“It’s strange seeing people talk about me,” Reece James says quietly.
It's been a trying time for one of England’s most sought after young full-backs, as he regularly beats the morning sun to Chelsea’s training ground to continue his routine of deep-water running and isolated strength work. He is a 19-year-old plagued by the burden of sitting still. But away from the pitch, these past two months have been the busiest and in many ways the most consuming of his short career.
After bursting into the spotlight on loan at Wigan last season, no less than eight Premier League clubs have made attempts to sign James this summer. But despite the commotion around him, he is still yet to make his debut for Chelsea. He’s spent these idle weeks sat in a precarious position of weighing impatience and a searing desire to play against a love and deep-rooted connection to his boyhood club; something which, after assurances from Frank Lampard, proved impossible to disentangle.
“At the end of the day, if you’re a footballer, your job is to play,” James tells The Independent. “I would always prefer to play than sit around. If I’m not, I’m not going to be happy, but there are certain situations where you have to be patient. Frank Lampard is a club legend; he’s someone I’ve always looked up to. If a manager believes in youth and believes in you then, eventually, you know the chance will come. Ever since I’ve been at Chelsea, my dream has been to become a first-team player.”
Reece James sat in the centre of the canteen ogling with wide eyes as John Terry made his way across the room, a sparkling blue Chelsea shirt tucked beneath his arm. Slowly, every member of the first team made their way over, greeting the nine-year-old individually as he smiled back in giddy silence. “To Reece,” the message wrote. “Good luck in your football career.” The shirt still hangs in a frame high above James’s bed. “I look at it every time I go into my room,” he laughs.
James’ journey into football was almost predestined. His father, Nigel, a former professional, had started his own elite coaching facility and worked with some of the country’s best young players. And, in the summer of 2003, Nigel emptied a sack of size three footballs onto a square of grass in the back garden of the family home. First, he began testing Reece’s hand-eye coordination, playing catch into the twilight hours of each evening, before instructing his son to swat shot after shot from the floor as hard as he could. When James’ older brother Joshua played with friends in the park behind the house, Reece would attempt to copy all the skills and swagger he’d seen when he thought nobody else was watching. He was four years old.
“When you’re young, it feels like you can play 24 hours a day,” James smiles. “When I wasn’t playing with Chelsea, I was training with my dad and, when I came home, I’d still play with everyone in the area in the park behind my house. We’d play all night. I’ve never really stopped.”
Little more than a mile from the muddied pitch where his unshakable bond with Chelsea was formed, he reminisces about the day he was scouted as a six-year-old playing in a local youth tournament for Kew Park Rangers. “It was the free-kicks,” he says.
“Free-kick after free-kick,” Nigel adds proudly. “By the time he’d played three of four games, every scout was watching him play. I’ll never forget that day.”
After Jim Fraser, the assistant head of Chelsea’s academy, invited him to trial at the club’s development centre, James made a seamless transition, starring in the age group up alongside the likes of Jacob Maddox, Trevor Chalobah and Mason Mount.
“When I was 13 to 14, I put on a lot of weight,” he says. “I had to work hard just to get myself in a position where I could even complete a full match. It was very tough. I wouldn’t say I had doubts in my ability but you go through spells when you’re unsure of yourself.”
A year later, hurting after a number of his teammates were offered professional contracts, something clicked. James began training harder, waking up at dawn on Sunday mornings for extra sessions with a fitness coach while the club helped him to regain his footing.
“I’ll always be able to look back on that and know I overcame it. At that age, it can either make you stronger or break you. My dad drilled a certain mentality into me when I was younger. You always go through ups and downs but you’ve got to keep your head down and work hard at it. The hard times have always made me stronger.”
James gradually shifted to the right wing, then into central midfield, before eventually slipping back into defence. “A lot less glamorous,” he laughs. But after years spent up front, he was quicker, trickier and better-able to anticipate the movement of his opponents. In the final of the 2017 FA Youth Cup, he was heralded after shackling the country’s best young attacking talent in Jadon Sancho over two legs as Chelsea defeated Manchester City 6-2 on aggregate.
James had always been naturally shy as a boy. Even now he considers himself to be short-shrift in conversation, at least in formal settings. But as he grew older, a tenacity blossomed. The following year, he began to captain Chelsea’s U18s team, the team’s leader and conductor, dictating from the back while Callum Hudson-Odoi starred up front as they sealed back-to-back Premier League and FA Youth Cup titles.
“As I grew older, that side came out of me a lot more,” he says, acknowledging the transformation that saw him become the club’s U18s academy player of the year. “A lot of people might still say I’m quiet now but when I get onto the pitch it’s different. My mind goes blank and all I want to do is win… And I want to win in style.
“It’s great to have people coming through the academy on a similar journey to me. I’ve known Callum for over 10 years and seen him play for the club and realise his dream. At the start of this season, you could argue he wasn’t getting as much game time as he wanted, but he showed that if you’re good enough, the pathway is always there. I never thought it would be too hard to break into the first-team. Now I’ve just got to hope I’ll get my chance and, when I do, I’ll do everything to take it and earn that recognition.”
Unlike Hudson-Odoi, with club captain Cesar Azpilicueta and £25m signing Davide Zappacosta ahead of him in the pecking order, James decided to leave on loan to appease his desire to get a first taste of professional football. But rather than saunter little more than a bus ride away to Brentford or Queens Park Rangers, he was sent 200 miles up north for a rugged initiation at one of English football’s grittier institutions. “I wanted him to go to an old school club,” Nigel adds. “I wanted to see that he could survive on his own.”
When James arrived at Wigan’s training ground for the first time, he felt an unfamiliar jangle of nerves. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits. “Suddenly I’m playing with people who have got kids and families.”
He entered with tempered expectations, ready to play a bit-part role and be “called upon when needed” with the hope of getting around 15 games under his belt. But after making his debut, James never came out of the team. As the season reached its climax, with Wigan embroiled in a desperate scrap for safety, James produced a streak of match-winning performances that clawed the team back from the precipice, hustling endlessly in defence and drifting into midfield to pull the short ball-playing levers of a side better known for thrashing it long.
In total, James played 45 games, won players’ and fans’ player of the year and was named in the Championship team of the season. In his final game for the club, he wore the captain’s armband and was substituted to a rapturous standing ovation that left him very emotional.
“Even though I’m young, I proved I have the fight and I let my ability talk,” he says. “It’s given me so much more confidence. Once I’d played a few games, nobody took any notice of my age, they just saw me as another player. When we were fighting relegation, losing three, four, five games on the bounce, it was tough to take. I don’t think there are many players who’ve got the advantage of having that same experience.”
The burden of expectation on James is now unavoidable regardless of his low-maintenance approach to the spotlight. Returning to full training in the next couple of weeks, the debut he’s dreamed about for over a decade is so near every day feels like a chore of waiting. He’s felt ready since the day he returned from Wigan. The last time he trained with the first-team he remembers feeling taken aback. This time, nothing surprised him at all. “I don’t feel any pressure,” he says.
After a sit-down with Lampard, surrounded by a coaching staff that have known him since he first walked into that canteen, he feels the reassurance and opportunity to be more than just an understudy this season. In an era where Chelsea are retracing their homegrown ties, James struggles to remember the formative days before he was part of the academy.
He drifts back to the visions of his debut. Something that felt so far on the horizon when he made his breakthrough here in Cobham over a decade ago. “This is the team I support,” he says. “This has always been my dream: to make my debut for Chelsea. The dream I had when I first played for the club as a youngster. I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been…and I’d like to think I never take a step back.”
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