arly last month Ben Chilwell found himself sitting on a sofa with a footballer he used to idolise. He admits to being “starstruck” at spending a few hours chewing the fat with Ashley Cole but this was no chance meeting and the reason he had sought it was deadly serious. As soon as he had got his feet under the table at Chelsea, Chilwell made a point of finding out how to create a legacy of his own.
“When I’d been here for a week or so and had met everyone, the next thing I wanted was to meet him,” Chilwell says of Cole, with whom his representative also used to work. “I rang my agent and asked if he’d mind giving Ash a call; he got back to me and said he was happy to meet me. He invited me over to his house and [it was] a really good afternoon getting to know him.”
Chilwell wanted to know how Cole, a veteran of eight major trophies in as many seasons at Stamford Bridge, had achieved legendary status after making a risky move from Arsenal at 25. There was little such controversy when Chilwell, two years younger than that, joined from Leicester but a £45m fee brings its own weight. He is expected to become the world-class operator Chelsea have lacked at left-back since Cole’s departure in 2014 and there is naturally pressure to succeed where others have fallen short.
“I was asking what it would take to become a top player here. He said that as soon as he stepped in the building and saw the likes of the manager [Frank Lampard], John Terry, how much they would die for the badge and how much they loved playing for Chelsea, he took that on straight away. He said if I could do that and not just play for the club but really want to do well for them, then I should have no problem having a good career.”
On the drive to meet Cole, Chilwell felt “a mixture of nerves and excitement”. There is something endearing about that given he is hardly a stranger to the top level and has 11 England caps. Two years ago he spoke with conviction about his aim to be one of the country’s best-ever left-backs, but the memory is still fresh of those days when that seemed unlikely. His early struggles at Leicester are well-documented and he believes it took an inner strength to haul himself from the doldrums and, ultimately, to one of the biggest clubs in the land.
“At 15, I wasn’t playing at all at Leicester. It was my self-belief that kept me going, because I did have that desire and confidence that I was good enough even though I wasn’t getting the opportunity at the time.
“A lot of hard work and long days away from Leicester, doing a lot of stuff to improve myself at home, were the reason I kind of stepped up and got my scholarship there. It kicked on pretty fast and I started training with the first team. I have always had that confidence but to have that knock at 15 has really helped me a lot.”
Cole was a model for Chilwell in regaining that sparkle, reminding him the full-back position could be as glamorous as the future in central midfield he had once anticipated. “I think players like [him] started the trend of attacking full-backs, who want to get forward and are not all about just defending … When I was 12 or 13, when I started playing at left-back, it had started to become a much more attractive position. I was excited by the possibilities and the opportunities you can get to help the team score goals as well as stop them.”
That outlook chimes with Lampard’s although, given Chelsea’s early record in the Premier League this season, the defensive side may need particular attention. Chilwell arrived with a heel injury but completed 66 minutes in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup tie at Spurs and may start against Crystal Palace on Saturday. “I have come here to try to help Chelsea concede [fewer] goals,” he says, and any involvement in a clean sheet would mark an upgrade on last weekend’s near-disaster at West Brom.
Leaving Leicester after 11 years gave rise to mixed emotions, even if any doubts about moving on were quickly overtaken by excitement. He describes a “really good conversation” with Brendan Rodgers in which the manager, once a coach at Chelsea, said the transfer would take his game to the next level. A farewell video on social media from James Maddison prompted rather more levity.
“I had a few people messaging me having a little joke that it was like I had passed away,” he laughs. “It seemed like that sort of video. When I’ve got friends I’m that close with, like James, that makes it a little bit more difficult but we still keep in contract, we talk most days. He knows it was what was best for my career and there is no one happier I moved than him.”
A few people around Chelsea may come to contest the latter assertion if Chilwell follows Cole’s advice to the letter.