Thet was a Christmas Ben Chilwell will certainly never forget. Sidelined with a partial rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Chelsea’s Champions League victory against Juventus a month earlier, the left-back was close to making his return to action when disaster struck.
“The plan was for me to watch the boys on Boxing Day and train with the group that didn’t play on the 27th,” Chilwell remembers at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground. “But Christmas Day I was doing a session on that pitch [he points over his shoulder] and just felt it go again. I planted my foot in a rehab session on the grass and my knee buckled again. It wasn’t as painful but it was the same feeling I had against Juventus and I knew: ‘I can’t go through my career going through this every month.'”
Despite the setback, the 25-year-old defender’s swift recovery from surgery meant he was able to return as a substitute in the victory against Watford on the final day of last season. He is targeting a starting spot in England’s World Cup team in Qatar.
“In my head I was 100% ready to get back into it in January but I was always quite good with adversity,” he says. “In my head the surgery was done, just crack on with the rehab, get stronger, fitter; it will improve with mental-strength wise and just come back for pre-season, flying, ready to go. Obviously this season with Chelsea and the World Cup as well were big motivations to really do everything, those little one per cents that maybe I wouldn’t have done, to push myself and make sure that when I come back I was even better than before .”
It was at Leicester, whom he joined as a 12-year-old after playing for the youth team at Rushden & Diamonds, where he believes he learned such resilience.
“I was the last person at Leicester to get a scholarship and had to work a lot harder than everyone else to get it,” he says. “That was when I was doing runs around the park with my dad. The next season I was youth-team captain within six months and training with the first team. That was adversity but it showed me that if you do work hard that you can get there.”
Chilwell is relishing meeting up with the rest of the squad again as they embark on their tour to the US but there is no doubt things have changed markedly at Chelsea in the six months since his injury. Todd Boehly has led a purchase of the club from Roman Abramovich, and the departure of the defensive linchpin Antonio Rüdiger and a lack of signings mean there is still an air of uncertainty as the new era begins.
“I think everyone from the outside presumes it’s going to be difficult for us as the players and staff,” says Chilwell. “But we literally know as much as you guys. We just focus on what we’re doing which, last season, could have been a very good end to the season with the cup finals and stuff. It doesn’t really get spoken about.”
Of Rüdiger, he says: “Of course he’s going to be difficult to replace. Toni was one of the most influential players in the team last year, not just for his performances on the pitch, which were amazing week in, week out. Around the training ground, then the dressing room before games making sure that everyone keeps their standards – I’ve only got good things to say about Toni. I think Chelsea will always have a place in his heart. But it was probably a dream for him to move to Madrid so good luck to him.”
Chilwell was in regular conversation with Thomas Tuchel as he completed his rehabilitation, and Gareth Southgate was in touch to keep an eye on his progress with the World Cup on the horizon. Chilwell was forced to self-isolate at Euro 2020 after he was deemed to have been in close contact with Billy Gilmour in the period before the Scotland midfielder tested positive for Covid and he did not make an appearance in England’s run to the final. He is determined to make up for lost time and make the left-back slot his own.
“That’s 100% my aim, of course,” he says. “I’ve dreamed of playing in a World Cup since I can remember and to know it’s just around the corner is more motivation than you can know to try and seal that spot down. Not just for myself but for my family – especially after the Euros in what was a difficult time for me.
“If I could go to the World Cup as the number-one left-back, have a good tournament as a team and we will do really well and go all the way, that would be amazing. It would be the highlight not just of my career but for my life, so over the next three or four months I’m just going to do everything that I can to try and make sure that is my spot.”