After months of pandemic-enforced delay, New York Red Bulls finally have their man. On Wednesday the club announced the signing of Dru Yearwood from Brentford F.C. of the English second division. The 20-year-old central midfielder was reportedly purchased with a £1.5 million transfer fee. This is sure to be the first of several moves as the team reshapes itself under the leadership of former Wolverhampton Wanderers sporting director Kevin Thelwell.
Born to parents of Barbadian descent in the London suburb of Harlow, Essex, Yearwood began his soccer career with Arsenal as a seven-year-old before moving to local club Southend United at eleven. He had the chance to join youth setups higher up the pyramid, but received some advice to not be swayed by glamour and prestige. “I did have chances to go to bigger clubs than Southend,” Yearwood said in a 2018 interview with BBC Essex Sport. “My dad said, ‘No, come to Southend. Learn your trade. Try and become the best in your age group and then the best in the academy. And then keep pushing, keep pushing.’”
He progressed quickly through the academy and in 2016 was offered a highly-competitive youth scholarship to play with the under-18 squad. Following an impressive preseason training stint with the senior squad the next year, he signed his first professional contract, a four-year deal. Then-Southend manager Phil Brown (who you may remember from his well-tanned Premier League days coaching Hull City) described the Harlow native as an “immense talent” who had the support of the locker room.
His first season was a dream start to a playing career. Yearwood made his debut in the League Cup against Newport County and his first League One appearance the next month against Rochdale. He earned the club’s player of month award for February and March of 2018. At the end of the season, the then-18-year-old was named Young Player of the Season and nominated for League One LFE Apprentice of the Year. He finished his first professional season with five assists in 28 appearances across all competitions.
Brown’s successor as Southend manager Chris Powell also heaped praise on the teenage Yearwood. “He’s a remarkable young talent and he caught my eye immediately,” he enthused to the club website. “He looked very comfortable in his surroundings in and around the group because he’s a very talented young man who we are very fortunate to have. From day one he’s come into the team, he’s shown both sides of the game even as an 18-year-old and he plays very maturely, that’s the best thing I can say about him. He attacks and defends well in equal measure, like midfielders always used to be looked upon. These days we either look at them as a defensive midfielder or an attacking one, but he actually does both sides. I’m very pleased he’s in my team at our club and we should all be very proud of Dru Yearwood and the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch.”
A prized youth national team call-up followed the successful season. Yearwood was named to the England U-18 squad that would compete in the 2018 Panda Cup. “I didn’t think it would be possible,” he told Southend’s official website. “Usually it’s the boys playing for Arsenal and Chelsea and not Southend. It’s good that boys in the lower leagues can also play for England.” Unfortunately, he was forced to pull out of the England squad due to a hamstring injury, which carried over into the beginning of the next season.
His second and final full season at Southend didn’t continue on the same upward trajectory, but did provide the necessary challenges that strengthen young players. Yearwood made 33 appearances across all competitions, tallying two assists. Early in the season, his name showed up on a list of League One players with the most “high quality passes that led to goals” and he even donned the captain’s armband in Checkatrade Trophy matches, which presented an opportunity for growth.
“I am energetic and I try to lead the team with my performance and not necessarily talking,” he told BBC Essex. “If I can add talking to my game, then the performances can add on in time.”
Occasionally that energy needed to be harnessed better, as the young midfielder missed three matches in February of 2019 due to a red card from a rough challenge on Charlton’s Jonny Williams. “With Dru we’ve got to be quite calm,” said Powell. “He’s only just turned 19 and he’s having new experiences all the time. Some are good like last year and some are bad like this year, with injuries, a sending off and no pre-season. All players make mistakes, it happens to experienced players too, but sometimes youngsters have to go through these experiences to make themselves better in the long run.”
“I had a tough year [in 2018-2019],” said Yearwood. “I think I’ve learned a lot from that and I had a really good year the first year. I’ve experienced both sides of football now.”
Despite the down season, Yearwood received attention as a top talent following two years and 62 total appearances. He was named one of the 50 most exciting teenagers in England by FourFourTwo and even better one of Essex’s top 30 successful people under 30. It was at this time that he also attracted transfer interest from Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough, and Rotherham United.
