As the Chelsea players make the journey across the Atlantic towards Los Angeles for the first leg of our pre-season tour to the USA, we catch up with Callum Hudson-Odoi to discuss his summer of work, the injury uncertainty that affected him last term and his first trip to the States.
Still only 21 years old, the Londoner has already amassed an impressive 126 appearances for the Blues since his senior debut in January 2018. However, a positive start to the 2021/22 campaign was ultimately scuppered by an Achilles injury that developed into something more troubling and problematic, as the winger explains in this exclusive interview.
Hudson-Odoi played 28 times for Thomas Tuchel’s men last term and assisted Romelu Lukaku’s opener in the Club World Cup final but hasn’t featured since early March, leading to a summer of intense work in preparation for an important pre-season.
A cheerful and popular figure at Cobham, where he has been based now for 15 years after rising through the Academy ranks, even Hudson-Odoi’s positive disposition was tested by the frustrations of his spring struggles. Yet his commitment to staying fit throughout the off-season has been commendable and is now paying dividends as he looks to shine in the City of Angels…
Callum, welcome back! The sun is out and the boys are back at training, how has the week been so far?
‘The atmosphere is good, everyone is smiling and happy to be back. The manager has come back in this week and you can see everybody in the group is just wanting to do their best, get fit as quick as possible and feeling strong.
‘We’re all doing really well and happy to see everyone back so I’m enjoying it.’
As you spend so much time together during the season, does it feel like the first day back at school after the summer holidays?
‘When you come back from a big break and you’ve been spending time with friends that you don’t really see often during the season, and these boys you see and play with every day are doing their own stuff as well, it’s a big buzz to see everyone come back together.
‘We’re all catching up with each other with whatever we’ve been up to and where we went so it’s a good feeling. We’ve got most of the boys back but not everyone yet and I think it will be a big thing for everybody to be back in the group, getting back together quickly and trying to play our best football as we normally do.’
We’ve seen on your social media that you’ve been working pretty much throughout the summer break…
‘The whole summer I’ve just been trying to build on my strength and my fitness, just focusing on me getting back to being myself really. I’ve been here for the past five out of six weeks with just a one-week break and it’s good to know I've started early to be as fit as possible before the boys came back. I’m definitely feeling much stronger. There’s a new trim for me as well, a new style for a new season.’
What is the thinking behind that, especially spending so much time in the gym working on your upper body strength?
‘My main goal this summer and throughout the season is to be stronger. There were times in the season last year when I was running with the ball and feeling like I could get barged off it or I’m not as strong as I thought I was.
'I’ve been putting more muscle on in training to make sure I’m getting bigger so when the opponents come, I know that I’m strong enough to hold them off, or that I won’t get barged and I can barge them instead.’
Of course, all this follows a difficult second half of the season for you with only nine appearances since January and your last game coming against Luton Town in March due to injury. Tell us a bit more about those fitness problems because they were more complicated than many people thought…
‘It was a weird one. It was a neurological thing where I had a tweaked nerve in my back and it stemmed all the way down through my body, so it then became difficult for me to retain muscle. There was no power really in my legs and everything was like ‘woah’. I was trying to pass the ball 10 yards but I had no power and I couldn’t even do it.
‘I think it was also a post-coronavirus thing from December, which I couldn’t believe because it had been such a long time before. The issue started with my Achilles and then I was trying to use other parts of my body to make up for it, so for example when I was running I wasn’t running on my toes as much because my Achilles power wasn’t that strong.
‘I was trying to find another way to run and then it started affecting my back but all of it is good now. My Achilles is strong again and my back is strong so everything is perfect. It’s one of those things but I’m glad to be back and to have all my power, strength and speed back is all that I can wish for.’
It’s not the first frustrating injury lay-off you’ve had in the past few years so how challenging is it to cope during those periods?
‘It's difficult. When I did my first Achilles injury, we were playing games week-in, week-out and I was enjoying myself playing Europa League quarter-finals. There was a big buzz thinking I could be involved in the semis and the final so to then to get hit with an injury like that was really disappointing.
‘With this one, it’s one of those things and injuries happen but my main aim for the rest of my career as long as it goes is to stay injury-free as much as possible. I’m trying to do the right things to make sure that I’m 100 per cent and that I can give it my best every game.’
Your best form last season came in the autumn playing off the left, contributing goals and assists during a run of 10 appearances in 11 during which the team won eight. How do you intend to get back to that place now?
‘I want to be playing as much as possible. Regular football brings out the consistency so I want to just keep playing and playing as much as I can. Playing those 10 out of 11 games in my preferred position on the left side was massive for me because that’s where I know I can be at my best and do what I do as much as possible.
‘We were winning games, top of the league and everything was going well, so to have an injury like that hits you hard but at the same time it motivates you to come back and return to where you were before.’
Looking ahead to our forthcoming trip to the USA, it’s an exciting time both on and off the pitch. How much are you looking forward to the tour?
I haven’t been before so it’s going to be my first time to America. It’s such a good place to go and the weather’s hot so it will be a nice environment to work in. I’ve been wanting to go for a while but I couldn’t because of injuries and stuff so it will be definitely a nice thing and to go as one group as well.
‘All the boys will be meeting up to go out there together so it will be good to see them and catch up but at the same time we need to get to work and get the season the rolling as well.’
Amid that excitement and lots of talk about a new era at Chelsea, is that the feeling in the changing room as well or are you focused on other things?
‘To be fair, right now it just feels like a new season. Not much has changed for us and we try to stay out of that as much as possible. We want to stay focused on training and games and doing the best that we can do.
‘When we see all that stuff, we notice it but at the same time we want to just focus more on our football and that’s what we’re going to try and do for the next couple of weeks out there.’