Ben White entered Brighton as a 16-year-old Southampton reject and left seven years later as a £50million England international.
Now hoping to be the defensive saviour in an Arsenal side slowly showing signs of revival under Mikel Arteta, White returns to the place where he made his name as the Gunners take on Brighton this Saturday evening.
The Seagulls took White, a teenage defender with a difficult medical history and struggling to get into the game, and nurtured him into one of the most promising young defenders in this country.
It is a journey that saw White work his way up the Football League via a series of loan spells, whilst also working under the mentorship of managers such as Marcelo Bielsa and Gareth Southgate. The 23-year-old was playing in League Two just four years ago but is now at one of the highest levels possible in English football.
After being let go by Southampton in 2014, Brighton went to watch White play and, impressed with what they saw, the Seagulls invited him to trial at the academy in a friendly match at the David Beckham SoccerDome in Greenwich.
The man judging White was highly-rated talent spotter and Brighton’s head of player recruitment Mark Anderson – who has had similar roles at Liverpool and Manchester United in his career and was the scout who brought Raheem Sterling to Anfield.
‘Ben was exceptional in the friendly game,’ Anderson tells Sportsmail. ‘What I saw – and it’s the very first thing I look for – is the mentality. A good body language, a great character, good preparation, good leadership skills.’
‘He worked hard and was versatile too. He showed all the attributes of a good potential player that could develop.
‘I had a real gut feeling with Raheem Sterling and I don’t get that often. To be honest, I didn’t have that same gut feeling that I did with Raheem and I didn’t say to myself that I thought he was going to go all the way.
‘It wasn’t until he came into the building at Brighton where I knew Ben would be an England international.’
Brighton were quite fortunate to get him, given that Greenwich trial saw interest in White go through the roof. Arsenal and Chelsea saw him shine, so did Liverpool along with Millwall and Charlton.
Anderson adds: ‘After that game, when Ben had done so well, the White family stared to get interest from other clubs but we actually hadn’t managed to sign him yet.
So how did Brighton get to the front of the queue? ‘We did lots of journeys – we showed the club the new stadium, the state of the art training ground and the nice coastal road at Brighton – not the A23 though!
‘We put a package together and offered Ben a scholarship. His family agreed and we signed Ben.’
Getting a scholarship at any football club, let alone a club like Brighton, looked very unlikely when White was a young boy. Between the ages of 18 months and eight, the Dorset-born youngster needed antibiotics due to a life-threatening illness.
‘His immune system was not working,’ his mother, Carole, told The Athletic back in 2019. ‘If somebody sneezed, he would end up with pneumonia.
‘He had appendicitis and he didn’t come around from that for a while. He had six or seven different infections. He was in hospital for much of his young life, for months at a time.
‘He was seven when he had his appendix out. He was on antibiotics twice a day until the age of eight from 18 months old. He had massive allergies. We carried an Epipen (adrenaline auto-injector) everywhere. It would be the only way to save him.
‘As parents it was either wrap him up in a bubble or let him do what he wanted so he had a quality of life. And then, he started to get better.
‘Now he’s not got any allergies at all and the treatment worked. But back then, all those days in hospital, we could never have imagined he could be an athlete.’
Without the support from his family, not least from his mother Carole, White would not be where he is today.
‘He comes from a very, very lovely background,’ Anderson says. ‘His mum did miles and miles and miles for hours and hours over the years with Ben, even when he was at Southampton.
‘At Brighton she came to every single game – through the day, through the night. She followed every singe inch of what Ben was doing in the part of his development.
‘She was top drawer, you couldn’t have asked for anything else. She would have put her last penny in the petrol tank for him and got to games in any way, shape or form.’
White’s character, stemming from his family background, is what shines through just as much as his playing ability. Anderson reveals White was a brilliant figure around the training ground at Brighton as he progressed through the under-18 and under-23 teams.
Then came the defender’s progression in the professional game, which came via three EFL loan spells at Newport County, Peterborough and Leeds United.
Football League journeymen, such as Newport’s Paul Hayes – who was 34 when a 19-year-old White arrived in South Wales – were immediately blown away by the defender’s maturity.
‘He was such a nice, lovely, respectful boy,’ the now-retired Hayes, who runs Aspiro Lifestyle Management group, tells Sportsmail.
‘He was just fantastic to have a conversation with. He was raised well by his parents and friends who kept him humble. I had a lot of time for Ben, attitude-wise he was spot on.
‘What I liked about Ben was that he knew I was one of the senior players coming in and he was just asking questions all the time. About how to improve, saying, “Am I doing this right? Should I have done that?”
‘He was picking my brains about being a senior forward and how to defend against strikers like that.
‘Some players in the younger generation, they don’t want to ask questions. They just want to lean on what they hear or what they know. Ben was very interested on how to improve and get better.’
