Nowadays Ben White’s choice of match-day food does not stray too far beyond pasta, but he remembers a time when Newport County had different ways to get their squad fired up. It was the 2017-18 season and White was on loan at the League Two club from Brighton, taking his first significant steps in a professional career that at one stage appeared to have slipped away. “It was one of the best years of my life,” he says. “You go there and everything is completely different. You’re having curry for your pre-match meal.”
The smooth edges of academy football could not have felt further away and that was reinforced when, at half-time of his debut, White witnessed what he describes as “a punch-up between our own players in our own dressing room”. In fairness he does not suggest his present-day Arsenal teammates are shrinking violets and they have certainly not bowed to anyone on the pitch. He is in the England squad for the first time since Euro 2020 and that is because it would be hard to find a Premier League centre-back in better form. White might not fit the hackneyed portrait of a swashbuckling, gnarled international centre-half but he has toughness in spades, along with a perceptiveness on the ball that has added fresh dimensions to Mikel Arteta’s lines of attack.
“It shows that what I’ve done this season is really paying off,” says White, sitting in a meeting room at St George’s Park. There were plenty who failed to see sense in Arsenal paying Brighton £55m for him last summer: he had, after all, been dodging the flying fists at Rodney Parade only three years previously and had played only 36 times in the Premier League. But his stature grows by the week and it seems a long time since a torrid debut in which Ivan Toney and Brentford offered plenty of ammunition to those who doubted his value.
“The start of the season was tough,” he says. “We had the first game and it wasn’t ideal for me, I didn’t play very well and then I got Covid so I was out for another two games. It was hard to get started; it wasn’t the start I wanted but, coming through the season now, I’m playing every week, the team is doing really well and it’s very positive.”
After failing to pass the Bees’ aerial examination, White was singled out by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher as a potential achilles heel under high balls. He is 6ft 1in, on the short side for a centre-back, although you would hardly know from his dominance in duels nowadays. “I think it was the first time I’ve actually been singled out,” he says. “It’s never a nice feeling, it’s not very good, but it just gives me more incentive to go out there and play well.
“Some of it you obviously have to look at and see what they’ve said, and some of the stuff they said was true [in] that game. It wasn’t my best. Obviously they’ve had amazing careers and hopefully one day I could have something like that.”
To begin with he should add to his two caps over the next five days, when England face Switzerland and Ivory Coast in friendlies at Wembley. If Newport seems a lifetime ago then the day in 2014 when he was rejected by Southampton at 16 must feel as if it was inflicted upon a different person.
“I got told I wasn’t going to get anything; Mum took me and our chat was a little quiet on the way home,” he says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to carry on, it was obviously tough not being wanted. You don’t know if there is going to be anyone else who wants you; if they don’t want you, other teams at that level won’t. So it was kind of a feeling of: ‘Where do I go from here?’”
Despite the sense of despair, the news had not come as a shock. “No, I wasn’t good enough when I was younger. I was a late developer, probably as tall as I am now but really skinny, gangly, couldn’t really run. And I didn’t play at all when I was there.
“There were always people playing in front of me. I’d get 10 minutes here and there, and that’s not enough to be able to show what you’ve got.”
A gruelling and sometimes dispiriting set of trials was the only option. White remembers a three-day trial at Bristol Rovers that he curtailed early. “I only did two because we were literally just running up hills,” he says. “Absolutely killed me, couldn’t do it. Then I got a trial at Leicester: went there, they didn’t offer me anything. It was all at right-back, so I hadn’t ever played at centre-half before.
“Then I went to Brighton for a trial against Brentford: that was when I first started playing centre-back. Afterwards they said to my mum: ‘We need to know by Tuesday because we want to offer him a scholarship and, if you don’t know by then, the contract’s gone.’”
White’s mind was essentially made up for him: other options were hardly abundant. The rest is history and he says, in typically laid-back fashion, that he “just went with the flow” in chasing his career, although he admits later that there was “only plan A for me … no backup”. He has stated in the past that he watches little football but that is patently not the same as being unwilling to devote oneself to a life in the game.
Now he has the chance to make one as a regular international and, looking down England’s list of centre-back contenders, it is hard to make a case that any of his colleagues are in better shape. He dodges the question of Harry Maguire’s form, refusing to entertain suggestions a starting place at Qatar 2022 is in his grasp. But it will be on the table if his rise continues, and if the toughness learned in that curry-fuelled spell at Newport keeps augmenting his technical grace.
“It was a bit scary, to be fair; I didn’t want to make any mistakes, that’s for sure,” he says of the interval fight he witnessed at the fourth-tier club. White has shown this season that, if one or two do slip in, he tends to learn from them.