In the first of a two-part interview with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the midfielder reflects on the World Cup, the reasons behind England’s success, and what it felt like to be a part of something so memorable…
The summer of 2018 will always have a special place in the hearts of England supporters. It was not just that the Three Lions reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in a generation; it was the manner in which Gareth Southgate’s young team did so, playing at times with a sense of fun and freedom, and on other occasions with the doggedness and determination tournament football demands.
The last-minute win against Tunisia, the thrashing of Panama. Overcoming Colombia on penalties having conceded an injury-time equaliser, then sauntering past Sweden on a Saturday afternoon before taking the lead in a World Cup semi-final: these were indelible footballing memories, made in the space of a few short, sweet weeks.
It was pretty great to follow from afar, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek had the privilege of being in the midst of it all, playing four times for the country who finished fourth in Russia. One month has now passed since the tournament’s conclusion, and the young midfielder is only too happy to relive it all as he sits down with the official Chelsea website. You suspect these are tales he will never tire of telling.
‘I am so happy I was able to play in a few of the games, and contribute to a massive World Cup for England as a nation,’ he begins.
‘I see it as a really good experience for me personally. I loved being with the squad. Most of the boys were of a similar age, as well. They were such good lads and we gelled really well together.
‘It was a really enjoyable experience, but also an educational experience for me. I have played international football before but not on the world stage, so I learned what it’s like, what the pressure is like, and I got a feel for what playing at the top level is like.’
Loftus-Cheek’s first appearance in Russia was off the bench in England’s opener against Tunisia. The scores were level, 10 minutes remained, and it looked like it could have been the same old story.
‘I just tried to come on and inject energy and pace and power, take risks and run at the opponent and try and make stuff happen.
‘The game looked like it was fading out a bit. In the end I pressured the corner from which we scored the winner. That was a massive three points. It set the tone. The feeling was great in the changing room afterwards.
‘Do you know what, there is a lot of pressure but personally I don’t seem to feel it,’ adds Loftus-Cheek, who has been at Chelsea since the Under-8s age group.
‘My mindset is that you do your best, and that’s all you can do. There’s no point adding pressure to yourself.'
— Ruben Loftus-Cheek
‘I think as a squad we were really relaxed and confident. We just said “let’s do our best, have fun and enjoy it”. That’s the route we went down, and it paid off.’
One of the biggest learning curves for Loftus-Cheek was spending a sustained period of time – more than six weeks - on the road, but he is quick to praise the England staff for making their Repino training base feel like a home away from home. It had been cited as a problem for previous England travelling parties.
‘The facilities were great, and we had so much stuff to do so you didn’t get bored in the hotel. We had movie nights, we had table tennis and snooker. We had basketball courts and golf simulators.
‘We watched a lot of the other games, too, especially at the start when there are three are day. We had a big screen like it was a movie theatre. It was cool! We were travelling out to the games, and then we were saying let’s get back home.’
The 22-year-old believes St George’s Park, England’s national football centre, has also played an important part in the recent success of Three Lions’ sides. He says being around the senior players and coaches at the facility made it much easier for him to step up to the full squad last year, as did the fact he had already played under Southgate, at Under-21 level, and Steve Holland, his former assistant at Stamford Bridge.
In Russia this summer, England’s journey was brought to a crushing halt by Croatia in extra-time of the semi-final. Though naturally disappointed with the way it ended, Loftus-Cheek points out that it is a ‘good indicator that we want to do better, and try and go all the way at the next World Cup’.
But for now, Qatar 2022 can wait. The success of England this summer is still fresh in the memory, and not just for Loftus-Cheek, who, after his impressive Tunisia cameo, started against Panama and Belgium (twice). Those heady days in June and July captured the imagination of the whole country, and only now is the magnitude of it all dawning on Loftus-Cheek.
‘I didn’t realise at first! When we were out there it was like a bubble. We were in our base camp and we only had Twitter and Instagram.
‘As the tournament went on, I was talking to my family and they were saying “seriously, you don’t understand how mental it is back here.” Then I was starting to see all the videos, like of Boxpark in Croydon with everyone throwing beers when we scored.
‘To know you were one of the people encouraging and influencing people’s happiness - that was a good feeling.’
By Rupert Cane