Shortly before competitive football was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was gradually working his way towards a return to senior football after recovering from an Achilles injury that had kept him out since last May.
He played 90 minutes for the development squad, and set up the only goal, in a win over Everton’s under-23s, and was then named on the bench for two first team fixtures before everything came grinding to a halt.
Although he was yet to make it onto the pitch under Frank Lampard this season, the 24-year-old was feeling positive about his progress, and following the boss's update yesterday that he is fully fit again, Loftus-Cheek is available for the trip to Villa Park tomorrow.
‘It was good to be in the squad for those games,’ he tells us ahead of Chelsea’s return to Premier League action.
‘I didn’t quite get on the pitch, but I always felt that if I played this season, then it would be a bonus, because the injury was taking so long. I said to myself, if I play this season, great, but if I don’t, I’ll be working towards next season. Then Covid-19 happened and changed things a bit.'
The pandemic changed everything and it put football into perspective for us all, including footballers, who looked to keep their fitness levels up in isolation to begin with.
‘It was obviously very unusual,’ says Loftus-Cheek. ‘You never think these kind of things will happen, and we went into quarantine earlier than others because Callum had symptoms. We didn’t know it was going to stay like that for so long!
‘Once everyone knew this was not going to be over in a week, the fitness guys at the club came up with a plan for us to follow to keep us ready, and keep us ticking over until we came back. We’ve done some Zoom sessions online with the whole squad, doing some strength work, which was fun. Just to keep the morale there and chat to everyone was good.
‘We ended up doing those group sessions twice a week, and there was a lot of banter flying about, which was good – and we obviously got the work done!
'It was just good to talk to the boys and see them. We were all logged into a fitness app too, so we could see what everyone else was doing, running-wise, and that was good to keep the competition up and keep pushing each other.’
The Premier League restarted this week, and Chelsea prepared for its return with a 7-1 win in a friendly against Championship side QPR, in which Loftus-Cheek was on target twice. It was another promising sign for the stylish attacking midfielder, who now has his eye on his first bit of competitive action in the 2019/20 season, albeit in surreal circumstances.
‘I’m looking forward to it,’ he says. ‘Playing in front of an empty stadium will feel really, really weird, because we’re used to loud noises and not even being able to hear the bench shout at you. Now we’re going to hear everything and it’s going to have that kind of hollow feeling, which is a good mental test for us. I’m definitely looking forward to playing football again, no matter the circumstances.’
Having said that, Loftus-Cheek doesn’t believe the unusual atmosphere in empty stadiums will throw the players’ concentration off.
‘I don’t think it’ll be a problem for us, because as soon as you start playing, everything else kind of zones out anyway. You’re so focused on the game when you’re playing, that sometimes you don’t even notice the crowd when they are there. I think this’ll be the same thing once it starts – you won’t even notice because you’ll be so focused on playing football.
‘I think that just comes from the repetition of playing football as a professional. You just do what feels natural in the situation and, for us, what feels natural is to play like there’s a crowd there. I don’t think we’ll do anything different.’