Over the course of his many years at Stamford Bridge, but especially during his second stint, José “judge a player in 10 minutes” Mourinho made several bold claims about youth prospects, about “Academy Days”, about developing full-fledged England internationals. At the same time, he also talked plenty of times about being patient, about controlling expectations, and about not pushing players too much too quickly, especially by familial influences at home.
For José, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was a prime example for many of these claims, especially after he was promoted to the first team in 2014, “not just to stay; to stay and play”. “You don’t have this kind of talent every couple years”, said José nine months before his sacking. And yet, during those tumultous first few months of the 2015-16 season, RLC played a grand total of 63 minutes across three appearances in the league — despite promises of more — including that infamous start against Aston Villa, when he was hauled off at half-time after playing no less uninspired than the rest of the usual starters.
In a battle of competing narratives and opinions over the years, RLC was either not ready, not good enough because he wasn’t immediately dominant like at youth level, didn’t work hard enough, or simply did not get the opportunities he deserved. Whatever the truth may be — and as usual, it’s probably a combination of all of them, meeting at some uncomfortable middle of luck, opportunity, and circumstance — Loftus-Cheek’s situation wasn’t unique, except for being the one young player that Mourinho constantly talked about. Others of RLC’s generation have gone through similar situations, be that Chalobah, Baker, Solanke, or Aké, under both Mourinho and now Conte, but few were as consistently overhyped and underplayed as Loftus-Cheek.
It’s no wonder that the 21-year-old’s father, who obviously will always have his son’s and only his son’s future prospects in mind, appears to bear so much grudge against Mourinho.
“Jose Mourinho held him back. He should have been playing. Everyone behind the scenes was asking, "Why isn't he playing?" If Ruben had been playing for Mauricio Pochettino, he'd have 70, 80, 90 first-team appearances by now.”
-Trevor Loftus-Cheek; source: Mail
Beyond the raw accusation, there is a salient point in there. Loftus-Cheek, through all his “stays and plays” with the first-team has fallen behind in his development. He’s fortunately catching up, and so is the rest of the world to his promise and talent.
The most exciting thing about RLC is what he can become with consistent game time. Since 2014 he was only played the equivalent of 20 senior matches at club level. After another 60 appearances is where he should be getting judged.— Tweeds (@JoeTweedie) November 11, 2017
For Loftus-Cheek himself, the situation, at least in public, is not nearly as dramatic. There are no regrets; what matters is the now and the next.
“Chelsea is a massive club and I understand that opportunities don't come to everyone and don't come often. For me, I would never want to rewind the time, because I learned a lot about myself mentally and I feel like I got mentally stronger. That period of two years was my journey and now I have got the chance to play."
But he admits that the last few years have been tough, mentally more so than anything, and just the idea of regular playing time has instilled him with enough confidence to let his talent shine on the big stage.
“When you don't play you really feel the difference of what matches give you — the match sharpness, the fitness. It's what you need to progress. It was hard not playing and having to try to be the best player on the pitch [when I did]. In these last two or three years I have had to be really patient.
“It was tough mentally at Chelsea, obviously not getting the game time. I had to be really patient and have the mentality to still train right and do all the right things. I believe that if you do all the right things, in time you will get your opportunities. Now I have the opportunity to play in the Premier League every week. That's what I wanted and I will try to build on that.
"Mentally, [knowing you will play] takes the pressure off. At Palace I feel like a first-team player and I have got the opportunity to play every week. There are no guarantees but I have a better chance of playing, so being at Palace gives me the platform to learn and develop."
-Ruben Loftus-Cheek; source: ESPN
Friday’s performance for England combined with his good showings for Crystal Palace on loan so far, should give Chelsea a second chance to make it work with Loftus-Cheek, who is signed through 2021. It’s never easy to come back from loan — Christensen, Courtois, Moses the rare exceptions, and in the latter’s case, highly unexpected — just as it’s never easy to make the leap from (the top of) youth football to the top of the men’s game. But Loftus-Cheek is showing that he is more than capable of making that leap. Now we just have to make sure we don’t pull the landing pad away.