As we continue our build-up to this evening’s Heads Up FA Cup final, Mason Mount talks about watching his hometown team triumph at Wembley, the secrets behind his brilliant breakthrough season in blue and what we need to do to beat Arsenal…
The FA Cup’s magical mystique has been conjured from 148 years of history, tales of famous giant-killings and upsets mixed in with the drama of knockout football and the passing down of cherished memories from generation to generation.
It is, according to Mason Mount, ‘a special competition’ and he should know, having first attended a final at the age of nine as his hometown club Portsmouth defied all the odds back in 2008, beating Cardiff City.
Wide-eyed and dwarfed by the majority packed inside Wembley, Mount remembers the day like any football-mad boy would. As he prepares to line up for Chelsea in the 2020 final 12 years on, the pen of FA Cup folklore is poised to write another chapter.
‘I went to both the semi-final and the final in 2008 with my dad and it was just brilliant to see Portsmouth actually lift the trophy,’ he recalls in an exclusive interview with the official Chelsea website as we look ahead to today’s final against Arsenal.
‘It felt like the whole city was there at Wembley because it was a massive game for the club. I also went to the 2010 final against Chelsea two years later and I remember thinking how big the stadium was – it still feels like that for me now so you can imagine what it felt like at the age of nine!
‘The stadium was full and the atmosphere was unbelievable, with one half of the stadium supporting one team and the other half supporting the other team. It’s such a special match and such a special competition, especially within England.
‘You can feel how much it means to everyone because of the history, the players and teams who have won it in the past, and the amount of times Chelsea have won it as well. It means so much to the club and for me personally, to win the FA Cup in my first season would be unbelievable.’
The ‘cherry on top’ is how Mount sees the challenge of adding a trophy to what has been a positive season at Stamford Bridge, both for himself and for the team as a whole. A top-four finish in the Premier League was secured last weekend, with the young midfielder claiming a goal and an assist in a 2-0 victory over Wolves.
‘We’ve had loads of ups and downs,’ admits the 21-year-old. ‘It’s not been a smooth-sailing season and we’ve had difficult moments but we’ve bounced back every time. We’ve shown that in the group we have that mentality to respond after difficult performances and we have that winning mentality as well. When we’ve needed to win big games, we’ve stepped up.’
The fact Mount raises the subject of mentality is interesting given the focus that has been placed on the personality and leadership in the team. Frank Lampard himself complained that his players were not vocal enough after defeat at Sheffield United a few weeks back and Mount believes that is something the young players in particular have had to learn about this season.
‘Especially when you’re a young player, it can be difficult at the beginning to have a big voice within the team but as the season has gone on, I definitely feel like us younger players have found a voice and been big players,’ he says.
‘That goes throughout the whole team really because we need to stick together. We showed that in the semi-final and in our last league game, that we can step up as a team, be together and make that last push to finish off the season with a trophy.’
It goes without saying that Mount has had an impressive individual breakthrough campaign at Chelsea, returning from two seasons on loan at Vitesse and Derby County to become a crucial part of the team.
No player featured more in the Premier League this season for the Blues and at Anfield against Liverpool recently, he hit the 50-appearance mark, giving him the unique accolade of becoming the first Academy graduate to reach that milestone in a debut campaign. It is, of course, a sign of the enduring faith that Lampard has in him but is also testament to the youngster’s durability, consistency and versatility in blue this season.
‘It was always my goal to go out on loan for two seasons and then come back and work as hard as I could to get into the team,’ Mount explains. ‘I had no idea what was going to happen during the season but I was so focused and dedicated on just giving it everything.
'I wanted to play as many games as I could but I never knew I would play this much. It’s been quite a surprise but it’s been brilliant and I’ve learned so much. That’s obviously quite a special statistic for me to have with the amount of players that have come through this Academy and world-class players that have played for the club.
‘For me to make my debut and then play over 50 times this season is something that means a lot to me. You always have to have that bit of luck throughout the season to not get any serious injuries and just be strong to keep playing, keep going and keep making yourself available for the manager to pick you.’
Physical resilience and constant availability were traits that defined Lampard’s own time as a player in SW6, though tactical flexibility has also been an important part of Mount’s central role in the head coach’s plans.
‘I think I’ve played in five or six different positions this season - in midfield, number 10 or on the wing, as well as a side number 10 coming inside when we’ve played five at the back,’ continues Mount. ‘I’ve always been able to play in different positions and it’s something that I’ve worked on because if you’re versatile then the manager has options of where he can play you.
‘It’s been brilliant for me to learn how to play in all those different positions, especially with the players I have around me. It’s definitely helped me excel.’
You only have to look at our previous two games in the FA Cup to see evidence of Mount’s versatility in the team; in the semi-final, he was an inside-forward in a 3-4-3, having played in midfield in a 4-3-3 at Leicester in the round before.
The fact the Blues have knocked out the teams finishing either side of us in the Premier League final standings, as well as the champions Liverpool, also indicates the challenges already overcome to reach our 14th final in the world’s oldest cup competition.
‘It’s been a tough run and we’ve played some big teams like Leicester, Liverpool and Man United, but we’ve come through it,’ Mount goes on. ‘It was quite difficult having that massive break in between the fifth round and the quarter-final but we had time to prepare and we knew that Leicester was going to be a difficult game, especially away from home.
