Josh McEachran: The Prodigal Son Returns

At 17, he had the world at his feet. Having rejected offers from Real Madrid and Manchester United, he had made his debut for Chelsea, and had been mightily impressive. Being used off the bench often, and not only when the game was already won, either. Slowly, this began to turn into starts, including one away in the Champions League group stages at the notoriously imposing Stade Velodrome. Then this all changed. The manager who had been willing to use him, and excited at the prospect he could be, was sacked, and in came one who despite being charged with turning the aging squad around, loaned one of the best young prospects out. One loan turned into another, and loan after loan, manager after manager who promised game time to choose that club to join and then didn’t give him game time, or when he did, did it in a position or system that didn’t suit his qualities. Soon, the boy wonder that was billed to be the English Xavi, was being sold to the Championship for a transfer fee under a million pounds.

And yet, Josh McEachran, a player that has become a byword for the Chelsea system for youth development, looks to be the same player he looked when he first played for Chelsea, coming off the bench against Newcastle in the League Cup. This was a Chelsea side that was 3-1 down at home, and eventually was reduced to 10 men through injury after all 3 subs had been used. Yet this 17 year old, thin as a twig, short of stature, became the driving impetus for a comeback to 3-3. Crisp passing, with game reading abilities that even Frank Lampard or Michael Ballack would be envious of, and a classy touch that enabled him to breeze past players with ease, Newcastle’s midfield and defence just couldn’t handle him. In the end, Newcastle scored a late winner to knock Chelsea out, but even after conceding that late, McEachran was able to create one or two more chances. As I left Stamford Bridge that evening, I felt no disappointment at being knocked out, especially surprising for me as the young optimist in me always believed that a Quadruple was possible. I was only excited for the future of the club, and for the player that Josh McEachran was going to grow into.

I was also at the game where his future was sealed, although he nor I were to know it. Josh once again came off the bench, in a 1-0 loss at Goodison Park, where Chelsea limped to a second-place finish that, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t awful when facing what was still an outstanding Sir Alex-managed Man United side. However, in the grand scheme laid out by Roman Abramovich, this, or more importantly the lack of progress in the Champions League that year (losing to Man United in the Quarter Finals), was not good enough. This led to Carlo Ancelotti’s sacking, ruthlessly told as such in the tunnel at Goodison not much long after the final whistle of that game. It was this sacking, and the two in the next 18 months (plus an interim manager that was never going to stay more than 6 months himself), that put McEachran in limbo.

Chelsea’s managerial instability in that period between 2011 and 2013 (although this had been the case since 2007, it’s this period in particular that is relevant to McEachran) meant that the time where McEachran could really have been developing, he was unrequired. Managers of whom automatic success is demanded have no need for young players that require development; far easier for managers to buy players at their prime and win trophies than risk the sack using youngsters. And although the stem from that short period of instability is ironically a man hired to be manager of Chelsea for the long term, Andre Villas-Boas, he himself loaned out McEachran to Swansea in January after buying Raul Meireles from Liverpool the previous summer, then aged 28. He also signed Oriol Romeu, his own idea of a young talent (and another victim of the Chelsea loan system), but we’ll come on to this factor in a second. At Swansea, he got next to no game time, where then-manager Brendan Rodgers said he would be more of a regular. This would be a regular pattern for McEachran; the same ruthless requirements for managers at Chelsea are the same for those who he was loaned to throughout the Premier League and Championship. Compare this lack of games to the amount of enthusiasm Ancelotti, a world class midfielder in his playing days, and a manager who had worked with many a world class midfielder in his time before Chelsea, spoke about McEachran with.

Not only is the signing of older players a problem, but this growing trend at Chelsea with young players from across the world that is similar to that of the London housing bubble: buy-to-let. Chelsea hoover up the best youngsters from various nations, then either play them in development sides or loan them out, the aim of this for the best of the best to make it for the first team, and the rest to be sold for a profit, allowing more investment in the first team squad. It’s an intelligent way to get around UEFA’s FFP rulings, but it can have a big impact on youth production, especially as academy products get included more and more often into this system. Barring Ryan Bertrand’s lion-like performance against Bayern in 2012, no Chelsea product has broken into the first team long-term since John Terry. There’s a vicious cycle of factors that create this problem, some of which have been listed: lack of managerial stability, Roman’s high demands, the obsession with loans. However, some of these issues seem to have been rectified. Jose Mourinho’s second coming was an attempt at a long-term strategy, but that didn’t work. Now, under Antonio Conte is the aim to create a dynasty, with two midfielders now showing the antithesis of Josh McEachran syndrome. Nathaniel Chalobah coming in from the wilderness after numerous loans to finally make his Chelsea debut at the age of 21 (having been an unused substitute in that aforementioned Newcastle League Cup game at the age of just 15), whereas Ruben Loftus-Cheek has not been loaned out, instead remaining in and around the first team since the beginning of the 2014/15 season.

The summer of 2014 was where McEachran put his foot down. Having played many a pre-season tour in far flung corners of the world for Chelsea just to be shafted out on loan again, so either he broke into Jose Mourinho’s thinking, or he left: Mourinho went and bought Cesc Fabregas. After the inevitable loan to Vitesse that is seemingly a rite of passage for any Chelsea youngster, and with a year left on his contract, he decided to take a pay cut and play at a level lower than that which he had otherwise been linked to in the gossip columns, and stay in West London by signing for Brentford. It hasn’t been easy for Josh, getting injured in his first pre-season just after signing, and picking up other niggling injuries like that throughout his time. He was also criticised by some Bees fans, rather unfairly in my opinion, for being yet another flair player when what Brentford needed was midfield steel. No doubt they did at that point, but McEachran is not that player, but for a flair player in the Championship, he’s an outstanding addition.

When I can, I do enjoy going to games as a neutral, and I often go to Brentford, partially because of the availability of terracing at Griffin Park, and partially because I enjoy following McEachran’s career, such a fan I was whilst he was at Chelsea. And although he may not be the Xavi Mark II that I wished him to be, he has still become a good player. He has said in the media build up to this game that he reckons he could still play for Chelsea. The best way for him to prove this is the case is to prove the Chelsea powers-that-be wrong on Saturday at Stamford Bridge.