that so many of our brightest young footballers have also played for England at youth level, having done so with the full blessing of the Welsh set up. ‘Go and have a look’ they’re told, ‘there will always be a place for you here if you decide to come back’. Much more often than not, they do.

David Brooks (born Warrington, Welsh mum, England under 20 caps), Jordan James (born Hereford, Welsh dad, England u20 caps), Brennan Johnson (born Nottingham, Welsh mum, England u16/u17 caps) are three significant examples but perhaps the jewel in the crown is Ethan Ampadu (born Exeter, Welsh mum, England u16 caps), who, when he takes to the field against Finland tonight, will become the youngest male Welsh player to fifty caps, smashing Chris Gunter’s record by eight months. He will also be the first player born this century to reach that milestone.

In Ampadu’s case, he could also have played for Ghana or the Republic of Ireland through his paternal Grandparents, indeed his father Kwame won four Republic of Ireland under-21 caps between 1989 and 1992.

That Ampadu insists he always felt Welsh, always wanted to represent the land of his Mam, despite having never lived in Wales is an indication of how modern Welsh identity is a decidedly mixed, malleable entity.

(Coincidentally George North, our youngest male rugby union player to fifty caps, was also born in England)

Wales’ Ethan Ampadu during a press conference at the Al Sadd Sports Club, Doha. Photo Adam Davy PA Images

Born in Bradford, and raised in Dublin to a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother, Kwame Amapdu played school-age football in the Irish capital before joining Arsenal in 1988 aged seventeen. He worked his way through the youth and reserve teams to make two first team appearances for the Gunners, both as a substitute. After spells at Plymouth Argyle and West Bromwich Albion, Kwame switched to Swansea City in February 1994 for £15,000 and became a first team regular, making 146 league appearances (plus play-offs), scoring twelve goals over the following four years (he also inspired the classic ‘Ampadu, du, du’ chant to the tune of Black Lace’s ‘Agadoo’).

It was during his time at Swansea that Kwame met Ethan’s mother, Wendy. Kwame then moved back to London to link up with Leyton Orient in July 1998. After two seasons at Brisbane Road, he moved to Devon to sign for Exeter City in July 2000. Ethan was born two months later.

Ampadu junior’s somewhat strange first team career started when he was on his school holidays.

On 9th August 2016, at just 15 years, 10 months and 26 days, Ethan became Exeter City’s youngest ever player when he starred at centre half in a 1-0 victory over Brentford in the EFL Cup. He was named man of the match following a superb 120-minute performance.

After the game, Exeter manager Paul Tisdale beamed, ‘the remarkable thing is he is not necessarily a centre-back. He’s one of those players that can play in four or five positions. When it’s a centre-back, you have to trust them, and the biggest compliment I could give him is that he plays like a 35-year-old. Let’s not forget, he’s still at school and he’s on his holidays’.

At 15 he was playing like a 35 year old. At 23, club and international teammate Connor Roberts says ‘he plays like he’s 43’.

When asked to describe him, as both a player and person, ‘mature’ seems to be the word that crops up most often.

One of Chris Coleman’s last acts as manager was to cap him away in France alongside fellow debutant David Brooks in the November of 2017. Joe Ledley, by then struggling with injuries and the general wear and tear that comes with having played so many games in his mightily impressive career, was the one to depart on 64 minutes. It felt like a changing of the guard moment.

‘Alongside (18 year old Ben) Woodburn (winning his 5th cap), their introduction added pace and invention that had been lacking in Wales’ display’ wrote the BBC, in describing the impact Ampadu and Brooks made in the 2-0 friendly defeat.

While his talent was evident from the start, his outstanding Nations league performance against the Republic of Ireland ten months later was when Welsh fans started to get really excited. Orchestrating play, pointing this way and that, always looking to receive the ball, he was at the heart of everything good about Wales’ outstanding 4-1 victory. Here, clearly, was a player who was here to stay.

At club level, Ampadu was at Chelsea by that point, a move that was always likely to lead to several loan spells, and so it proved.

At RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga during the 2019-20 season, his time on the pitch was hit by injuries but he still caught the eye when he did play. After Tottenham were vanquished in the Champions league round of 16 (4-0 on aggregate), Gary Lineker tweeted: ‘He certainly impressed last night. Very talented and was organising and bossing his teammates throughout the 90 minutes’, following a comfortable 1-0 victory in London.

