Sunday 9 December 2018

‘We’ll do it for Wilkins’, vows Loftus-Cheek ahead of England’s World Cup opener

Chelsea great Wilkins died in April at the age of 61.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, pictured left, is ready to go when called upon by England in Russia (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, pictured left, is ready to go when called upon by England in Russia (Owen Humphreys/PA)

By Rory Dollard, Press Association Sport, Repino

Ruben Loftus-Cheek has paid tribute to the late Ray Wilkins, dedicating England’s World Cup campaign to the former Three Lions captain.

Wilkins died at the age of 61 in April and remains much mourned after a career which saw him win 84 England caps, lead the side on 10 occasions and spend more than four decades playing and coaching at the highest level.

Loftus-Cheek came across him as a teenage prospect at Chelsea, during Wilkins’ stint as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant, and has never forgotten the older man’s influence.

“All these games we play here and how far we get, we do it for Ray,” Loftus-Cheek said on behalf of himself and fellow Blue Gary Cahill.

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Ruben Loftus-Cheek talks to the media in Repino (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“He’s been such an icon for Chelsea and the game of football. I think a lot of players will miss him. For sure, we’ll do it for him.”

Loftus-Cheek was just 14 when Wilkins threw him in at the deep end alongside one of Chelsea’s greatest modern-day players.

“I was on something called day release, we left school and did some learning at Cobham, at training,” he recalled.

“I was about to go home and Neil Bath, the academy manager, said, ‘You’re not going home, you’re training with the first team’.

“I couldn’t wait to get going. I was obviously nervous but then Ray Wilkins paired me up with Didier Drogba in a one-on-one drill. I was just really excited to get home and tell my parents.”

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England have had a serene start to their tournament preparations, Marcus Rashford returning to training on Friday to give Gareth Southgate a full complement of 23 players to work with ahead of Monday’s opening fixture against Tunisia.

Their base in sleepy Repino, a relaxed resort on the Gulf of Finland, has also proved an ideal place to settle in to Russian life, but the spectre of racism has been discussed by the group.

Russian fans were fined earlier this year for racially abusing France players in a friendly, and left-back Danny Rose asked his family not to travel to the tournament out of concern.

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Danny Rose’s family are not travelling to Russia (Mike Egerton/PA)

Loftus-Cheek has not taken similar action and is ready to welcome his loved ones.

“I’ve got a few coming out, which is exciting,” he said.

“I’ve got a few brothers, my dad and my uncle coming out. They’ve never been in Russia before. They’re just happy to come and see me play at a World Cup. I don’t think they’re too scared of what might happen. They’re just coming out to enjoy the experience. I think that’s the best way.

“If it happens we’ll deal with it but, looking ahead, I’m just going with the flow.”

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England manager Gareth Southgate has some decisions to make ahead of Monday (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The 22-year-old midfielder excelled on loan at Crystal Palace last term and drew a ringing endorsement from former England boss Roy Hodgson, but is not expected to be in the starting XI in Volgograd on Monday.

He is not concerned about his role in the pecking order, though, and is preparing to play any part he can to aid the cause.

“We look forward to the Tunisia game and I am sure whoever starts will do a good job,” he said.

“Who knows? Injuries happen. I have to be ready if I don’t start the first couple of games. I’m training well and doing everything right. If my opportunity does come along, I’m ready.”

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Loftus-Cheek’s club future remains up in the air (Adam Davy/PA)

His future at club level continues to intrigue, with a long-term return to Chelsea potentially contingent on his first-team prospects and the identity of the manager next season.

For now, though, such matters can take a back seat.

“I’m not thinking about that right now,” he added. “It would be unfair for me to have my mind on that rather than try to do a job for the team at the World Cup.

“In a tournament like this, everybody needs to be 100 per cent focused.”

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Steve Holland is popular with England’s players (Mike Egerton/PA)

Loftus-Cheek is delighted to be working under Steve Holland again.

The pair worked together at Chelsea as well as England Under-21s, with the midfielder full of praise for Southgate’s assistant.

“It’s a real, real pleasure to have Steve as the England coach,” Loftus-Cheek said. “The amount of managers he’s worked with – Jose Mourinho, (Antonio) Conte, these managers – he can take all that knowledge from working with these top managers and bring it to us.

“All the players are grateful to have him. He works really well with Gareth. The training sessions are great. That’s why we’re doing so well.

“I’d say Steve does a lot more of the training. Gareth comes into play doing more of the tactical stuff, but they work really well together. Training’s really good.”

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