NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

Just three months older than Dele Alli, Loftus-Cheek was iso­lated and un­used by Chelsea, now he’s the...

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - SPORTS - By Joe Bern­stein

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

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