They couldn’t cope with the individual talent of the players the Blues had at their disposal, nor the collective unit that was busy steamrolling through them. Chelsea were dominant, and the other clubs struggled to keep up.
It’s a story that sounds familiar, but we’re not talking about Jose Mourinho’s Premier League-winning team of the same season here; it’s the Chelsea under-8s from 2004/05 who were busy getting a reputation as London’s toughest and meanest side. They were the big boys, and at the heart of it all was Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Born in Lewisham, south London, Loftus-Cheek had moved with his family to Kent, but it wouldn’t be long before the capital was calling him back. Playing Sunday League football with his local side, Springfield, the physically supreme midfielder stood out.
Loftus-Cheek was athletic, and playing in the middle of the park—where he would combine his physical edge with his ability on the ball to control games—he showed the Chelsea scouts that he had all the attributes to join their youth sides, where the plan was to nurture him into a Premier League footballer.
“I got scouted so came down to Chelsea and really enjoyed it,” Loftus-Cheek told Bleacher Report. “We had a good group of players and I made some good friends. We used to win every game at that age group. It was so much fun. We used to go play Arsenal and the other teams, but we were still winning every game.”
Of that group who joined Chelsea with Loftus-Cheek over a decade ago, only Jordan Houghton remains at the club. Also a midfielder, the 20-year-old has been on loan with Gillingham and Plymouth Argyle this season.
Chelsea have bigger plans for Loftus-Cheek, though. He’s one of the few up-and-coming stars at the club who has been fast-tracked to the first team in the hope he will go on to emulate John Terry’s success at Stamford Bridge.
It’s the oft-quoted stat that not since Terry have Chelsea seen an academy graduate become established in west London. The club captain’s story is a remarkable one, coming right through from the development teams to captain the Blues to unprecedented levels of success.
Terry joined the club as a 14-year-old, though, meaning Loftus-Cheek’s story has the potential to weave an even more romantic narrative for the purists.
In the words used by Chelsea fans in their banner dedicated to Terry during Sunday’s game with Leicester City, Loftus-Cheek is “proper Chels” to his core.
Recently named as Chelsea Young Player of the Year, he doesn’t turn 21 until January, yet he boasts over a decade of service that pre-dates the lush lawns of the club’s state-of-the-art training complex in Cobham, Surrey.
Bleacher Report sat in one of the TV studios of the main building as we spoke with Loftus-Cheek. While we waited for the youngster to finish training, we had the opportunity to absorb what makes Cobham such a special environment. Everything there is built for success, from the pitches that are pruned to replicate the Stamford Bridge playing surface, to the medical department that keeps the players in prime condition, Chelsea have created a marvellous facility.
Just across the road from where we were seated is the academy building, where Loftus-Cheek has spent much of his time before coming under the spotlight as a first-team star.
“It was just Portacabins back when I first started coming here,” he told us, reinforcing just how long ago it was when he first arrived as a Chelsea player. “It’s changed a lot. We used to share it with Fulham at the old pavilion building, but then Chelsea took over the whole setup and made it into this great place.”
For young kids of Loftus-Cheek’s age back then, it wasn’t the science behind the new buildings that gets football nerds like this writer excited. His team-mates and he were more interested in stargazing whenever they could.
“We found out where the first-team building was, so we would be excited every time we came to training just to see if we could catch a glimpse of the players—if we were lucky enough to get a glimpse,” he recalled.
Back then the big names would have been Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech and even the Special One, Jose Mourinho, who would eventually give Loftus-Cheek his senior Chelsea debut against Sporting Lisbon in December 2014.
If those youngsters were desperate just to see the players in the flesh, they saw more of Terry than they bargained for.
“It was great for us young kids. From what I can remember, John used to always come over and watch and chat with the parents about the players,” Loftus-Cheek explained.
“It’s a really good memory to look back on, playing as a young kid and going through the age groups to now be playing with John. It’s a great thing that I have achieved.”
It’s memories such as that which put the youngster’s career up to this stage into perspective. While Terry was busy winning the Premier League and a glut of other trophies, Loftus-Cheek was just a schoolboy. His voice was yet to break; he hadn’t grown into that imposing 6'3" frame we’ve seen him put to good effect this season.
And now he calls Terry a team-mate. Incredible.
“When I was nine, 10 years old, I just played football for the fun of it,” he added. “I loved playing football. I used to play in the street with my mates. I’d play for the school, too, and I enjoyed it.
“When I got older and hit 13, 14, it became a bit more real. My mum and dad said to me, that if I wanted to do this, I’ve got to give it everything.
“Ever since then I’ve stuck at it and worked hard. It was definitely in the back of my mind at that time that I wanted to play for Chelsea.”
At the time, Loftus-Cheek was beginning to focus more and take his football that bit more seriously; he was starting to develop a habit that will serve him well in a Chelsea shirt—he started winning things.
Still only a schoolboy in status—so not signed to Chelsea as a youth-team scholar—Loftus-Cheek featured in the under-18s side that would win the FA Youth Cup in 2011/12. Coming up against players who were 18 and on the brink of adulthood, he was barely 16.
It mattered little, as under-18s coach at the time Adi Viveash knew the talent he had coming through. Injury had curtailed his season, restricting Loftus-Cheek to a cameo in the final against Blackburn Rovers, which Chelsea would win 4-1 on aggregate.