White knew how to play hard too at Newport. Hayes recalls the pair going for pre-game Nando’s with some of the squad and going out with his older team-mates after matches. The defender knew when to slow down as well, and would often cut his night out early to head back to see his family on the south coast.
‘He was a young, skinny, very quiet boy,’ Hayes continues. ‘But he showed what he needed to do on the pitch. He didn’t have to talk too loud or be the centre of attention.
‘It was a big ask for a 19-year-old boy coming in his first loan and do well as the first season in the pro game is the hardest. You take your body to the maximum that you’re not used to and you fatigue quickly. Your concentration goes, your consistency is not 100 per cent there. You struggle.
‘But Ben played his game week in, week out. He learned from his mistakes quickly. He bought into everything. He always turned up on time, stayed a little bit later after training, always asking questions. He never let his head drop or get too high. He was such a mature boy at 19.’
After winning Player of the Year at Newport in his first ever professional season – which saw Michael Flynn describe him as ‘the best loan signing we have ever had’ – a six-month loan spell at League One Peterborough followed.
A stint at Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds started getting him recognition in the upper echelons of English football.
White was treated harshly by the world-renowned Argentinian coach, and was put in the club’s Under-23s team to bring him down to earth at the beginning of the campaign.
The defender would go on to play every single minute of Leeds’ title-winning Championship season in the 2019-20 campaign, and England’s national team specialist coach Mark Robson was told to keep an eye on White’s progress.
Last season saw White’s world completely turn around, with the centre-back made a Premier League regular at Brighton, which then resulted in an England call-up in time for Euro 2020 then a £50m move to Arsenal.
The price tag on White’s north London move raised questions, but those who have known and studied him best believe Arsenal have not overspent on their main man.
‘I think Ben was worth every single penny,’ Anderson claims. ‘Did the move come too early? Possibly.
‘He didn’t have a lot of Premier League games for Brighton before decisions were made. A lot were made on the back of his Leeds loan. But six months down the line, he could have been worth £80m or £100m. In my eyes, he was cheap.’
‘I think everybody won from that situation,’ Brighton boss Graham Potter said in a press conference this week. ‘We got a good fee, they got a good player. Ben gets a chance to play at a club that he sees as a progression for him so everybody wins.’
White’s start to life at Arsenal hit a rocky road. He was criticised for his performance against former Peterborough team-mate Ivan Toney in the Gunners’ opening day 2-0 loss to Brentford, before a coronavirus diagnosis kept him out for nearly a month.
But the 23-year-old has now become a mainstay in an Arsenal side that has now won three league games on the bounce in all competitions, and the mood at the Emirates Stadium is sky high after the club’s 3-1 derby win over Tottenham, which saw White keep Harry Kane at bay for 90 minutes.
White’s statistics since moving to north London have been impressive too. The defender ranks at the very top of the club’s interception, completed passes and passing accuracy tallies – highlighting his early importance to this Gunners team.
Manager Mikel Arteta certainly approves of White’s Arsenal start: ‘I’ve been very impressed with how he handles the pressure and the situation of coming through he Euros, big fees and the composure he shows.
‘He has a willingness to learn and improve, he realises he’s still young and in a development process, (and) there are things he can improve on. We are enjoying it together.’
Meanwhile, Anderson adds: ‘I don’t see any fault in Ben’s game. There obviously has to be a transition period. He had to go through that like any player from another country, culture or environment. He needed a settling in period.
‘He could have been a flop, but he’s not. He started off with a bit of negativity (against Brentford) but in the game against Harry Kane he marked him out the game and now he’s the best thing since sliced bread and butter. He’s always going to have critics but Ben’s still going to rise to the top of the cream and go to the top.
‘He’s a hard-working, focused individual. He wouldn’t want to have bad games and prepare every game like it’s his last. He has that passion and desire.
‘Ben’s not someone who would rest on his laurels, he’s not riding on the money he was sold for. It doesn’t faze him whatsoever. Ben’s in it for the love of the game.’
Going back to Brighton on Saturday will be a strange feeling for White, as he looks to put one over the club who guided him to the all-star career he has today.
‘He was great around the club,’ Anderson says. ‘He adapted and adjusted to what was put in front of him. He grew from a trialist, to a signed player, to under-18s, to under-23s, to the first-team. His transition was spot on and he was adaptable to change.
‘He bedded in very quickly, he was a good character. He had a good partnership with Lewis Dunk and took knowledge on board from established professionals, coaches and managers.
‘In the time I was there, I never heard any complains about Ben. What I would always say about him is that he will end up on the back page of a newspaper and not the front page. That’s the best way to put it.
‘Some of the players you won’t always see that. Ben was clever enough to know how to deal with situations. Some don’t.’
Should White help Arsenal to victory against a high-flying Brighton side on Saturday, it would be another positive back page headline for him.