Ruben Loftus-Cheek is the latest Chelsea player to talk us through the path he took to the top of the game, from growing up just outside of London to collecting silverware with our Academy and making a name for himself in the England set-up.
He remembers the time he was told he was too good to play, disliking being in defence, and turning schoolboy defeats into youth team trophies…
I was born in Lewisham in south-east London but I moved quite young to Swanley in Kent, that was where I went to school and grew up, and we had a park which was a 30-second walk away. I don’t remember it but my dad said I used to go to the park and just kick a ball around. My earliest memories are of just playing Sunday league football, really young, about six. We used to train Saturdays and play Sundays, and I used to love weekends.
We would finish school and then you had Saturday and Sunday football, and I loved it. My best friend at school, his dad who was called Peter Greening used to run the Sunday league team and I played with my friends, so it was all fun really. The team was called Springfield FC, we had a light blue kit with black on it. I played with my age group then but we did sometimes join in with the older boys in training. There was a cage in the park next to where I lived and I was always in there after school. That was really where you played football with the olders because everyone would be there and you just joined in, including with some adults.
I didn’t play Sunday league for too long, I played for about a year, and in that year I was scouted by a few teams – Chelsea, Millwall, Arsenal, West Ham, Charlton - so I ended up training at all these clubs apart from Arsenal, just dipping in and out, because you can’t sign until Under-9s. I went to Chelsea’s development centre in Catford and it came to the time to sign and I don’t remember the discussions but I ended up signing for Chelsea and then the rest is history.
My half-brothers are footballers [they are Carl and Leon Cort], they played at a high level, Premier League. They are in their 30s now and have retired, but I didn’t really have a relationship with them until I was in my early teens. From then I was talking to them and they gave me good advice.
I realised I was good at football when I was really young. I went to a place called Charlton Challenge which was run in a leisure centre and I went with my age group, but they said I was too good and told me to come back the next day to play with the boys who were two or three years older. So I knew I was quite good and you dream of playing in the Premier League but you never really think about it happening. You just play football until about 11, 12 and then your parents are told.
I was not always the tallest. In my room I have the squad photos from when I was young and I was never the tallest until about 15, 16, and then I started getting injuries because I was growing quickly. Then I started putting on muscle mass around 17 and became powerful. So I wasn’t always the tallest and I think that is why I am good with my feet as well. The physical side of my game came later. I was always good with my feet.
At the Chelsea Academy in the early stages it was fun but you don’t realise you are improving at a high rate, from the fun drills and the races going through cones and stuff like that. At a young age you are just improving so much and it is because you are enjoying it as well. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would do technical skills around the dome, dribbling both feet, striking it into a net. You just repeat, repeat, repeat, and subconsciously it becomes second nature. My coach in the Chelsea development centre was Cyril Davies, and he ended up being one of my coaches in the age groups in the Academy too. It was Ossie [Bob Orsborn] for Under-9s, Michael Beale Under-10s, and from then on Adi Viveash came in and worked up the ranks with us.
The earliest competitive games we played were tournaments abroad. They were great but we always used to go away to them and everyone seemed so much bigger than us, much stronger. It was because the age groups were different there, and at times we got thumped. I remember a tournament we went to where we played Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan, and we lost 5-0 to Inter Milan, 4-0 AC Milan and 2-0 to Madrid, but it is all part of the development. It was great to go away and do that.
Jim Fraser [assistant head of youth development] rang my parents up when I was at Under-10 or 11s and asked what we felt about me playing up an age group permanently. Jordan Houghton was doing that at the time. All my friends were in my own age group and I said I don’t want to do it permanently so I did it a little bit, dipping in and out. I guess that was just my young head, my young thinking, wanting to be with my friends, but I ended up playing up an age group from 13s onwards.
I came to Chelsea as a midfielder. I had always played midfield for my Sunday league team and probably until about U11s, U12s, and then I started playing centre-back. Even though I had played in midfield, I was never seen as an attacking midfielder, I was always box-to-box or I played deep. It has changed now and I am seen as more of an attacking player. I always had that talent to manipulate the ball and I guess that is seen as useful in the more advanced areas of the pitch. But I played centre-back or defensive midfield until I was about 17 or 18 when I started playing no.10.
I remember playing youth team at 16 and Adi Viveash played me centre-back at the start of the season and I hated it! But he used to tell me I got to see the pitch from a different view and see how you would want your midfielders to show for you. You could see it from that angle and take it into your game when you are in midfield. I definitely see the benefits now, from seeing it from a different angle and knowing what a centre-back wants from his midfielders.
At youth team level the trophies came. We had such a good team, so much talent, such a good chemistry that it was inevitable we were going to do well in games and tournaments. It is credit to the coaches we had that they were able to get us together and win the amount we did because it definitely wasn’t easy. We had to come back from behind in some of the Youth Cup games.
The Victory Shield [an annual U16 tournament between the home nations] was my first game for England. I went to trial because firstly they get a load of boys to a camp to see what it is like. I got picked for the trial but I did not get picked for the Victory Shield for the older age because that was a ‘95 age group and I was born in ’96. So my first game was for the ‘96s in the Victory Shield and I was skipper for the game and it was a really good experience.
In played every age group after that but I did not play an age up too much for England until Under-21s, who I played for when I was 19, and I was with them until 21 years old.