Jake Clarke-Salter entered the summer under the crown of captaining England’s U21s, but returned to a familiar state of anxiety. Three years since the Chelsea academy graduate made his debut, four established centre-backs remained ahead of him in the pecking order at Stamford Bridge – prior to David Luiz’s departure – and there is an undercurrent of urgency when Clarke-Salter says, at just 21, that he feels too old to sit still. “I’d be silly to say I wouldn’t want to be in the position where I could play for Chelsea. Anyone would,” he says. “It’s very hard to have patience at times, but you have to understand that there are world-class players at Chelsea. You learn to appreciate that.”
It’s a revolving door dilemma Clarke-Salter has faced since he was 18 years old. He has seen the light of being one of the club’s standout prospects, joining a scant collection of players to have won three FA Youth Cups and two Uefa Youth Leagues. He then navigated the waterfalls of praise and guillotines of expectation to make his first-team debut and was hailed by John Terry as his potential successor.
But, as so many flourishing talents have found, the dam was near-impossible to breach; another juvenile casualty of Chelsea’s gung-ho transfer approach. In football’s warped timeline, a year can count for practically a generation. Having broken through during the transition to Antonio Conte’s reign rather than Frank Lampard’s, Clarke-Salter would easily be forgiven for harbouring thoughts of what might otherwise have been.
Instead, his education was harsh, if not at times cruel. His first loan spell, at Bristol Rovers, was ended by a fracture to his arm that required the insertion of a metal plate. At Sunderland the following year, his hankering to impress spilt into back-to-back red cards, unjustly painting him as an irascible teenager. “I learned the most at Sunderland,” he admits. “I feel I went as a boy and now I’m a man. I got that mental toughness. The team were struggling and, at the time, it’s not the greatest, but the game is full of ups and downs no matter what type of player you are. I’ve experienced injuries, red cards, and learnt from my mistakes.”
When he returned, Clarke-Salter wanted to detach himself from that scarlet letter. Despite a wealth of interest in the Championship, he chased “a change of scenery and a fresh start” and excelled at Chelsea’s sister club, Vitesse, in the Netherlands. “Going there is what made me be able to captain England,” he says.
But playing on a long leash from home can feel like a ceaseless horizon. The constant pursuit of a glorious homecoming at Chelsea that has remained elusive. For a player who has spent over half their life at a single club, the realisation of that cycle can be painful. “As a young player, your dream is always to break straight through,” he says.
“I’ve been at a few loan clubs. Last season being in Holland and now Birmingham. It’s nice to experience different areas and different cultures but I’m a London boy so being away from home from about 18 can be difficult at times.”
With an easy maturity and confidence that skips past any self-condolence, Clarke-Salter credits the sense of responsibility learned as the eldest of six siblings for his resilience. “Things weren’t easy growing, it was very difficult at times, but it’s definitely made me able to keep a level head,” he says. “Football has helped my family and so, for that, I’m very grateful. It’s something that always gives me extra motivation.”
But Clarke-Salter’s belief is also rooted in a sense of belonging. The pathway at Chelsea may remain foggy, but he is still surfing the crest of a career highlight. He fielded offers from across England and Europe for his services this summer and there is a readiness about him to begin carving his own legacy, be it in the fruition of his first dreams at Chelsea or elsewhere. “I’m 21 years old now and, obviously, to keep going on loan as you get older is probably not ideal,” he says. “It’s time to kick on.”
That was his motivation behind joining Birmingham this summer. A move to the Bundesliga might have been more illustrious, perhaps even more profitable in the long-term, but he wants to remain in England’s line of sight. He stops short of citing this season as defining, but there is a quiet acknowledgement that, at its conclusion, the door home will either break open or slam shut for the final time.
“I need to play as many games as possible at a high and consistent level now,” he says. “That’s my major aim this season. I need to show I have the physicality to play in the Premier League. If I can do that, who knows what the future holds. My main objective is to be a Premier League player.”
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