James Tarkowski: From a shabby Paris hostel to the door of the Champions League

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 18, 2017

The five-star Hotel Molitor in Paris is something special. From the pool to rooftop bar to the rooms, it’s as impressive as it is pricey and, given that it is located just 100m from the Parc des Princes, it is often used by visiting Champions League teams when they come to play Paris Saint-Germain.

A little further down the Boulevard Périphérique, past the petrol station, there’s a hostel. It’s nothing special. From the creaky beds to the leaky windows to the mould in the shower, it is as modest as it is cheap and, given that it too is located just 100m from the Parc des Princes, it is often used by visiting fans of Champions League teams when their team comes to play Paris Saint-Germain.

Until a few months ago, Burnley’s 25-year-old centre-back James Tarkowski would never have dreamed of a trip to the Hotel Molitor. Instead, he was a hostel kind of guy and even stayed in similar accommodation during a stop in the French capital on an interrailing trip. “We stayed in some rascal hotels,” he told Sportsmail’s Mike Keegan in an interview earlier this year. “A dorm at a hostel in Paris was bad, with random people asleep in there. There were some £2-a-night places.”

But now, a stay in the Hotel Molitor and a match against Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé and Co. doesn’t sound like quite such an outlandish notion for Tarkowski or for his Burnley teammates. Last Tuesday evening the Clarets temporarily levitated themselves into the Champions League spots, a simply ridiculous achievement considering they’ve spent the third-least money on their squad in terms of transfer fees. Last summer they actually brought in more money in the transfer market than they spent, but players like Tarkowski have ensured that the club hasn’t really felt the effects of high-profile departures such as that of his predecessor Michael Keane.

While Burnley did fall back out of the top four once some of the usual suspects had played the following evening, it remains true that they are a genuine contender for European qualification. As their former player Andre Gray, another summer departure they’ve coped without, put it last week: “It’s 16 games into the season, not four or five where they’ve had a great run.” Burnley’s high league placing is more than the altitude-sickening position of a minnow which defeats a couple of relegation candidates in the opening two matches. Instead, they’ve won at Stamford Bridge and drawn at Wembley and Anfield too. They’re past the take-a-screenshot-of-the-league-table-it’ll-last-longer stage. They’ve reached the point where they’re quite rightly being taken seriously.

Tarkowski is a major reason for that. Sean Dyche – himself a former centre-back – and his team have been successful, but they haven’t been all that pretty, with the second-lowest possession numbers, the second-worst pass accuracy and the sixth-fewest goals in the whole league. The foundation of their success is their defence, with only 12 goals conceded so far – the same number as league leaders Manchester City.

Looking at individual numbers, Tarkowski is the most active member of the squad, making an average of 8.33 clearances per game, while blocking 1.73 shots and nabbing 1.60 interceptions per 90 minutes too. In terms of the whole Premier League, not one player has made more defensive actions than he has. That includes the man he replaced, Michael Keane, who was so impressive in 2016/17 that he earned a summer move to Everton.

Tarkowski was very much a backup for Burnley last season, but he’d already come a long way to even make the Turf Moor bench. He was playing League One football with Brentford as recently as 2014, after coming through the ranks at Oldham Athletic, where he was earning just £200 per week. With his sister becoming ill, he wanted to move back to the north of England to be with his family and he joined Burnley in the winter window of the 2015/16 season, which ended with promotion to the Premier League, where he is now one of the league’s best defenders.

Life has moved very fast for Tarkowski over the past four years and it would be no surprise if the best of his career is yet to come. Could he be off to the World Cup with England? Could he make it to the Europa League? Or even enjoy a Champions League night at Paris’ Hotel Molitor? Nothing should be ruled out.

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