Josh McEachran made his return from injury for Chelsea’s Under-21s side against Norwich City on Friday night, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. It has been a long road back for the boy who has been the most likely English candidate to make the long journey from Chelsea’s academy to first-team regular since John Terry established himself 13 years ago.
McEachran has to deal with that peculiar cycle of hope and then frustration, bordering on blame, from the football public that is the lot of the bright young English footballer in these strange times. There was desperation for him to succeed quickly, which turned to derision in some quarters when he did not. It is worth bearing in mind that McEachran is not 21 until March.
He is trying to break into the first team of Chelsea, one of the richest clubs in Europe and arguably the most likely to splash £30m at a whim on a Brazilian playmaker simply because, well, they can. He has also carried an ankle injury first sustained in December which was treated, or endured, for much of the time he was on loan last season at Middlesbrough, where he played 38 games.
McEachran was close to having an operation on his troublesome ankle this summer until Chelsea decided that he could recover without one. It has meant he was not fit enough to go on loan at a Premier League club or one of the mid-table La Liga sides – including the likes of Levante, Rayo Vallecano, Celta Vigo, Getafe and Real Sociedad – who showed an interest, with Chelsea preferring that he recovered at Cobham.
He has not been given a Chelsea squad number and, once he has played a couple more games for the Under-21s, he will be farmed back out to a Championship side, who can still make loan signings until the end of November. It is not the end of the world, and a good run of form pre-Christmas would allow him to resurrect one of those potential loan deals in Spain come January. Now that would be interesting: a 20-year-old English playmaker mixing it in Europe’s biggest talent hothouse.
No one said that the route upon which McEachran is set would be easy, and there are doubtless a few twists in the tale to come, but it would be foolish to write him off just yet. Especially when he remains such a rare bird: the kind of intelligent passing midfielder that English football now strives to produce.
What does beg closer inspection is the obstacle course that young English footballers are obliged to negotiate in order to play Premier League first-team football. It is an issue that this column returns to on a regular basis and which is now centre-stage after the Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, took the nuclear option in his speech two weeks ago.
The same day McEachran scored two for Chelsea’s Under-21s at Aldershot, the club’s manager, Jose Mourinho, had bemoaned the premium prices placed on young English players. He told the story of a casual inquiry he made about a young unnamed, uncapped Englishman over the summer only to be shocked by the figure quoted. The smart money was on Luke Shaw or Ross Barkley (since then a full international) but Mourinho would not say who.
Had time allowed it, the next question would have been: why would a young English player have come to Chelsea – financial benefits aside – unless he fancied playing a lot of Under-21s football or going on loan to Vitesse Arnhem? It is a pity for Neil Bath and Dermot Drummy in the club’s academy, acknowledged to run a very good operation, but, as ever, where is the pathway from academy to first team?
But they are not the only club. Even Barkley, the breakthrough player of this season so far, was shipped out on loan twice last season by Everton, a prodigious developer of players. Perhaps some of the loan experience helped, but it is indisputable that he struggled at Leeds, his second loan club, who sent him back early. It was not until the end of the season that David Moyes threw Barkley in and saw exactly what he could do at Premier League level.
The pathway was worse at FA level. Barkley was not considered good enough for the Under-21s European Championship squad and was instead packed off with the doomed Under-20s for their World Cup in Turkey. The Under-20s being English football’s kamikaze squadron: destruction is assured (although without the honour). Three games for Everton this season and suddenly Barkley was in Roy Hodgson’s senior squad.
Equally, Wilfried Zaha was back in the England senior squad for the international friendly against Scotland before the start of the season on the basis of Hodgson having been told that he had done well in training over pre-season. When it became obvious those good training ground performances were not getting him a game at Manchester United, Zaha was left out of the squad for the World Cup qualifiers this month.
Which takes us back to McEachran. He cannot have been delighted when Chelsea bought Marco van Ginkel this summer for £8m, also 20 years old, also a midfielder. Van Ginkel, voted last season’s Eredivisie “young talent”, is three months older than McEachran and had 93 league appearances with Vitesse under his belt when he arrived this summer. McEachran has 17 Premier League appearances.
That is the problem at Chelsea: no matter how quickly you develop, they always have their eye on someone else’s best young player. Having started brightly, McEachran struggled in the second half of last season as Middlesbrough’s form tanked. That is the way it goes with young players. Frank Lampard said as much when he was asked about McEachran during the recent international break.
“First of all it is up to Josh now to show,” Lampard said. “I don’t think anyone’s development is an easy road. It doesn’t go just like that. There can be ups and downs and people in your way. We have all suffered that and with every step in football – from youth to reserves to first team and internationals. There are moments when you don’t just slip up to the next level. I believe Josh has got the ability and character to do that.”
Looking back at the days when Lampard came through at West Ham, it feels like a golden era for English footballers in comparison to the current day. Ever more so, if you happen to be talented and English there is no hiding place. It may be that McEachran breaks through at Chelsea. It may be that he has to leave to make his name. But do not underestimate just how tough the task is to do either.
Villarreal prove there is life beyond the big two
Villarreal are an impressive club. Why? They are the last team outside the big two in Spain to have finished in the top two, in 2008. Their president, Fernando Roig, bears the debt and they owe nothing to the Spanish taxman. They went down in the 2011-12 season while other clubs entered administration but were not punished with points deductions. They came straight back up and their talented team almost beat Real Madrid (starting XI cost, £324m) on Saturday night watched by 25,000 fans – half the town’s population.
Lukaku shows up flaws in the loan system
Chelsea loaned Romelu Lukaku to Everton partly on the basis that Everton will not challenge them for the title. A fair assumption, even after Saturday’s defeat at Goodison, although it looks momentarily uncomfortable. Of course, Lukaku was not allowed to play against his parent club but he still significantly increases Everton’s resources. Now Chelsea must hope he does damage against fellow title rivals. All in all, it is a flawed system.
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