In an exclusive interview ahead of the Champions League final, we catch up with Reece James to discuss renewing an old rivalry and preview a special occasion...
Born 172 days apart either side of the new millennium - one in Greater London, the other in Greater Manchester - the fledgling but fast-tracked football careers of Reece James and Phil Foden have been closely intertwined for over a decade now.
As team-mates with England, they have played alongside one another throughout the age groups, culminating in joint action for Gareth Southgate’s senior side in the build-up to this summer’s delayed European Championship finals.
As club rivals, they have gone head-to-head in royal and sky blue as long-time adversaries throughout their teenage years, culminating in this evening’s Champions League final in Porto.
There will be a clutch of homegrown heroes running out at the Estadio do Dragao when Chelsea take on Manchester City for the most prized trophy in European club football, talents nurtured on the youth academy pitches of Eastlands and Cobham over countless weeks, months and years.
Yet the latest episode in the battle between James and Foden might be one of the most intriguing as the defender and forward go directly up against each other in a duel that will help decide the biggest game in club football.
‘It’s kind of crazy really to see someone who you’ve been playing against for so many years, and now you’re going to be playing against them in the Champions League final,’ says James as we sit down for an exclusive chat ahead of the showpiece occasion.
‘It’s great to see. Both the academies of Chelsea and City have done so well to produce players that are now here, living the dream and playing in a Champions League final.’
In the summer of 2008, weeks after the Blues were beaten in our maiden Champions League final, both James and Foden started their respective football journeys as bone fide, signed players at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad respectively. They were eight at the time and met frequently at Premier League tournaments and on international tours as their teams competed for the top junior prizes.
James played mostly as a striker in his early years before moving further back, first into midfield and then defence. He was often in the middle of the pitch when up against the teenage Foden, testing his poise and concentration up against the Mancunian’s prodigious attacking talents.
While there are too many clashes to recall in detail, a photograph that recently appeared online showing the pair in close battle has rekindled memories for James ahead of their latest meeting.
‘I remember it,’ he admits. ‘It was in a Premier League tournament when I was about 13 or 14 years old. Every year, we’d always come up against City in the final.
‘I was still playing in midfield at the time so I was right up against him in the centre of the pitch. He was the same then as he is now - really hard to play against. He plays exactly the same but he’s just matured and got even better as a player. That’s why he’s come through at City, one of the best clubs.’
Recent encounters, like so many in their past, have been played out in front of a restricted audience but tonight will see 16,500 supporters attend the final in northern Portugal, a welcome return and a timely motivation.
‘It’s been unbelievable having the fans back, probably the best boost we could have asked for,’ continues James. ‘We’ve missed that in the stadiums and I think they will have a massive impact in the final.
‘We’re going to need every single Chelsea fan there. When you don’t play with crowds for so long, you almost get used to it and forget what it’s like to have supporters in the stadium, so the minute they’re back you think “wow, this is what it’s about.”’
Having played most of his football under Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel this term as a full-back or wing-back, James was deployed on the right side of our back three in the FA Cup final.
It was a move clearly designed to thwart the pace of Jamie Vardy and he has started there for our last three matches. Yet the role was not entirely alien for James following past run-outs there in his Academy days so it was a case of re-familiarisation and adaptation, processes he will go through again if asked to play there in Porto.
‘It’s a different position but I’ve played there coming through in the Academy as well,’ he explains. ‘I played it a lot when I was in the youth team so I’m kind of used to it.
‘If it was a position I hadn’t played before then it would be a lot harder but it’s just about jogging my memory on what it was like in the youth team days.’
Cesar Azpilicueta, who has flipped between the roles with James, has helped out as much as possible in the differing responsibilities between the positions and it remains to be seen whether Tuchel will use them both against City.
If he does, a decision will have to be made on whether to keep James in the back three or unleash him further forward down the right flank. In our Premier League victory in Manchester earlier this month, the 21-year-old caused real problems for City left-back Benjamin Mendy, while Azpilicueta’s pressing from centre-back forced the equaliser for Hakim Ziyech.
James knows any involvement in the final will cap an extraordinary rise for him personally and that context provides the perspective for him to appreciate the magnitude of the occasion.
‘It’s very special,’ he adds. ‘Not many players get to play in a Champions League final in their whole career but it just shows how hard the team has worked this season and how much effort everyone has put in.
‘At the start, it was a bit up and down, a bit of a rollercoaster, but we’ve grown as a team and as a unit. We’ve got better as the months have gone on and now we’re here in the final. Hopefully things go right for us and we can bring the trophy home!’
It would be nothing new for Reece to bring home silverware after travelling the continent representing the Blues but this would be the big one, the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Keeping Foden quiet in the latest instalment of their individual battle will go a long way to deciding the outcome.