The young forward discusses Frank Lampard the boss, working with familiar faces, learning lessons in defeat and getting a taste for the big stage...
It’s fair to say it’s been a stop-start 12 months for Callum Hudson-Odoi. After a breakthrough 2018/19 campaign in which he played 24 times for Chelsea and made his England debut, the young forward’s progress was stopped sharply in its tracks when he sustained an Achilles injury in a Premier League encounter with Burnley.
That was exactly a year ago this week and a range of factors have prevented him from building momentum ever since. The teenager put the hard graft in over the summer months, returning ahead of schedule in September with a goal in our 7-1 thrashing of Grimsby Town in the Carabao Cup. Five days previously, he put pen to paper on a new long-term contract at Stamford Bridge.
Having worked himself back to full fitness and into form over the winter period, Hudson-Odoi started six games in a row through January before picking up a hamstring injury away at Leicester City.
After aggravating that same issue in early March as he closed in on a return, the coronavirus pandemic forced football into an indefinite pause. Hudson-Odoi was the first Premier League player to test positive for the virus, although he reported no severe symptoms and has been maintaining his fitness at home throughout the past few weeks of the UK lockdown.
‘I am feeling perfect,’ he said in an exclusive interview with Chelsea TV this month. ‘I feel good, I feel fit and I am feeling back to myself so it’s all good.’
Prior to the abrupt suspension of football and in spite of the setbacks that have frustrated his season, the 19-year-old was enjoying working under Frank Lampard.
Having watched the former Blues midfielder enjoy a positive maiden season as a manager at Derby County last term, with Hudson-Odoi’s fellow Academy graduates Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount handed plenty of playing opportunities, he was eager to learn from someone he grew up watching and idolising.
‘I always thought to myself that he would be a good manager because of the way he used to lead on the pitch when he was playing,’ Hudson-Odoi claimed. ‘You could tell that he demanded a lot from the players he was playing with.
‘It’s an amazing feeling to know that an ex-player, an ex-legend, has come back to the club and has the opportunity to work for the club, and we’re working under him. Every day we want to learn and keep improving. Obviously he knows all about becoming a top player so you want to learn under him and maybe one day become a Chelsea legend yourself!’
Hudson-Odoi has also been reunited with Jody Morris and Joe Edwards, two of Lampard’s assistants he worked with for many years in the Chelsea Academy and who contributed to his development. It is reassuring, he admits, for the younger players in the squad to be working with people who have so much faith in them.
‘Jody has a great bond with the Academy, he knows all the players and all the staff over there,’ he said about the Under-18s coach he won multiple silverware with. ‘I think he knows when they’re ready to come up and when they’re ready to train and be involved.
‘He’s helped bring all the players up and he’s made everybody aware that if you’re doing well and working hard in training then you’ll get the opportunity to play.
‘It gives you a special feeling to work extra hard because you want to be playing in games, you want to be playing in any match possible. You just have the feeling that if Jody’s there, he’s going to try and push the young players to come up.’
It was four years ago this week when our Under-19s lifted the UEFA Youth League in Switzerland, the second season in a row they had been crowned European champions at that age group. Hudson-Odoi didn’t feature in the competition until 2017/18 when we lost in the final to Barcelona, an experience he recalls as tough to take but important to learn from.
‘It’s a memory that always sticks in my head because it was a big game, it was a final and it’s a feeling you don’t like to feel when you lose,’ he admitted. ‘We had the mentality of ‘we’re going to win no matter what we do, we’re going to fight out there, give 100 per cent and win the game’ but then we lost.
‘We all learned a lesson from that game that we don’t want that same feeling of losing again. We want to win - we want to win every game that we play. Everybody became mentally stronger and we tried to be positive about the situation because obviously we want to learn from things like that. The next opportunity that you get, you want to win; the next time you can hopefully lift the trophy.’
Those UEFA Youth League trips abroad, particularly in the group stage when the youngsters mirror the senior side’s draw, offer the opportunity for our Academy players to be close to their more experienced counterparts. Hudson-Odoi claims sitting at the back of the plane watching his football role models board was particularly motivating for a young player dreaming of joining them.
‘Just to travel with them and see them coming on the plane, it’s like ‘wow’ because one day you want to be like them,’ he added. ‘You’re around the age where you’re starting to get older, you’re closer to it and you know they’re going to play in a game where you want to be involved as well. You look at them as big role models.
‘My inspiration was always looking up to the Chelsea players. I would think to myself that one day I could be on the pitch playing alongside some of them.’
'Frank knows all about becoming a top player so you want to learn under him and maybe one day become a Chelsea legend yourself!’
Fast forward a couple of years and Hudson-Odoi finally made his Champions League debut in our group-stage victory against Lille in France back in October, before featuring in the return at the Bridge and in both games against Ajax. With the music, the tension and the drama, it is the limelight he has spent a childhood dreaming of appearing in.
‘When you hear the anthem of the Champions League coming on, you feel the buzz and you know it’s something different,’ the youngster noted. ‘It’s just the emotion of thinking that this is such a massive competition. You want to be involved in it, you want to do the best you can in the competition and you want to win it.
‘Just to have the opportunity to play in it for such a massive club like Chelsea is great because you want to be performing on the big stage.’