In a season full of ups and downs, one overwhelming positive of the 2018/2019 season was the emergence of academy players Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Chelsea supporters have been waiting for years for the next player to progress from the academy into the first team and with the academy having won multiple FA Youth Cups and UEFA Youth Cups, it’s been a matter of when not if, in terms of a player following in the footsteps of John Terry.
One of those players on the periphery of the first team is Reece James, who spent last season on loan at Wigan Athletic. James quickly impressed the Lactics faithful, becoming one of the teams most important players.
James’ impression was so great, that on the final day of the season Wigan manager Paul Cook gave him the captains armband and substituted him in the final moments of their final league game of the season so he could receive a standing ovation from the DW Stadium.
I spoke to Dan Rodenby, a Wigan Athletic season ticket holder and editor of a Wigan Athletic Facebook page, to get an understanding of how his season went and how excited Chelsea fans should be at the prospect of James being part of the first team squad next season
“Very, very excited. He arrived at Wigan, and we all thought he was just signed as back-up, to our 2017/18 player of the season, Nathan Byrne, who is our right-back and one of our best players. Reece started the season due to Byrne being injured, and it’s just went from there. Everyone at the club realised his talent was wasted at right-back, so he played the majority of the season in centre midfield, and bossed it pretty much every week. I can’t remember him having a bad game, or even needing time to adapt to the physicality of the Championship, from minute one he’s just looked a seasoned pro and conducted himself perfectly on and off the pitch.”
James’ move from right back to central midfield may change his path to the first team, although Cesar Azpiliceuta is Mr Dependable And has worn the captain’s armband this season, he struggled in the move from centre back to right back and the demands put on him by Maurizio Sarri.
In midfield, Chelsea look more set with a three of Jorginho, N’golo Kante and Loftus-Cheek, meaning James’ opportunities maybe limited here, but having watched him in both positions this season, Dan believes that no matter where he ends up on the pitch, James will make his impression.
“ I’m not completely sure where his future lies, in terms of position. He was signed as a right-back, massive props to whoever at Wigan spotted him, but nobody knew he would turn out like he did. He played in midfield because our midfielders aren’t particularly brilliant, and it was obvious to see he was just head and shoulders above them, so he would have been wasted at right-back. Is he good enough technically to play in midfield, and does he have the all-round game, absolutely 100%. But it’s one thing player that role in the Championship, then doing it for Chelsea in the Premier League. But that’s up-to Reece and Chelsea, either way, I believe he could play any position on the pitch and do a good job.”
On the pitch, James obviously made a massive impact to the Wigan on the pitch, but the off the pitch side that fans normally don’t see was where James made his biggest impact.
“What impressed me most about Reece James, is the work he done off the pitch. We’ve had many loan players over the years from the top clubs in England and they simply didn’t want to be here. Reece was an exception, he played 45 out of 46 league games, and you could see when we scored how much it meant to him. He visited local schools to talk to children, visited the dressing rooms of academy players before matches to wish them good luck, spent about 40 minutes getting pictures and signing autographs after the final home game. In the final home game, Paul Cook made him captain, and he was substituted off to a standing ovation, and fans, including myself, had tears in their eyes. The effect he’s had on our town on and off the pitch, has been monumental. I run a Wigan Athletic Facebook page, and wanted the fans to be given an opportunity to thank him and give him something to remember us, so I printed off over 300 fan messages and gave them to Reece, and he was genuinely appreciative as I’m sure Wigan is in his heart now.”
It’s hard not to draw comparisons with John Terry with how Dan talks about James. A proper leader is something Chelsea have dearly lacked since his departure and when Terry broke into the first team you could see his leadership qualities straight away.
With James proving that quality while simply being a loan player, it’s not difficult to imagine he’d be exactly the same within the Chelsea side.
After his season at Wigan come to an end, James has been with the Chelsea squad everyday in training, and is reportedly one of the players that had impressed Sarri. To make it to the very top though, you must improve year on year, and Dan spoke about the challenges that Sarri maybe setting James.
“I’m really struggling to find a weakness of his game. If being pushed, I’d say his movement off the ball could be a room for improvement. In many games this season, he’s ran the show in the first half of matches, then second half he’s been doubled up on and marked out the game. At times I feel like he could’ve made aggressive forward runs off the ball, rather than just sit around the midfield position, however that’s being really picky.”
For a youth player to make it, a senior pro has to make way, so who exactly should be most fearful of James’ emergence at Chelsea? According to Dan, Sarri has a real problem on his hands.
“ It depends on what position he wants to play really. I know Sarri isn’t a big fan of Alonso, and from what I’ve seen, I don’t think Emerson is great. So, a logical decision from my point of view would be to move Azpilicueta to left back and play James right back, but whether Chelsea would play their captain out of position, to allow James to play, is a mystery. I think he could fit in your midfield too. I’m not a big fan of Kovacic, he’s neat and tidy, but I just don’t think he ever significantly impacts a match. I think James would flourish alongside Kante, they both have immense work-rate, good on the ball, strong, with Jorginho sitting behind I think would be a perfect midfield three.”
Of course most loanees don’t have the impact that James has had at Wigan this season, however the strength of Chelsea’s academy means it’s a go to place for clubs looking for loan signings, and Dan hopes Wigan will be the first point of call for Chelsea to send their developing talents.
“ I’d like Matt Miagza, he performed very well at Reading last season, and we could do with a classy centre half who is good on the ball, and I see him being the perfect signing. I’ve not seen much of Jamal Blackman personally, but we need a keeper if we can’t get Christian Walton on loan again, and I’ve read positive reviews about Blackman, so I’d take him too. Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham are both quality players, I’d take either of them if you wanted to give them more Championship experience, but I expect both to be playing at a higher level next season. I hope we get a couple of Chelsea players, I think we deserve it after the work we’ve done with James.”
Having seen some clips of James I’m excited to see him with the first team next season, he seems to have all the right attributes to make it and most importantly the right attitude. According to Dan, the sky really is the limit for James’ potential
“I’ve said since around November that Reece James will captain England one day. He’s got all the talent in world, but the right attitude to go with it. I’ve seen him develop as a player, he’s grounded, and as long as he stays fit and plays regular, I think he could turn into a world class player.”