For most at Villa Park on Sunday, the wait had been a little over three months. For Ruben Loftus-Cheek, more than a year had passed since his last outing, and there was nobody more delighted to be back on the pitch than him.
Loftus-Cheek ruptured his Achilles tendon in May 2019, cruelly interrupting his best spell of form in a Chelsea shirt and ruling him out of the Europa League final having played such an instrumental role on our path to Baku.
The 24-year-old was put through the ringer emotionally, physically and mentally during a sustained and difficult recovery period, never more so than when he made the transition from walking to running. He credits the Chelsea physios and doctors with helping keep him fit and focused, and for the rest of his career he will remain diligent with his Achilles work to prevent similar injuries.
So there was extra joy for Loftus-Cheek when he was named in the starting XI for our first game after the restart.
‘Honestly it felt amazing after so long without playing, 13 months since my last competitive game,’ he says.
‘To get on the pitch, even though there were no fans and it felt slightly different, it was amazing to feel that competitive spirit again.
‘I’m just being grateful to be playing,’ he adds. ‘I started against Aston Villa and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to play, but I just came off the pitch thinking I can’t be angry about that. I’ve just been out for 13 months.
‘I did feel a yard off at times, physically and mentally, the feel of the game, how you would when you’re sharp and playing every week. I couldn’t say I felt like that. It’s hard to explain. You don’t have that smell for the game but it will come back the more I play.
‘I wasn’t too hard on myself, I’m just happy to play and grateful to be back on the pitch. Slowly as I play more that sharpness will get better, and physically I will feel much better as well.’
Loftus-Cheek is clear about what he can offer Frank Lampard, who he says was in regular contact during his recovery. The boss has often stated this season what a miss Loftus-Cheek has been.
‘I want to do as much as I can for the team,' he explains. 'I played on the wing at the weekend, but I’ve played in midfield most of my career. Wherever I play I hope to bring what I can bring, my power and my strength, and try and get as many goals as possible.
‘That’s what I did last season, getting in the box and trying to get goals, and using physicality in the middle of the park. I can’t wait to feel that power back and get my strength and speed to where it was last season.’
Should Loftus-Cheek be involved against Manchester City tonight, it will be his first competitive action at Stamford Bridge since we defeated Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties in the Europa League semi-final second leg, a game in which he opened the scoring.
A positive outcome this evening will strengthen our chances of playing Champions League football next season, and Loftus-Cheek reports the squad can’t wait to return to home soil.
‘The mood in the dressing room is really good, really bubbly and excited for it, especially coming off the back of a win.
‘We’re obviously coming up against a really good team, and they can pose a threat, but we can pose a threat as well. We’ve got a really good team.
‘They’re coming to our ground and even though our fans aren’t there, we are used to being at Stamford Bridge. Hopefully that has an impact. As a team we are looking to win, as always, and we’re really excited.’