Loftus-Cheek flying flag for England's thwarted generation
Ruben Loftus-Cheek starting for England in a World Cup game would light a beacon for all the young Premier League players who are blocked on the path to first-team action by clubs who would rather buy a solution than support their home-grown talent.
By his own admission, Loftus-Cheek started this campaign not sure he would make Crystal Palace's starting XI, on loan, never mind Gareth Southgate's expedition. Back then, Loftus-Cheek was just another name on Chelsea's dispersal sheet, which has featured as many as 30-plus players deemed expendable, or at least not ready for first-team duty. No club get it in the neck quite like Chelsea for achieving so few graduations to the senior team, yet Loftus-Cheek is emblematic of a wider lack of faith in the English game - but also a failure of logic.
Packing him off to Palace, Chelsea spent heavily on Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Drinkwater has been used as a late, game-closing sub; Barkley has disappeared. Only Bakayoko, who started badly at Stamford Bridge, has shown form in the same class as Loftus-Cheek's at Palace.
But the beauty of this England set-up is that Southgate and his coaching staff are attuned to the talent coming through the national system from 16 up. It is that knowledge and confidence in the supply line that informed Southgate's decision to promote a Palace loanee to his World Cup squad - and then to his starting team, when Dele Alli was injured against Tunisia.
For young players, England can now be a place they go to assert their capabiliites - to make a breakthrough - rather than a ship of doom. International football is meant to be the game's highest form, not a showcase for the lost and lonely. Yet, a unified England system from 16 up, with equality of opportunity, is a welcome riposte to clubs who would rather spend £30m on an average full-back than give their own 'kids' a chance.
National recognition can expose as folly the unwillingness of big Premier League clubs to show patience with good young players who may need a season or so to adjust to what Loftus-Cheek has called "men's football," which, he admits, has placed a strain on his sometimes troublesome back.
Having Roy Hodgson as his manager at Palace will have helped him along the road to Russia, and being a star at Selhurst Park has served his interests better than cameos at Chelsea. Without the loan, he might have been stuck in development, another Chelsea novice with potential but no clear career path.
Jose Mourinho was always hard on him, questioning his grasp of the modern obligation to run and chase relentlessly. But Mourinho did once admit he would have failed if Loftus-Cheek, Dominic Solanke, Izzy Brown and Lewis Baker were not picked by England.
A fat lot of good that sounded when Loftus-Cheek left for Palace, where he is highly unlikely to return. "I do think he's ready, yes," said Hodgson ahead of today's game against Panama. "We missed him enormously in the three months he was injured with his ankle problem. I think he is absolutely ready."
Glenn Hoddle's comparison between Loftus-Cheek and Michael Ballack found favour with Southgate's predecessor. "'He could play in a central role in a four, but luckily for me he can also play as a wide player in a four. I'd say he goes by people more than Ballack did. But he's got Ballack's power and his pace and his strength. He's maybe got more strings to his bow than even Ballack had."
Chelsea's new manager will make that judgment for himself, while Loftus-Cheek weighs the risk of disappearing again in west London. "I want to play. I want to play as much as I can," he says. "And even this past season just gone I didn't play as much as I would have liked to because of the injuries. So I still feel I need a proper season of playing wherever it is."
In Russia, he represents a pleasing example of England charting a course to World Cup football for someone from a large talent base which, for commercial reasons, provides only a third of Premier League starters. Born in Lewisham, Loftus-Cheek has been at Chelsea since the age of eight, and is one of innumerable FA Youth Cup winning players to have found life turning complicated after that triumph. He was even tried as a striker by Antonio Conte.
A strong ball-carrier, good in tight spaces, and with creative tinge, Loftus-Cheek embodies what can be achieved with a player who passes through all the England age levels. Such a journey would be considered routine in Spain or Germany. England's style though has always been to experiment with managers and make it up as they go along. Loftus-Cheek is therefore a victory for forethought, coaching and patience. He will carry the flag for the thwarted generation.
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