‘We always wanted to perform and win the games and we’ve had some brilliant performances along the way. The semi-final win against United really highlights what we can do and what we can achieve. We turned up in that game and hopefully now we can turn up in the final.’
Mount netted to give us a crucial two-goal advantage against United, a goal he admits was perhaps fortunate but no less meaningful in his fledgling Chelsea haul.
The fact there were not 45,000 Blues fans there to celebrate with him was disappointing and he admits the Wembley experience is slightly eerie when there are only a few hundred people in the cavernous stadium, though he and his team-mates won’t be using that as an excuse today.
‘It’s very weird to play without fans, especially at Wembley because it’s such a big stadium,’ he says. ‘You can hear everything and it echoes around the ground so it’s a really different experience.
‘It’s something that was new for us going into the semi-final but we’ve come through that now. We know what it feels like to play there with an empty stadium and win a game so we’ll definitely take that experience into the final.
‘I was maybe a bit fortunate to score but I just tried to hit the target and luckily it went in. I can now say I’ve scored at Wembley in an FA Cup semi-final and that’s always going to be with me. Hopefully in the final I can make that happen again and we can lift the trophy.’
In order to add silverware to a stellar season, Lampard’s men will have to overcome the Gunners, the same opponents who denied the boss his first opportunity to win a trophy as a Chelsea player in the 2002 final at the end of his maiden season at the club. To avoid a similar fate in this latest capital Cup final clash, Mount knows the team will have to be prepared for a physical battle as much as a football test.
‘We know they’re a good team,’ he notes. ‘They’ve been a bit up and down this season but you can see they’re making improvements under Mikel Arteta so it’s going to be a tough game.
‘It’s one of those games that you have to turn up in and you have to have a big impact in. You only have that one opportunity in a final to give it your all to win the trophy so you have to give it everything. We have that rivalry with Arsenal so it will be a fiery game and we’re going to need to be ready to fight.’
This season’s showpiece occasion will be known as the Heads Up FA Cup final as the importance of mental health is underlined. Heads Up is a partnership between the Football Association and the charity Heads Together, and is led by HRH the Duke of Cambridge.
One of the key parts of unlocking the stigma of mental health is for everybody to talk more freely about their varying experiences of the issues involved and Mount believes the psychological pressures to perform as a footballer in the spotlight means that he can relate.
He was only 18 years old when he went on his first loan to Vitesse, 19 when he played in the Championship for the first time and 20 when he made his Chelsea debut. All three of his seasons in senior football have brought challenges, tough moments and occasional criticism.
‘It can be difficult for players coming into the limelight having not experienced that kind of scrutiny before,’ he reflects. ‘You’re always going to get people saying stuff about you because that’s part of the game so the fans and the media are going to have their opinion.
‘As a young player, you have to develop a thick skin and always just focus on the people that mean a lot to you and the people you’re going to learn from.
'For me personally, I’m a big critic of myself and if I’m not performing then I’ll definitely be hard on myself and look back on the game to see what I need to do better. It doesn’t matter what people are saying on the outside, I know if I need to play better and step it up or if I’m playing well.
‘When you’re at a massive club like Chelsea, you have that pressure on you to perform and people are going to expect big things from you so you always have to be ready for that. Throughout this season, I’ve seen the ups and downs but I just try to keep focusing on myself and try to be the best player I can be.’
Few can argue against the fact that Mason has done that this term, exceeding the summer hopes that he could provide a meaningful contribution by becoming one of the first names on Lampard’s team sheet.
When the votes are counted for the club’s Player of the Year award in the close-season, our number 19 is sure to be in with a fighting chance but for now, it is collective success that he is aiming for.
‘It would mean so much to us all,’ he adds. ‘Winning a trophy would be unbelievable for the club, for the gaffer and the staff and for all us players.
'It’s been a tough season but we’ve worked so hard and we want to do it for the fans who can’t be there to experience the occasion with us. We want to do it for them and give them that winning feeling to finish off the season with silverware.’
While the global pandemic has denied Chelsea supporters the chance to join the team today at Wembley, the lockdown did give Mount a chance to grow what he calls ‘a little beard’ for the first time, a grooming decision that surprised a few of his team-mates and has even garnered some media attention of its own.
The baby-faced midfielder says the chin stubble is going nowhere for now as it has brought him good fortune since football’s resumption and it may even get a special makeover if Chelsea taste victory tonight in north London.
‘It’s been noticed a bit,’ he admits with a laugh. ‘I think people were quite surprised when they saw me with it during lockdown and to be honest I surprised myself with how much it came through!
'I never thought I’d be able to grow a little beard like this and maybe it’s been a bit of a lucky charm since the restart as well.
‘We’ve had some good performances, I’ve scored a couple of goals, we finished in the top four and now we’re in the final of the FA Cup. It’s been going well so I’m not getting rid of it just yet. If we win, I might even think about dying it blue!’
Wouldn’t that be a fitting way to end the season - a Chelsea player since the age of six, with blue on his face and his hands on the Cup…
Check out our Road to the FA Cup final series of videos