NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Just three months older than Dele Alli, Loftus-Cheek was isolated and unused by Chelsea, now he’s the...
RUBEN LOFTUS-CHEEK is three months older than Dele Alli but has started 149 games fewer. While Alli was talked up as Real Madrid’s next £100million superstar, the equallytalented boy from London was being kept in cold storage by Chelsea, then shipped out on loan to bottom-of-the-table Crystal Palace.
But no longer do the comparisons between two of English football’s great hopes seem so ridiculous.
While Alli sat out Friday’s friendly against Germany with a hamstring injury, his fellow midfielder marked a belated England debut with a man-of-the-match performance against the world champions.
Make no mistake, 6ft 4in LoftusCheek has now been catapulted into World Cup contender status, and puts his ‘overnight’ success down to the inner strength required when regularly overlooked by Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge.
With Chelsea, the 21-year-old has made only a handful of starts plus a few appearances as a substitute — most of them brief — in three seasons before finally getting his escape route to Selhurst Park.
‘In these last two or three years I have had to be really patient,’ he said with calm assurance after his whirlwind evening against Germany.
‘It was tough mentally at Chelsea, not getting the game time. I still had to train right and do all the right things. I believed if I did, I’d get my opportunities in time.
‘This season has taken the pressure off. I have the opportunity to play in the Premier League every week and at Palace I feel like a firstteam player. It’s given me the platform to learn and develop.
‘I still don’t think I’m in the best condition right now because I had injuries at the start of the season that hindered my development and fitness. I think I need 10 or 15 games in a row to feel good for the whole 90 minutes, and to feel strong and to start playing my best football.’
The number of withdrawals Gareth Southgate has suffered in the last week threatened to turn the doubleheader against Germany and Brazil, on Tuesday, into a farce.
Instead, the enthusiasm of debutants Jordan Pickford, Tammy Abraham, Joe Gomez, Jack Cork and, above all, Loftus-Cheek has given Southgate a huge shot in the arm ahead of Russia.
The 21-year-old has spent most of his career so far on the bench for Chelsea or out wide for Palace. Deployed centrally as a No10 by Southgate, he was technically assured, showed quick feet and an eye for a pass, not looking out of place against some of the best players in the world.
‘It’s a really good night that I will never forget,’ he said with a smile. ‘My mindset before the game was to enjoy it and take it in, play my football and do what I’d done to get into the squad.
‘My attitude is always to be confident on the ball and have no fear when going out on the pitch. I think it’s one thing young players need to have in their game to develop and play their best football.
‘When you don’t play you really feel the difference of what matches give you — the sharpness, the fitness. It’s what you need to progress. It was hard not playing and then having to try to be the best player on the pitch.
‘I’m not bitter. Chelsea are a massive club and I understand that opportunities don’t come to everyone and don’t come often. I would never want to rewind the time because I learned a lot about myself mentally. That period was my journey.
‘The money is not where my head is at the moment. I love football and that drives me to be the best player I can be. The money and that stuff, that’s secondary. I want to develop football skills and get better as a player.’
Given all the controversy over Danny Drinkwater declining the chance to join up with England and club managers fretting about their players going away for friendlies during a busy part of the season, it is refreshing that Loftus-Cheek — who is not involved in European club games — would jump at the chance of a second game in five days, against Brazil. ‘I hope I play. I really want to play more football, need to play more,’ he says.
‘Nights like Germany, they just make me want to improve more and get to the next level. The feeling you get out on that pitch, in front of 80,000 people, I can’t explain it. It’s fantastic and I just want that feeling more and develop to be the best player I can be.’
He is technically still a Chelsea player but it remains to be seen if he wants to return. He keeps in touch with Eddie Newton, the main contact for Chelsea’s many loan players, but the silence from Conte speaks volumes.
‘I haven’t heard from him but I have a good relationship with Eddie and he is helping me behind the scenes,’ says Loftus-Cheek.
‘Right now I am focused at Palace for the season. I spoke to Roy [Hodgson] about England. He was really happy for me, just said to go and enjoy it. That was nice.’
THAT’S NUTS! LoftusCheek slides the ball between the legs of Germany’s Marcel Halstenberg