Pat Nevin: Hard on them, harder without them

Former Chelsea star Pat Nevin writes about two young players who contributed significantly to the team booking their place in Baku but will not be on the pitch during the final, and about a former team-mate with a new big job on his hands…

The long wait continues before the showdown in the Europa League final with Arsenal and yes, waiting is always very frustrating.
There was of course the matter of a friendly to play in the US and that went off very successfully apart from one obvious and huge downside.

The game was won, we scored three goals and a lot of money was raised alongside awareness for a cause that this club deeply cares about. Working tirelessly on antisemitism and anti-racism are clearly core values for Chelsea FC and the media coverage both sides of the pond was as much as could be hoped for. In that way it was a triumph.

There is of course one big but to be added to that previous paragraph. The serious injury to Ruben Loftus-Cheek was an unfortunate and grossly unfair price to pay for such a good deed by the club. He was just beginning to flower in the way that all of our fans want him to. It showed great character to battle for so long this season to finally become the first choice between him, Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic in that ’other’ midfield spot that isn’t Jorginho or N’Golo Kante.

Everything just seemed to have finally slotted into place for Ruben and his game, and then this happened. I was already licking my lips at what he was going to do next season with his increasing power, improving game awareness, his burgeoning belief in his own ability, allied to a rest and then an entire pre-season under his belt. It looked like being phenomenal from day one. Now, however, there is a long lay-off with a difficult physical and mental slog back to full fitness. He has of course had other injuries before but these long-term ones are not the same, there is a different mind-set needed to get through it.

He will certainly be helped by the club, especially with any periods when he gets a bit down and even feels uncertain about the future. This is totally natural and understandable for most players in that situation, especially younger ones. In my time it was rather different when I had my first and only long-term injury.

I had left Chelsea and was playing in my third game for Everton. In those first few games I was in the best form and best condition of my life. One minute I was skinning Stuart Pearce effortlessly, the next my ACL was bust and an operation would be followed by months out of the game. The medical help and physio work was top class, the psychological help was non-existent. The idea was that you would be strong, work hard, get back as soon as possible and no matter what, you would keep a stiff upper lip and a cheery countenance around the players who were fit and therefore far more important. Fortunately, that was perfectly fine by me and suited me down to the ground, but not everyone is or can be so accepting. Modern players have more opportunities to talk about fears and even Prince William is backing a campaign using football to get young men to talk about their hopes and fears that can lead all the way to mental illness.

So hopefully minds can be taken care of better these days, but as your body heals you also have to do everything you can to keep yourself in shape. Fortunately I did and do love swimming, which is a great way to do non-load-bearing exercise that doesn’t damage most leg injuries. There is always the temptation to do upper-body weights as well. I started doing them when I had my ACL injury having rarely lifted weights while at Chelsea and haven’t stopped pumping iron to this day. I worry however that if Ruben with his inbuilt power and physique gets too into the weights thing, by the time he is fit again the Hulk will be frightened of him!

There is one bonus and it is a very bittersweet one. At least he has someone to share part of the journey with, young Callum Hudson-Odoi. It is horrible to see our two shining lights from the youth academy struck down, but at least they will be able to talk and share the time on the journey back to fitness. They will be able to lift each other when they get a bit fed up or worried, which is a real help. These days there are plenty of people around the club and the size of the medical staff has grown exponentially, but even so it can be lonely without someone who can understand precisely what you are going through.

In a very selfish way, and I am sure they will not mind me saying it, I wish they were both available purely in terms of what they could have added even just in the game in Baku. They are incredibly different players but both have one stunning thing in common, they can break the lines of opposition teams. Whether it is by a tricksy dribble, sheer pace or pure power, between them they have the tools to go past anyone on their day. This is a highly prized set of skills that any team would fear. Winning the Europa League will be that much harder without them; they both have scored four goals in the tournament this season for a kick-off!

We do however have a good depth of squad and although it seems heartless, both Barkley and Kovacic will be trying to make sure that position is theirs. Being in a football dressing room is so incredibly competitive and cut throat it is hard to explain that you can still be a team, still be friends, but can still want the other guy’s job! No player wants a team-mate to get injured but if he is, you will certainly not spend months fretting over it. You just have to get on with your own game and do your best for yourself and the team.

I hope both Ruben and Callum make it over for the final itself, even if it is a long flight. If we were to win it they should be on that pitch, even if it means being careful on crutches. It will help them feel part of the occasion, give some respite from the recovery work and show them what they are fighting their way back for. Most importantly, those two were as important as any players in getting us to this position in the first place.

As a final, slightly biased Caledonian line, I have to mention Stevie Clarke and his new job as coach of the Scottish national side. Clearly this is the joint most important job in world football and like everyone else who knows anything about Chelsea, I wish him all the very best of luck in his new adventure. He is a true Chelsea legend and a good friend to boot.

This week he has also been honoured as Manager of the Year in Scotland above the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard. In a highly partisan country there was scarcely a dissenting voice, so incredible has his work been at Kilmarnock to get them into third place ahead of other clubs with considerably bigger budgets.

If I am honest I feel he did the impossible with Kilmarnock by taking them from relegation candidates to real contenders in less than two seasons. Even so, this next job might be harder still!

If he gets Scotland to a major finals at last, then somewhere further down the line he would deserve the other most important job in world football.

Read: Pat Nevin - The time just to win

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