Billy Gilmour sat in the stands last April in Switzerland and watched on powerlessly as our Under-19s suffered a disappointing defeat in the UEFA Youth League final at the hands of Barcelona. Almost a year on, the Scotland Under-21 international is now an integral part of the team looking to make amends and reach the European final once again, starting with a last-16 meeting with Montpellier at Cobham this evening.
Gilmour made four appearances in the competition last term while still only 16, his maiden season at Chelsea, including three as a substitute, but was kept out of the side in the latter stages by older, more experienced teammates.
He scored his first Youth League goals in our 2018/19 opener against Molde, a 32-minute hat-trick netted either side of half-time in the first leg of a 14-1 aggregate triumph. The following month, away in Sweden, the midfielder converted a late penalty in a 3-0 win over Elfsborg. Six more goals followed at Cobham to send the young Blues into a play-off against Monaco, which they won 3-1 in March.
For many in the group, the memories of last season are providing extra motivation but Gilmour reflects on it as an important learning experience.
‘It was a good experience for me last season as an Under-17, to be involved in some of the games and travel with the boys,’ the teenager tells the official Chelsea website. ‘We had a really good team and you can see that because so many of them are now playing senior football. It was disappointing to lose in the final but hopefully this is the year for us and we can progress to lift the trophy.’
Our route to the last-16 this campaign has been different to our previous four runs to the latter stages, with group stage involvement replaced by immediate knockout football. Gilmour admits that brings added pressure and smaller margins for error, though the Blues have managed to step up and produce.
‘It’s more pressure straightaway playing knockout football and a different way of coming through the competition,’ he says. ‘They were still tough games [against Molde and Elfsborg] but we’ve produced good performances and managed to get some good wins on the board.
‘It’s always nice to get on the scoresheet so obviously I was happy to score a hat-trick in the first game against Molde and hopefully there are more goals to come for me and the team.’
The one-legged tie against AS Monaco three weeks ago was a significant step up both in quality and prestige of the opponent. With Real Madrid, Barcelona, Lyon, Hoffenheim and Dinamo Zagreb already booked into the quarter-finals, testing tasks lay ahead if Joe Edwards’s side are to return to Nyon next month.
‘They were a good team so we knew we needed to give everything on the night,’ reflects Gilmour on Monaco. ‘It was more pressure being a one-off knockout game but we dug in, played well and got the win to go through.
'There’s always expectation on Chelsea teams in this competition because in the past four years we’ve been to three finals and won it twice.'
— Billy Gilmour
'It’s been a different pathway to the last-16 this season but we just have to keep focused on winning our games and keep progressing.’
Montpellier represent back-to-back French opponents for the Blues and their pedigree is strong. La Paillade are nine points clear of Monaco in their domestic league, top of the table, and beat the 2017 runners-up Benfica in their play-off tie. However, Gilmour sees the continental clash as a perfect opportunity for our youngsters to show their quality on the biggest of stages.
‘We take every game as it comes so we’re only focused on Montpellier and we need to respect them as a good team,’ he adds. ‘They’re top of the Under-19 league in France but they have to come to Cobham to play against us and we know we’re a really good team. This is our opportunity to show that.
‘We want to compete in every competition we enter but particularly this one because we’re mostly an Under-19s team and this is an Under-19s competition. This is where we get to prove we’re the best players and the best team at our age group in Europe.’
Chelsea versus Montpellier in the UEFA Youth League last-16 kicks off at 5pm at Cobham this evening (Wednesday) and will be screened live on BT Sport.