“Yeah, I was still a schoolboy in 2012,” he said. “I was injured for most of the season and I think I had a really good chance of playing all season, even though I was younger than most of the players. I managed to get back fit for the final, which was my first game back. Adi brought me on for the last 20 minutes and it was really good for me.”
It’s worth noting that victory over Blackburn started Chelsea’s current winning streak of four FA Youth Cups in five seasons. It’s five in seven if we count the 2010 win over Aston Villa.
Loftus-Cheek has been a big part of those earlier campaigns—his age preventing him from playing the past two seasons—and he captained Chelsea to success in 2014 over Fulham.
Loftus-Cheek smiled when he recalled the end-to-end, all-out attacking football that defined that victory over Fulham. It would end 7-6 on aggregate, as Chelsea snatched victory late on in the second leg at Stamford Bridge thanks to Dominic Solanke.
He took on a different tone when he remembered losing to Norwich City a year earlier.
“The experience against Norwich when we lost, I was gutted. Even though we had won it the season before, I wasn’t a key player in that team. Being injured, not playing and only coming on in the final, I wanted to win it by playing every game, going through those battles. I was really gutted to lose that final,” he reflected.
They’re the words of a player who continues to mature. Loftus-Cheek doesn’t speak like a wide-eyed academy hopeful. The resolve in his voice shows a player who continues to learn and uses his experience well.
That 2014 final with Fulham may have been entertaining for the neutral, although it wasn’t by sheer luck that Chelsea would come out on top. It was the character Viveash’s side displayed that would get them through against opponents who could boast Patrick Roberts and Moussa Dembele (not that one!) among their number. Loftus-Cheek had to show some leadership as captain of that side, also.
“It was immense against Fulham,” Loftus-Cheek said. “The first leg was tough as well and we brought it back just enough. In the return game at Stamford Bridge, I remember saying to the players: ‘We’ve got to go out fast and start well because we need to get back on track.’ We got the goal, but then Patrick scored for them and it was just a mad game.
“Losing like we did to Norwich a year earlier really drove us on. The next season we came back and won it.
“I didn’t feel any pressure as captain against Fulham. It was just great to be playing in front of a stadium full of people at that age. You don’t get thousands of people watching you every game, so as a squad we were really excited when the Youth Cup came around as we were playing in front of crowds and the game felt like it really meant something. I just wanted to go out and play football.”
The attendance was 13,125 for the second leg against Fulham. It’s an impressive turnout for under-18s football, especially when we consider that some League 1 and League 2 clubs in England struggle to hit that on a weekly basis. Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium has a maximum capacity of 11,464.
Loftus-Cheek is getting used to playing in front of crowds of more than triple that number, which is what he’ll be doing this summer when Chelsea return to America to compete in the International Champions Cup as part of their pre-season preparations.
The midfielder is no stranger to playing stateside, having his first taste of it in a post-season tour with Chelsea in 2013. The Blues played Manchester City twice back then, including a game at Yankee Stadium.
“I remember everything about that. Coming down to the pre-match meeting, I didn’t think I would be involved but then I just saw my name on the starting sheet. It was a big surprise,” he revealed.
“When we got to the stadium and I was lining up in the tunnel, David Luiz said to me: ‘You’re 17 and you’re playing for Chelsea. You can play in the first team for a while, so enjoy it. It’s a big moment for you.’
“The fans are great over there. I didn’t realise there would be many ‘soccer’ fans,” he laughed. “The atmosphere was great and I enjoyed the games we played.
“I’m definitely looking forward to going back to the big stadiums. We’re playing some really good teams and that will be fun.”
Looking ahead to pre-season as a first-team player, Loftus-Cheek has come a long way from when he first trained alongside the big names at Stamford Bridge.
Fittingly, with Antonio Conte taking over this summer, it was another Italian who spotted Loftus-Cheek in the youth team and got him involved with the seniors.
“I was 14,” he said without flinching, as if marking Frank Lampard in training as a teenager is the norm. “Jordan Houghton and I went over to train with the first team and Carlo Ancelotti was manager. The nerves were definitely there, but they go after a while.
“I’ve been over here [with the first team] for a while now, and I’m playing more and more games. I feel like a part of the squad, an important player.”
Chelsea fans hope he remains a while longer yet.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek Answers Your Questions
Before Bleacher Report spoke with Loftus-Cheek, we asked Chelsea fans to send us questions they would most like to ask him. So, we put some of them to the midfielder, and here’s how he responded:
@SimplyTareq: If you could play with any Chelsea legend, who would it be?
Gianfranco Zola. I never really saw him play in person, but from the clips I’ve seen, he was magical. I would have to say Zola because of that.
@AMcGovern25: Who is the best player from the academy you have played with?
It’s a tough one as there have been so many. Jeremie Boga is very good.
@ChelseaAnalytic: What’s the best advice you’ve had from a senior player at Chelsea?
I speak to John Terry a lot. Whether it’s about football or other stuff, he’s always happy to help and talk to me. There’s not one thing I can say is the best advice he has given me, but I speak to John a lot.
@MokkaCheenu: How much of an influence has Guus Hiddink had on you? What are your impressions of him?
He’s a really nice man. I wish him all the best in the future. He’s been willing to play me and give me a run of games towards the end of the season, which I’m grateful for. I really wish him all the best now that he’s leaving the club.
Chelsea will take part in the International Champions Cup again this summer, facing Liverpool (July 27), Real Madrid (July 30) and AC Milan (Aug. 3). The games will be played in Pasadena, CA; Ann Arbor, MI; and Minneapolis, MN; respectively. Tickets are available here.