The welcoming of a new young Scot into the team reminds Pat Nevin of the start of his Chelsea career, and that has a lot to do with the fans, as he explains in this week’s column…
Last week seems such a long time ago. So many things have changed since my last column, such as the formerly invincible Liverpool suddenly looking more brittle after being well and truly beaten at Stamford Bridge.
Their sturdy and tough neighbours Everton were trounced by our lads at the weekend and looked like they had arrived from another league, and not a top one. Back in the old days of last week we could even shake hands with each other, but with the COVID-19 being taken totally seriously at the club along with everywhere else, we are all being very sensible doing the right things but in a different way. As I said, things have altered.
If we think our lives have transformed, just think how different the world must look through the eyes of Billy Gilmour since around 8pm last Tuesday. That is when an entire nation seemed to wake up to the talent that our young Scottish midfielder has, since then that rise has been nothing short of meteoric. The plaudits are coming in not only from the pundits but from everywhere else. Chelsea fans, writers, former players and admirers from other clubs have not been slow to come forward.
As with all overnight successes, it isn’t really overnight, Billy has been working a lifetime, albeit a pretty short one so far, building up to this moment. He never looked like fluffing his lines in front of a surprised, then intrigued and finally hugely impressed audience. He was Man of the Match against Liverpool and then carried on in precisely the same vein against Everton six days later.
The Chelsea fan base is gobsmacked at this arrival and that is saying something considering we have enjoyed recent breakthroughs from Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and well, you know the rest of the list.
Billy has got a new nickname already in Billyesta, the chants have started with his name, some of us are already suggesting he should be added to the full Scotland national team squad, me included. Every newspaper, football website and commentator has been purring over his performances. This is just one week after many football fans outside Chelsea might have reasonably said, Billy who?
I will be honest and say I am comfortable that I know exactly how Billy is feeling right now. I came down from Scotland as a young skinny teenage kid too, hoping though not expecting to break into the first team. It happened quicker than I thought it would, within a month I was in the team and by the end of the season I was Player of the Year.
It was a huge leap for someone who had been a part-time player and full-time student in Glasgow just months before. There were a few televised highlights of games that season but a match against Manchester City, one of our great rivals at the time, was broadcast live on BBC TV on a Friday, a very unusual event back then. The viewing figures were huge, I scored, got MOTM and had the pundit, one Bobby Charlton the England World Cup winner, extolling my virtues to the world.
Just as it was for Billy Gilmour this week, everything changed in that instant. From being recognised regularly in the street to realising there were now high expectations, some of them probably unfair. Bobby Charlton likened my skills to legendary players Stanley Matthew and Tom Finney. Fortunately I was too young to have ever seen those football gods, but their reputations were enough for me to understand that a high bar had been set and I was expected to clear it every time from now on.
It isn’t a bad thing to strive to be better in every game but there will be tougher times. The good news is that Billy will get huge amounts of backing from everyone if and when there is a little dip or an injury. I know this because listening to Frank he totally understands everything all the youngsters are going through and is hugely supportive. Talking to Billy, he feels confident that not only the gaffer and the back room staff have his back but the players are incredibly supportive to.
I’ll let you into a little football secret. Gnarled old pros in the game do not always go out of their way to help those young whippersnappers who are trying to take their places. This is not the case at Chelsea just now. Talking to Billy after the Everton game, he was quick to underline the help he has had from Azpi and the rest of the squad.
The most important help may however come from the stands. Every time Billy touched the ball during the last two games the Chelsea fans have either cheered, roared or at the very least, murmured their approval. There is a buzz around the ground every time he gets the ball and the boost in confidence that gives a player is immeasurable. It was one of the great things that happened to me in my Chelsea career. The fans stayed with me, they drove me on even when I made mistakes knowing that I was always trying to do something that they would enjoy watching and that might even be successful. That support made me twice the player overnight and when I asked Billy about the similar reaction from the fans to him, the way his face lit up told you more than any words he could say.
So another young and exciting career is launched at Chelsea and maybe it has overshadowed what has been a nice little run with seven points out of nine in the league and us through to the next round of the FA Cup. There were also some breathtaking goals scored against Everton in terms of slick build-up and one-touch play.
There were other fine performances to boot by Mason Mount, Willian, Ross Barkley has had his best week at the club in terms of his form, and Olivier Giroud has similarly never looked better in a Chelsea shirt than he does right now. His goal against the Toffees was deserved and celebrated more than anyone else’s.
What Frank has found out more than anything is that there is more adaptability in the squad than even he might have thought. Any team in the world with their entire midfield wiped out by injury and suspension (Jorginho, Kante and Kovacic) would have panicked, yet we managed to play some of our best football of the season with an entirely different three in there. What a strength in depth we will have when we get everyone back from injury! This could be the most important factor in the run-in to the end of the campaign.
The buzz is back at the Bridge and it isn’t just for Billy.