As the final international break of the season draws to a close, Pat Nevin analyses Conor Gallagher’s game, and explains why he is making an impact for club and country…
Like everyone else who supports a club, you generally like to keep an eye on your players when they turn out for their national sides. Tonight I will be at Hampden Park to cover Scotland v Spain and I will of course remain totally neutral as I am working for the Public Service Broadcaster – that’s the BBC to you and me. Okay, I might let slip a little yelp of delight if the home side score, but I will also be happy to see Kepa Arrizabalaga as he is currently Spain’s number one, as well as ours.
There isn’t a great Chelsea involvement with the Scotland side - our former player Billy Gilmour isn’t getting a start - but Chelsea legend, and my old mate, Stevie Clarke is guiding the country on a much steadier course than we have been for many years. Stevie might have been the one man over the past 20 years we missed as a manager that I would have loved to have had back at the Bridge. He is happy with his new deal in Scotland, so that ship has sailed, but every Blue should be happy for him. He is one of our own.
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What we do have at the club is a manager right now who probably cannot wait to get back into the swing of things after this international break is over. After a decent upturn in form, Graham Potter would have been watching the internationals with as much interest as anyone. The England games were probably his first port of call because, well he is English I suppose, but also because he had a few players in the squad. In the opener against Jorginho’s Italy, both Reece James and Conor Gallagher came on in the second half and in the follow-up against Ukraine, Conor came on again to join Ben Chilwell who benefitted from Luke Shaw’s sending off against the Italians.
Mykhailo Mudryk started as well for the visitors, but it is Conor Gallagher who continues to catch the eye. That was his sixth cap for England, which isn’t bad for a 23-year-old who was ‘only’ a loan player at Crystal Palace just nine short months ago. It is pretty clear why Gareth Southgate is as keen on him as Graham Potter is, the work rate and selflessness are off the scale. If you need someone to cover ground, go from box to box, make tackles, be a threat in the opposition box one minute and making superb defensive blocks in his own area the next, then Conor is your man.
Conor is a very good technical player. To be fair, there are others who are better, but his attitude allows him to cruise by them when squads are announced, simply because of the energy and willingness to give every bit of it every time he plays. Scotland have a player like that in John McGinn, who we will see at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening with his Aston Villa team mates.
Conor rarely if ever seems to tire, oh yes and he can score the odd goal for us too, the last-minute winner against Palace will be one he will never forget!
When you watch teams such as Brighton and Brentford, this is what impresses. They have entire teams full of players who are willing to try to put in that sort of shift every time. There have always been players that have made up for not having the skills of Messi by having the work rate of an Iron Man competitor. The trick is of course to get that level of work and dedication from every player.
Throughout my career I was considered a skilful type, but what I hated being called was a ‘luxury player’. I never got that moniker from Chelsea fans, or anyone from any club I played for, but those who didn’t see me regularly would think: wide player, skilful, yeah probably doesn’t want to do the ‘dirty work’. Well that certainly was never the case and in fact I always knew that this so-called ‘dirty work’ of covering, defending, tracking back and yes, even tackling, was sometimes a saving grace.
It doesn’t always happen that you can be totally creative every game. Occasionally you will have defenders doubling or trebling up on you and sometimes you might just be having one of those off days. But when tricks and skills aren’t quite hitting the mark, then hard work and a good team ethic can get you by. Most importantly it gives your team-mates, especially the ones who are having a sparkling day, more opportunities to shine.
This is what makes Conor Gallagher, and those like him, so loved by the fans, the managers and their fellow players. He isn’t doing it all for himself, he knows that the team is the most important thing if you are going to be successful. In an age when selling yourself has become all-important, with the self, the image, the celebrity and being the centre of attention valued above everything else in some quarters, seeing Conor’s attitude and personality on the field gives me hope for the sport.
Obviously there are others who put in the sort of ‘shift’ Conor will give you. Mason Mount is a classic example of a kindred spirit, and they really are shining lights. On Saturday we will be able to see Conor and yes, also the aforementioned John McGinn playing at Stamford Bridge. There is a chance one or both will start on the bench, but it will not make any difference to their attitudes when they get on the field. They will still be flying about giving everything at every moment.