By CHRIS WRIGHT
Everton have pipped a host of Premier League clubs to the loan signing of teenage England prospect Eric Dier from Sporting Lisbon.
The 17 year-old has recently come to international prominence after seven years at the world famous Sporting Clube de Portugal youth academy.
The Cheltenham-born star is expected to return to Sporting in the summer, where he is contracted until June 2013, and has previously expressed his desire to play for the first team before signing for a Premier League club.
The move to Everton will give him the opportunity to grow in a competitive and more demanding environment. But how did this articulate and bilingual young man come to be in Portugal?
He moved to the Algarve with his family 10 years ago when his mother landed a top job working for
the 2004 European Football Championships.
That meant mum Louise, the UK director of an international events and airline catering company, dad Jeremy, a former professional tennis player who now works in sports marketing, and their six children left their home in Sussex.
They lived at Meia Praia near Lagos for several years and Eric attended the Barlavento International Primary English School at Espiche.
Headmistress Judy Robinson remembers him well. “They are a lovely family and Eric made a big impression during the time he was with us. Even at a young age he had tremendous talent and was a pleasure to teach.
“Eric was back here last year visiting friends and I was delighted to meet up with him and learn of his progress,” she said.
The family has always placed education at the forefront of their agenda and Eric’s older sister is currently completing a degree course at Oxford University.
The family then moved from the Algarve to Lisbon where Eric’s PE teacher, who used to work for Sporting, spotted his talent and recommended him to the club.
After a couple of training sessions, they asked him to stay. When he was 14, he moved to the academy and switched to a Portuguese school.
He is now fluent in Portuguese and has signed his professional contract. The lure of a return to England would have been hard to resist with big clubs chasing him but, having seen plenty of teenagers fail to progress in those situations, Dier felt better off at Sporting’s renowned academy, which produced Cristiano Ronaldo, Luís Figo and Nani among others.
Life suits him in Portugal. A day at the academy consists of gym work in the morning, school in the afternoon and training in the evening. He has a fine sporting pedigree and is the grandson of Ted Croker (former Secretary of the English Football Association and President of Cheltenham Town F.C.) and great nephew of Peter Croker who played for Charlton Athletic.
But what if Dier’s childhood idols, Manchester United, started asking about his services?
“If the offer came today, I wouldn’t say I’d take it because I’m not sure it’s the right time,” he insisted. “But if I cemented a place in Sporting’s first team and felt I was ready, then it would be very hard to turn down.”
Dier speaks with amazing maturity for a 17 year-old, thanks in no small part to Sporting and the way they try to bring up the youngsters in their academy.
They focus on individual development rather than winning games and do not chase success in youth cups. Respect and discipline are key.
If a player messes up in school, he may be punished by being left out of the team at the weekend. It may mean the team loses but club officials do not care. It is all about the long-term development of players.
There is also a sense of realism. Not everyone is going to become a Ronaldo or a Nani, so it is important players go to school every day, taking extra lessons if necessary from four full-time teachers employed at the academy.
Sporting do not want players ending up on the football scrap heap. It seems unlikely Dier will be one of those. Jean Paul Castro, technical director at the Sporting academy, when asked if the teenager has a big future in the game, said: “I think so, I think so”.
Eric has been approached by the Portuguese Football Federation to play for Portugal in the future but can only do so once he turns 18.
He has been involved in a high profile England national football team kit promotion for sportswear manufacturers Umbro and his appearance in the campaign caused the Daily Mail to question why the English Football Association had not contacted him with a view for playing in their youth national teams.
Upon his signing for Everton, an FA spokesman said: “Our intention will be to select him for the youth squad in the coming weeks” referring to the 2011 edition of the under-17 international Algarve Tournament.
There is no doubt that the 6ft 2in central defender will be much sought after by the top clubs but this mature young man will take it all in his stride thanks to a strong family involvement and those important formative years in the Algarve and at the Sporting Academy.