Ben White made his Arsenal debut in Friday’s 2-0 defeat at Brentford
The teenage centre-back, who has since blossomed into an England international and £50m signing for Arsenal, was thrown in at the deep end.
“The manager was telling us that we had a young lad coming in who was going to be the next big thing,” says Mark O’Brien, the former Newport defender.
“We had high enough expectations for him, but you don’t know how someone’s going to react to League Two when they’re only a youngster.
“It’s a very physical league, but he took to it so well. He was blocking shots and enjoying defending, but also showing his own qualities by being good on the ball. He looked like a complete player. You just knew, there and then, that he was going on to bigger and better things.”
His debut came away to Southend United in the EFL Cup. They fielded a streetwise strike partnership of Theo Robinson and Simon Cox, but White was unflustered as Newport secured a 2-0 win.
From then on, he became an automatic starter for Michael Flynn’s side.
“You could trust him,” says O’Brien. “Normally, you feel like you have to coach young lads through games and speak to them a lot. But he grew and grew the more he played and started to showcase what he was all about. Ben looked after himself. He became a very good team-mate and a very good friend.”
The Brighton loanee made 51 appearances in all competitions as the Exiles, who had just avoided relegation the previous season, finished in the top half of the table. He won several Player of the Year awards, with his character impressing as much as his ability.
O’Brien added: “He was such a down-to-earth person and a lovely lad. He was grounded about everything and took it in his stride.
“He didn’t have any kind of ego about coming down from a Premier League club. He was willing to listen, and he had all the tools. It was just about putting it all together.”
White’s reputation was growing, helped by the exposure he received for assured performances against Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur as Newport reached the FA Cup fourth round. He coped admirably with Harry Kane and Fernando Llorente in high-pressure situations.
Barry Fry, Peterborough United’s director of football, was one of many who took note. In January 2019, just as their promotion bid was starting to falter, White joined the club on loan. He stood out as much more than an old-fashioned stopper.
“His range of passing was outstanding for a defender,” says Fry. “Ben changed the play, his football abilities really impressed me.
“He looked a cut above us. He read situations well. He was very comfortable on the ball and never gave it away. Good control, excellent vision.
“The beauty of Ben was his consistency. He was nine out of 10 nearly every game. You could rely on him.
“He’s just unruffled and has a great temperament. His attitude towards training and playing is superb. You couldn’t get any better.”
Ben White (left) played against future loan club Leeds when he was at Newport
Fry sees White as a future captain, someone who sets himself the highest standards, encouraging others to follow suit. For a relatively inexperienced player, his professionalism, reading of the game and communication skills were exemplary while at Posh.
“He was cool, calm and collected,” added Fry. “He was quite a mature young man. He talked on the field.
“He told people where to go and what to do. He’s a leader. He’s got those qualities. He’d do anything in the community, which is important to us.
“Ben always wanted to listen, learn and improve. He’s very dedicated and determined to get to the top. He got there a lot quicker than we all imagined but he did that himself.
“He ought to look in the mirror and say ‘well done’. Wow, to go to Arsenal for £50m and play for England, it’s everybody’s dream.”
Despite winning five of their last eight games, Peterborough missed out on a spot in the play-offs by a single point. Fry was eager to bring Poole-born White back to London Road, but was informed a move to Leeds had already been arranged.
As a new signing hoping to play an integral role in the Elland Road club’s promotion push, he was in for a shock when he arrived at their training ground.
White was put in the Under-23s dressing room and stayed there until the day before the Championship season started. Manager Marcelo Bielsa was testing him.
“He had to overcome a few mental hurdles because of Marcelo’s philosophies on how you integrate into a new team,” recalls former left-back Barry Douglas.
“He almost had to earn his right to get into the first-team dressing room.”
“He just took it in his stride, didn’t make a fuss about it. Ben showed a lot of humility because it would have been quite easy, coming from a Premier League club, to expect to waltz your way in. He responded brilliantly.”
White also faced the challenge of replacing Pontus Jansson, a commanding defender and influential figure during his time at Leeds. He did so with ease, not missing a single minute of action as Bielsa’s side claimed the title, returning to the top flight after a 16-year absence.
White (on the ground) impressed last season for Brighton in his first Premier League campaign
Douglas adds: “There was a lot of expectation because Pontus was a good player and a big character – the fans loved him. It showed Ben’s maturity that it didn’t faze him one bit. He took to it like a duck to water. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen what a good season he have. All credit to him.”
Leeds’ eagerness to sign White permanently was a measure of just how well he suited his new environment and the club’s style of play. He was fully committed to Bielsa’s singular vision, which emphasised a relentless work-rate, bravery in possession and playing out from the back.
“The demands that Marcelo puts on you ultimately help you to become a better player and a better person,” says Douglas. “There was no better place for him to get that year of education and to do as well as he did. His character and attributes just complemented everything that Marcelo wanted to do at Leeds. It was a perfect match.”
Several offers were rejected as White ended up staying at Brighton, where he enjoyed an excellent first season in the Premier League.
International recognition followed, winning his first England cap against Austria and making it into the squad for Euro 2020 when Trent Alexander-Arnold pulled out through injury.
Although White didn’t get to play during England’s run to the final, he was praised by boss Gareth Southgate for his positive attitude.
Arsenal came calling once the tournament finished, marking the next step on the 23-year-old’s hard-earned upward trajectory.
White impressed on each of his loans. Considered and softly spoken, with an underlying resilience, he made plenty of friends during his formative years in the Football League, who have stayed in touch. They are delighted with his progress and confident he will not settle for what he’s already achieved.
“I always tell him how proud I am,” says Irishman O’Brien. “I always knew he would go on to do amazing things and he deserves it.
“With the attitude he’s got, and how level-headed he is, Ben lets his football do the talking. I think he’s only going to get better and better. I could see him being England captain in years to come.”