Ryan Bertrand has turned down a move to Liverpool this summer to pursue his dream of being Ashley Cole’s successor at left-back for Chelsea, and a status as the club’s first academy boy to establish himself in the first team since John Terry more than a decade ago.
The interest from Liverpool was real but instead Bertrand has opted to stay at the club he joined as a 15-year-old from Gillingham in the hope of being the successor when Cole finally does call it a day at Stamford Bridge. At a club that is capable of signing some of the most expensive players in the world, that is a risk but it is one Bertrand is prepared to take.
He takes confidence from his record last season – 38 appearances for the first team – which followed on from that run he had in the side in May last year which culminated in a place in the 2012 Champions League final team. If the masterplan had worked out for Chelsea, they would have a first team squad full of players like Bertrand who had made it through from their academy but it has not turned out like that.
Bertrand, 23, was one of the first players signed in 2005 under the Frank Arnesen era, although he was a target of the club before then, He recalls impressing in a match against a Chelsea youth team and being aware that he had been scouted before then. It has taken him a long time, and loans spells at five clubs starting in 2006, to get to a point where he can consider himself a first team player.
With three years on his contract, has no desire to give up on his dream of playing for the club. “Obviously I want to be Chelsea's No1 left-back, and when that time comes it will happen,” he said yesterday ahead of Chelsea’s game against a Malaysia select XI on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur. “All I can do is be ready and keep playing, keep biding my time. I just concentrate on progressing in the games I get, and I've managed to do so in recent years. That's the only target I have.”
Had Cole decided that this summer was his time to go then this pre-season would look very different for Bertrand. Chelsea would undoubtedly have been in the market for a left-back but they would have a decision to make as to whether that player was a first-choice or an understudy to Bertrand. As it is, with Cole signing a one-year extension, Bertrand knows where he stands.
“I wasn't really focused on it [Cole’s future] to be honest. I was just concentrating on myself, regardless of what happened. [If Cole had left there would have been] another left-back anyway, so it won't be: 'As soon as Ash goes, there we are, it's mine.' The work will still be there to do.
“That's the way it is at the top level. You have to be able to compete. That's just the way it is, and it's the place I want to be. So I'm used to that.”
In the debate over the desperately dwindling numbers of English players in the Premier League – especially the leading clubs – Bertrand could almost be considered a test case. Here is a player who has made it into the first team at a club notoriously poor at promoting academy boys. What is unusual about his situation is that it is an Englishman keeping him out the team rather than an foreign signing. Can he hang in there?
It has taken Bertrand plenty of hard graft to get to where he is and he can hardly be accused of being one of those who think they have made it when the first pro deal is signed. He has flogged himself around loan spells at Bournemouth, Oldham, Norwich City, Reading and Nottingham Forest before, in his own words, he decided “there comes a time when you have to say, ‘Righ,t I am going to spend some time back at the club and see what happens’”.
He played 15 games in the 2011-2012 season which ended with that remarkable night in Munich before making significant progress last season. “The final against Bayern was phenomenal when I think back to Gillingham, the training ground there, the stadium,” he said. “That was what I was used to and to go right the way to the Champions League final was humbling when I look at where I have come from.”
He does not share the gloom about the next generation of English footballers and he says that the failure to bring players through at Chelsea cannot be laid just at the club’s door. “Some players may see their opportunities better elsewhere. It's not just about the club bringing them through. It has to suit the players as well.” Although for that academy, there is much riding on Bertrand’s success.