Back on track

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - SPORT -

Pa­trick Bam­ford might yet be on his way out of Burn­ley this month, for what would be the sev­enth loan spell of a ca­reer which has yet to in­clude an ap­pear­ance for his par­ent club, Chelsea, although no one who cares about English foot­ballers would take any plea­sure in his re­cent hia­tus.

The great Chelsea buy-and-loan ex­per­i­ment with some of the world’s lead­ing young play­ers has been go­ing on long enough now for those who sign up to it, as Bam­ford did aged 18 in 2012, to know what they are get­ting into. The ques­tion for boys such as Bam­ford, who traded in solid ca­reer starts in the Foot­ball League – in his case Not­ting­ham For­est – for the gold­plated life of Chelsea young gun for hire, is what they make of it.

What is Bam­ford mak­ing of it? A great deal as of the end of the 2014-15 sea­son, when he was the Cham­pi­onship player of the year aged 21, with 19 goals for Mid­dles­brough and a bur­geon­ing rep­u­ta­tion. Was Bam­ford ready for the leap to Chelsea then? The ques­tion might have been bet­ter framed as whether he was even ready for the Premier League.

It will not be lost on Bam­ford that it is the 2016 Cham­pi­onship player of the year, An­dre Gray, who is one of those Burn­ley strik­ers keep­ing Bam­ford out of the side at his cur­rent loan club, his third such move since Mid­dles­brough. Bam­ford has played just 34 min­utes this sea­son over the course of six sub­sti­tute ap­pear­ances, and he was not in­cluded in the squad for yes­ter­day’s FA Cup third-round tie at Sun­der­land, a game which might have of­fered him the chance of a first start for the club he joined last sum­mer.

A tremen­dous shame in­deed that a foot­baller who looked to be ma­tur­ing nicely by May 2015 has not scored one goal since, over loans also en­com­pass­ing Crys­tal Palace and Nor­wich City. Given that he turns 24 this Septem­ber, just two months younger than Harry Kane, it is hard to keep talk­ing about him in terms of po­ten­tial.

It was Chelsea’s pref­er­ence in 2015 that he stayed an­other year at Mid­dles­brough af­ter his break­through sea­son with Ai­tor Karanka. In­stead it was Bam­ford’s de­ci­sion to join Palace when the club al­ready had Fraizer Camp­bell, Conor Wick­ham and Dwight Gayle com­pet­ing to play in a team that tended only to utilise a sin­gle striker.

He made the uni­lat­eral de­ci­sion to an­nounce his de­par­ture from Palace at the mid­point of last sea­son. At Nor­wich he started just two games in their rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle. Last sum­mer, there was a feel­ing that he should go back to the Cham­pi­onship and re­build his con­fi­dence with one of the di­vi­sion’s top-end teams there, but there was an in­sis­tence from the player’s side that a Premier League loan be found.

At Burn­ley, Bam­ford has en­coun­tered the same prob­lem, a team who play with one striker, which is un­fail­ingly not him. Of course, a foot­ball ca­reer is no place for what-ifs, but had he stayed at Mid­dles­brough then Bam­ford would have been a Premier League player by dint of pro­mo­tion. There have been sug­ges­tions he could re­turn there this sum­mer but, once again, at his for­mer club the com­pe­ti­tion for game-time looks steep.

By all ac­counts Bam­ford is an in­tel­li­gent man and, un­usu­ally for a foot­baller, is mul­ti­lin­gual and a grade seven vi­o­lin­ist. That makes him stand out, but no player can es­cape the re­al­ity that play­ers progress at dif­fer­ent rates and in such a com­pet­i­tive ca­reer, they have to make the right de­ci­sions on loan moves in the de­vel­op­men­tal stages of their ca­reers. His father Rus­sell is a ma­jor in­flu­ence.

By way of ex­am­ple, Michail An­to­nio, one of English foot­ball’s break­through play­ers of the past 18 months, was at Sh­effield Wed­nes­day at the age of 23 and still yet to make the move to Not­ting­ham For­est and then on to West Ham. His ca­reer might have been slow to start, but once it took flight his progress has been re­mark­able, and at 26 now, he is com­pet­i­tive with any of his peer group.

Of course, hav­ing started at Toot­ing and Mitcham United, An­to­nio ben­e­fited from a low pro­file. Bam­ford, hav­ing moved to Chelsea aged 18, has had a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. That sort of move also cre­ates an ex­pec­ta­tion in the mind of the player and those around him, which mil­i­tates against stay­ing put and tak­ing one’s time at a loan club, or even tak­ing a step back­wards if re­quired, to make progress in the long term.

Mean­while, Chelsea’s loan sys­tem is start­ing to yield re­sults, al­beit in un­ex­pected ways. Ryan Ber­trand and Vic­tor Moses have made very good ca­reers. Per­haps the same will be said of the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Aké, Tammy Abra­ham, Lewis Baker and some of the oth­ers who are part of that fa­mous loa­nees’ What­sApp group to which Bam­ford also be­longs. Not all of them will make it as Chelsea play­ers, but all have a very good chance of a re­ward­ing pro­fes­sional ca­reer, pro­vid­ing they make the right choices.

Break­ing into the first team is the dream, and all the good young strik­ers on their books, from Michy Bat­shuayi to Bam­ford, will be frus­trated that this month the club are con­sid­er­ing Fer­nando Llorente as a short-term fix.

But this is Chelsea, and those who sign the lu­cra­tive pro­fes­sional deals on of­fer there are left in no doubt there will be no free passes.

At the end of this sea­son, Bam­ford will have just one year left on his Chelsea con­tract, and a tough de­ci­sion will have to be made by club and player on his fu­ture.

Come the sum­mer he needs to be in the best pos­si­ble po­si­tion, and if that means swal­low­ing his pride this month and head­ing back to the Cham­pi­onship to get some con­fi­dence back, then there is no shame in that.

At just two months younger than Kane it is hard to keep talk­ing of po­ten­tial

Tread­ing wa­ter: Pa­trick Bam­ford is in the sixth loan spell of his ca­reer at Burn­ley and has not scored since he left Mid­dles­brough in May 2015

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