In July 2005, Chelsea signed a promising young left-sider called Ryan Bertrand for their youth team and watched as he graduated with aplomb.
One year later, Ashley Cole signed from Arsenal, plugging the first-team gap at left-back for as long as his career would allow him to. Bertrand will have seen this as ideal—the chance to work day in, day out with England's No. 1 in his position—but has it been more of a hindrance in retrospect?
It's been eight years since he joined Chelsea, and after arriving from Gillingham with great hopes of stardom, the young Englishman's career has positively stalled.
You'd think, on paper, that a man who started and won a UEFA Champions League final against Bayern Munich has made it, but that's far from the case as this season's record shows.
Chelsea have played a ridiculous 63 games so far this season, and the club are scheduled to play another four. This haul includes grueling trips to Russia, Czech Republic, Romania and Switzerland, six Champions League battles, deep domestic cup runs and the standard UK-wide league circuit.
Yet Bertrand has made very few starts and has rarely played in the crunch games. That's a by-product of Cole's immense professionalism to the game and his incredible natural fitness and endurance.
This season's 20 starts (14 in the EPL) is a personal best for Bertrand by some distance, bettering the previous season's tally of seven. So where's he been? Why has a player that has been at a club eight years made approximately 30 starts?
Bertrand has taken in so many loan spells it's ridiculous, and it's arguable that fans of the clubs who've borrowed him know more about him than Chelsea fans do—he's made over 110 senior appearances in other shirts.
Norwich City fans recall Bertrand very fondly, having taken him in consecutive seasons and seeing him turn out in Canary yellow more than 50 times.
B/R's Norwich Featured Columnist James Kent shared his memories in private:
He was very reliable, good in the tackle. Obviously his main attribute is his pace.
He showed impressive restraint and didn't just go forward whenever he felt like it, like Sebastian Bassong does!
I didn't get a chance to see him at left midfield while he was at Carrow Road, but I can certainly see why he can play there.
I don't remember any real weaknesses, but remember him being very popular with the crowd—would have liked us to sign him.
I spoke to a Reading season ticket holder via text, and the story doesn't look so different from a Royal perspective. Brendan Rodgers clearly brought home a corker when he landed Bertrand on loan in 2009:
The general consensus was that he was a good signing. The fans wanted him signed permanently and used as our first-choice left-back, but he was always destined to go back to Chelsea.
He was great—a younger Ashley Cole. He never really put a foot wrong [across 44 appearances for the Royals].
Another Reading fan on Twitter described him as "the best left-back we've had in years," and it starts to become abundantly clear, after only a little digging, that he's a revered figure everywhere he's sampled.
Up until the start of this season, Blues fans have harboured hopes that Bertrand was being readied as a direct replacement behind the scenes.
First-choice left-back Cole turned 32 this season and was set for a free transfer away from the club until he signed a one-year extension in January (via The Daily Mail).
The emotion of joy working alongside such an elite athlete has likely festered into frustration over time, and upon the announcement of him signing for a new deal, secret disappointment.
Bertrand has aced every test in the lower leagues, ruled the Championship from left-back and won many, many fans. But the trump card he's always held—youth—is running out, and at 23 years of age he's now in a difficult situation.
Chelsea fans don't believe Bertrand is good enough to succeed Cole and will always be seen as a backup/utility option. The reason for that is the lack of concrete chances he's had.
He lacks consistency because he hasn't been gifted consistency by the club, and a quick check on the runs he's had as a starter (for other clubs) would suggest he's great when he gets going.
One of the main problems for Bertrand lays in my very first sentence in this piece: his description of "left-sider."
Is he a left-back, a wing-back, a left-midfielder or a left-winger? While we're not entirely sure, you'd bet he knows, right?
I interviewed him at the England Footballers Foundation Charity Cup in November 2012 and asked him that very question: What is your best position?
Remarkably, he wasn't able to tell me.
Norwich, Nottingham Forest and Reading fans will all tell you: He's an excellent left-back.
But at Chelsea he's been given no positional continuity—according to WhoScored?, Bertrand has played 13 games at left-back and seven games at left wing.
In the Champions League final, he essentially played as a double left-back.
We've been asking the question for years: Is Ryan Betrand good enough to replace Ashley Cole as top-dog at Chelsea? And we're still not sure.
The fear among fans—that Bertrand was never given enough opportunities when he was an appropriate age—has led to widespread belief that his chance is blown.
An on-the-spot question of "Would you be happy to see Bertrand take the starting role next season and play 38 games?" would categorically result in the same answer: no.
If Ryan wishes to forge a first-team career, he needs to take what he's learnt from Cole and move on. As it stands, he will serve as a very nice backup option and keep that left-side of Chelsea's insured for damage.
It's become clear he will never rise from the shadows of Cole's excellent legacy, and as it stands won't receive the opportunity he needs to establish himself as a top-level player.
Rather than risk his ability to adapt into a first-choice senior role, Roman Abramovich is more likely to stump up £15 million for Cole's replacement. Sadly, that will always be the case.
No one can truly say whether Bertrand could have been good enough to provide a like-for-like replacement for Cole because he never received a run of games to prove it. Cole was too consistent, too good and too fit.
The mentor Bertrand will have always craved blocked his eventual path to the first team, and with it the chance of a full-blown career in Blue.
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