Bizarrely, there then followed three successive top flight relegations: Sheffield United in the English Premier league, followed by Venezia and then Spezia in Italy’s Serie A. (I can’t think that any player has ever suffered three successive top flight relegations before?)
And while no footballer likes suffering relegation, all that top flight experience – in three different leagues – will surely prove invaluable in his career going forward.

Ethan Ampadu is shown a red card in the game between Venezia and Salernitana

All the while he was racking up the Welsh caps, helping his nation qualify for a Euros and a World Cup. In doing so, by the time arrived at Leeds United as a 22 year old (this time a permanent transfer for what looks like a bargain fee of 7 million), Ethan Ampadu had already packed more into his still formative career than many players do in their entire careers.

A promotion with Leeds appears to be the likely next box to be ticked off, with Ampadu taking to the Yorkshire club, and them to him, right from the start.

In discussing whether centre back or central midfield is his strongest position, The Official Leeds Utd podcast host, actor Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies) asked ‘at Leeds, where are you hoping to be?’

Ampadu’s answer of ‘on the pitch’, caused much hilarity for Lewis and co-host Michael Bridges.

‘How mature is he?!’ exclaimed a quite obviously impressed Bridges after Ampadu had left the conversation.

And it’s that maturity which has seen him help bring even younger players through, players such as 18 year old Archie Gray, great nephew of Leeds United legend Eddie Gray.

With regular captain Liam Cooper having an injury hit season, Ampadu has already worn the armband on several occasions, joining the likes of Terry Yorath and Gary Speed in a line of Welsh leaders to play for Leeds.

Wales’ Neco Williams, Ben Davies, Joe Rodon, and Ethan Ampadu react Joe Giddens/PA Wire

An ever-present, either in midfield or at the back alongside Wales teammate Joe Rodon, he seems destined to become a regular future Wales captain too. Rob Page has even said as much.

Already a father to a one year old son, in common with most footballers of his generation, Ampadu seems to prefer staying in and gaming to going out drinking (and with the ubiquity of camera phones and people on the lookout to sell stories to the tabloids, who can blame them?). There have never been any off field issues.

He’s already a lynchpin, perhaps even our most important – most irreplaceable – player since the retirement of Joe Allen. And if there’s one player in particular I think deserves to qualify for the Euros in Germany this summer it’s Ampadu, because of how the two previous tournaments panned out for him.

At Euro 2020 (which took place in 2021 of course) he was underused. Against Switzerland he came on in the 93rd minute for Aaron Ramsey to help run the clock down. Against Turkey he came on for Joe Allen on 73 minutes to help see out a victory. He did start the next game against Italy in Rome, but he only lasted 55 minutes after being harshly sent off. That was the end of his tournament.

And so to the World Cup in 2022. By this point Ampadu was a certain starter – fitness issues around Joe Allen saw to that – but in being asked by Rob Page to play as the only defensive midfielder, Ampadu was somewhat hung out to dry by the manager. The sight of him desperately trying to hold the fort in the face of relentless American and Iranian attacks was a sorry one. An unfit Allen came back in to play alongside him versus England but by then, it didn’t matter. We were as good as out anyway.

It’s perhaps not saying much, but for many, Ampadu was Wales’ best performing player at the tournament.

It appeared Page had learned nothing from Wales’ World Cup capitulation when he once again underloaded the midfield for the abysmal 4-2 Cardiff loss to Armenia, the game which saw Euro 2024 qualifying hopes hanging by a thread so early in the campaign.

But ever since 19 year Jordan James has come into the team to play alongside Ampadu in the midfield, we’ve looked so much more solid and compact. Those two look set to play together for Wales for the next decade and beyond.

Ampadu to be the first male Welsh player to 150 caps? It seems more than likely. If we can keep on qualifying for tournaments, I wouldn’t put 200 past him either.

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Y wal goch
Y wal goch
3 months ago

Page not learning anything? it’s his default setting. With a good coach going forward we can continue to qualify for tournaments. Enough of Page, Ethan is well on course for legendary status, c’mon Cymru!

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