TALENTED Darlington defender Josh Heaton possesses the attributes required to return to the professional ranks, according to assistant manager Alan White, who says the youngster has the talent, work ethic and the right attitude.

Heaton has been the team’s start performer of late, collecting a string of man-of-the-match awards during the team’s upturn in form, including in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Kidderminster Harriers.

Yet he has broken into the Darlington team sooner than expected, revealed White, with Heaton having arrived earlier this season as Tommy Wright’s first signing.

The 6ft 5in centre-back made his debut in early November, a day after joining from Ramsbottom, playing in a 3-3 draw at Kidderminster. Then, after sitting on the sidelines for a few weeks, he was recalled on Boxing Day, since when the 21-year-old has been an ever-present.

In White, a centre-back during his lengthy playing days which lasted to almost his 40th birthday, Heaton has the ideal coach on the sidelines to guide him back into the pro game, where he began his career with Preston North End, his local club.

White said: “You can never guarantee it. There are always young lads that everyone thinks are going to be professional footballers. But some you would’ve hung your hat on don’t make it, while some make it even though you didn’t expect them to.

“You’ve got to have that talent, a work ethic, the right attitude and be willing to learn. It’s a mixture of a number of things and even then there are no guarantees.

“But Josh has shown all of those things and there’s no reason why, if he carries on in the same vein, he cannot make it.

“If he gets complacent, or starts to think he knows best no matter which club he is at, then he might struggle, but I don’t see that happening because he’s a good lad.

“He wants to be a professional, as do all of the young lads, but there are no guarantees.”

Heaton, along with team-mates Luke Trotman and Joe Wheatley, will go on trial with the V9 Academy in the summer, a scouting process filmed by Sky, by which time Darlington hope to have avoided relegation from the National League North.

They are now on the right track, having lost only once in seven games, winning four in that time after what had been a sticky period for the team.

Wright had experimented with various formations and personnel, but has stuck with Heaton, who was on trial with Darlington last summer.

A proposed move collapsed after he sustained a broken collarbone in a friendly, but his arrival was resurrected under Wright and White.

“He’s a young lad that we brought in with potential,” added White. “Tommy had watched him a few times and I had seen him play.

“He’s a good size, 6ft 5in, a young lad, he’s athletic, he’s got a good aggression about him for a young lad, he’s got decent pace, so he’s got all of the attributes.

“Centre-halves tend to blossom a bit later, so when he first came in it was about a bit of coaching, lots of chats, trying to get certain thoughts into his head.

“Initially we said ‘You’ll not play regularly but you’ll get your chance, you’ll be involved'. To be fair, he’s been fantastic. He’s listened and he’s learned.

“He’s worked hard in training and he’s forced his way into our thoughts about starting, and once he’d started a couple of games he's done fantastically well

He’s really stepped up and deserved that starting place.”

Heaton, who scored his first goal in Saturday's win, will keep his starting place when Quakers travel to Tamworth this weekend, aiming to build on their good run.

White added: “You’d love lads to develop quickly, but you can never guarantee it.

“Initially we said we wanted to have lots of patience with him and he had to have patience with us, he understood that, he got it. And that’s why he progressed so quickly, because he was not getting frustrated, he was not agitated that he was not involved much at first. He knew that we saw him as a work in progress.

“He has stepped up and showed a real maturity. If you think about some of the players he has played against, big strong men like Jon Parkin [York] and Mark Beck [Harrogate Town], he has been outstanding. He has worked them out and dealt with them.

“He is never going to overpower these people, but he is clever and he listens.

“He thoroughly deserves his stay in the team.”

Given Heaton’s height and slim build, a comparison could be made with Wigan Athletic’s Dan Burn, the defender who began his career with Darlington a decade ago and a lynchpin in the Latics' shock FA Cup win over Manchester City last week.

“He’s slim but he’s a big lad, he’s certainly not slight,” added White. “You don’t want him getting too big.

“I think too many lads these days get a bit obsessed with going to the gym and building up their top half when it’s completely irrelevant really, it’s got nothing to do with how strong you are on the pitch.

“I played with a lot of lads who didn’t have the biggest frame, but they were super aggressive, strong in the air and didn’t lose many battles.

“Josh is a big lad, he doesn’t need to put any more weight on, he just needs to develop as a person. He’ll mature, he’ll become a man in the next couple of years.

“He’s only a young kid still, and that strength will come. It’s more about core strength now, rather than lifting weights and getting big arms.

“His biggest strength is that he’s not scared of a battle.”