Back on track
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