But it would be analytics-driven Championship club Brentford that eventually secured his signature, for a reported £500,000. Yearwood signed a four-year contract which generated a fair amount of attention in West London. Manager Thomas Frank described him as a player who “is very good at getting around the pitch and does the work in terms of pressing and winning the ball back.”
Unfortunately, Yearwood didn’t make the move to Brentford until August, with the 2019-2020 season already underway. “He’s had a bit of a stop-start period since he’s been here with us,” Brentford B assistant Sam Saunders told Football League World. “It is unfortunate because he arrived here and he was behind the fitness levels of the other boys.”
He made two appearances with the first team, a brief substitute’s cameo against Middlesborough and starting in an upset loss to Cambridge United in the EFL Cup. Following those matches he was sent to Brentford B, the club’s unorthodox reserve side which elects not to play in England’s reserve league structure, instead opting for various friendlies and European tournaments. His time with the reserves featured standout performances, as one would expect from a seasoned professional competing against players who had yet to make their debut. Yearwood had a hat trick in a 6-2 win over non-league side Bromley and additionally netted a brace in a 4-1 victory over a Queens Park Rangers select team. His penalty conversion clinched advancement in a 2-2 (5-4) quarterfinal win over AFC Wimbledon in the London Senior Cup.
But frustration appeared to be building as he couldn’t return to the first team. “I had a little knock from one of the games,” Yearwood said after the B-squad’s tour through Scotland. “I feel good now. I enjoyed my games with the B team, but I think it’s time I step on. I think I need to get fitter. I feel like they’re not really worried about me with the ball and me on the pitch. It’s sort of my fitness level... I had a little setback with the injury... It’s been frustrating [to not play matches]. It’s a credit to everyone else.”
Yearwood sporadically showed up on the senior team bench, but wouldn’t return to the field until January, starting and playing 90 minutes in two FA Cup matches. There were signs that he was turning a corner. “I think I’ve grown as a player,” he said after a 1-0 Fourth Round loss to Leicester. “I’m dealing with not playing. It’s been a tough, tough six months here, but I think I kept a smile on my face. I kept going… [My teammates] are all very, very good players. I think it’s waiting and hopefully they trust me to play.”
A February start in the league against Birmingham followed, which led to more professions of optimism. Yearwood believed he made mental strides “because it’s so frustrating not playing” and he was “happy to get some minutes.” After this match, he did not dress for the first team again.
As you may have seen, Brentford recently wrapped up a successful year, finishing the 2019-2020 Championship regular season in third place, narrowly missing out on automatic promotion. The Bees came up short against West London rivals Fulham in the promotion playoffs final, dropping a 2-1 extra time result. Despite the failure to reach the Premier League, Brentford’s continued presence in the top half of the second tier is remarkable considering the club’s reduced budget and commitment to intelligent management, not unlike a certain Major League Soccer club. Yearwood wasn’t in the squad for the playoffs, his only semi-connection being that his move to Red Bulls occurred the day after the loss.
Yearwood’s Brentford career ended exactly one year to the day after it began. According to the club’s head coach Thomas Frank, the 20-year-old “has all the attributes needed to enjoy a successful career as a dynamic box-to-box midfielder [but] sometimes in football players find their pathways blocked and need a new start...this is an opportunity for him to play games at a great club.”
Sometimes players stumble and need a reset before continuing their ascent. New York has acquired a talented, high-achieving midfielder about whom others struggle to find something negative to say. One who had a below par season in England, but is still at the beginning of what many believe is a highly-promising career. He’s a player who describes himself as “very athletic, energetic” and competes “with a lot of emotions.” One who models his game on N’Golo Kanté, Gennaro Gattuso, and Claude Makélélé. A player who is young enough to describe himself as a quality Fortnite player, but seasoned enough to have made 62 professional appearances at the age of 19. His favorable evaluations by the unique recruitment setups of both Brentford and Red Bull point to this being a shrewd bit of transfer business, with intelligent football minds seizing on an overlooked potential star.
Oh, and Yearwood’s favorite player growing up was Thierry Henry.