Belfast Telegraph

Brunt and McClean helped me make it this far, says Northern Ireland's newest West Brom debutant

The former Linfield teenager credits familiar accents with the aid he needed to make his first senior appearance

By Gareth Hanna

From an ignored recruit in the Under 18s to West Brom's latest Northern Irish debutant, 2017 has been a bit of a whirlwind for one promising footballer.

A 2-1 win over League One side Walsall is a fixture that will live in almost nobody's memory at The Hawthorns. But for Banbridge lad Jack Chambers, it's a match that will be etched on his mind for the rest of his days.

That's because on 78 minutes, the 17 year-old got the whistle from the dugout to get ready. He was coming on for his first team debut for a Premier League club - the dream becoming reality. And those 12 minutes of football proved enough for him to make his mark as he played a part in the build-up to Hal Robson-Kanu's late winner.

After Chambers made the move from Linfield last summer, all of that seemed a long way off.

"I definitely didn't expect it to happen this soon, especially because during the first half of last season, I didn't play at all - not even for the Under 18s, let alone the 23s or the first team," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Then after Christmas, everything changed. I don't really know why exactly but I definitely felt more myself after Christmas. I got used to living over there and all the changes and then I started to play a lot better.

"For those first six months, I was saying to myself 'I can't do this'. I didn't think I was good enough but now it's like 'what was I thinking?' It gets easier, especially through playing with better players. A few of the first team guys - the likes of Chris Brunt and the other local ones - helped me a lot."

Brunt, of course, is one of three full Northern Irish internationals among Tony Pulis' ranks - joined by Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. And then, of course, there is the Republic of Ireland's Derryman James McClean, who has worked his way into NI underage international Chambers' unlikely affections.

"I didn't really like him before I moved over but since I arrived, he has done nothing but help me," Chambers said with a laugh. "He keeps me going about the Protestant Catholic thing but it's just banter and he has been just as big a help to me as the three Northern Ireland players here.

"They have all been such a big influence on me. Jonny Evans is a bit quieter and more shy than the others but he's still been a big help."

Not only has Chambers been embraced as part of the club's first team fraternity - he can be considered all but a proper team-mate now that he's had his first taste of senior football. It was surely a proud moment for his parents who have also relocated to the Midlands, and no doubt an inspiring one for housemate and clubmate Jack McCourt, another ex Linfield star.

"There were two games at the same time so most of the first team went to play Burton Albion and we stayed to play Walsall," he explained, recounting the build-up to his big break. "There were still a lot of good players in our team - the likes of McClean and Robson-Kanu. I saw the team-sheet going up with my name on it but I still didn't expect to actually play. The two lads who started in central midfield were supposed to get 90 minutes so I wasn't really hoping to get on but then one of them pulled up and I got the call.

"My stomach was in knots, to be honest. I was very nervous, but obviously very excited as well. Walsall is only about five miles away from West Brom so the ground was packed, there were about 1,500 West Brom fans there and they gave me a really great reception, which was really nice."

After the four familiar accents amongst the Baggies' senior ranks had pointed Chambers down a pathway to progress, things couldn't have worked out much better on debut day as Brunt was right on hand to walk the new-boy through a nervous evening.

"My first pass," he pauses, "let's just say I started off a bit shakey but after that I settled down and did ok, I think. I was playing beside Chris (Brunt) because we went to three at the back and he made everything so easy for me. He just said to play what I see and talked me through everything.

"Our assistant manager, who was looking after the team because Tony Pulis was away to Burton, came to me afterwards and said that I was brilliant - to hear that was amazing."

Chambers, who won the Bertie Peacock Trophy for best county player at the Milk Cup just two years ago, is just one season in to what was a three year deal. After the coming campaign, at the latest, he will move from a scholarship to professional terms - not that he lets any school work get in his way at the minute.

He's only forced into the classroom on one day of the week - more than enough, he says. He would hardly have time for any more as he has now been moved to training with the Under 23s on a permanent basis, also sampling first-team training one to two days a week.

"Even the aspects of your game that you thought you were good at - for me things like my passing - you can see how they come on through working with the senior guys. Physically as well, you get a lot fitter and stronger from playing alongside them," Chambers mused, able to take stock on a much-welcome day off amid a gruelling pre-season schedule.

Looking ahead, those feelings of frustration and fears of failure that crept into his first six months in England have given way to a quiet confidence.

"My aim is to keep playing every week with the Under 23s and if I can take my chance there, to get an opportunity with the first team towards the end of the season," he says with a matter of fact, grounded nature. "It's just that one step away now but there is still a big gap for me to close if I'm going to do that."

Chambers knows the size of the task in front of him, but the leap from Under 18s to first team training is almost as big a ravine. With those four familiar accents guiding his feet, Jack Chambers is now firmly focused on his next move.

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