McEachran happy to be settled at Brentford after turbulent Chelsea stay
The memory remains fresh. "You were there?" asks Josh McEachran.
A previously shy face breaks into a broad grin when McEachran is informed his ESPN FC interviewer was at Stamford Bridge that night in September 2010 when he made his Chelsea first-team debut at the age of 17, playing the last 11 minutes of the then-English champions' 4-1 defeat of Slovakia's MK Zilina.
McEachran, who ended 15 years of association with Chelsea when leaving to join Championship club Brentford in July, still describes that night as "the biggest moment of my career so far." In the years since, a central midfielder once seen as England's potential Andres Iniesta has become symbolic of the problems his former club has had in developing its youngsters.
After being loaned to five different clubs -- Swansea, Middlesbrough, Watford, Wigan Athletic and last season at Vitesse Arnhem -- he finally cut the cord, passing up the final year of what had been a lucrative Chelsea contract to play Championship football in West London. Now 22, a fresh start was required. At that age, too much too soon is still a retrievable situation.
"I wanted to be settled," he says of joining Brentford, for whom he made his debut on Tuesday in a 3-2 loss at Cardiff after a broken foot delayed his bow. "I didn't want to go back out on loan from Chelsea."
Hopes of returning to the first team had ground to dust where McEachran had once been the youngster most likely to make the academy breakthrough. He was groomed for greatness since discovery as a seven-year-old, and in May 2010, he was the star of Chelsea's first FA Youth Cup victory in 50 years.
In the months ahead of that Zilina bow, he had trained with a first-team squad managed by Carlo Ancelotti, in the process of winning a Premier League and FA Cup double. Advanced notices meant McEachran was by no means unknown to the Bridge crowd. That night, he arrived on the field to little short of a standing ovation, and his upright passing game won applause during a short but impressive cameo.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
"I hadn't thought I was even going to be on the bench that game, and then Ray Wilkins called me over," he says, recalling something of a passing of the baton. Wilkins, Ancelotti's assistant manager, had been a Chelsea teenage sensation himself, making his debut as a 17-year-old in 1973.
"It is lovely for everyone when a homegrown guy comes through," Wilkins said back then. "There seems to be an affiliation with the supporter that is lovely to watch."
Yet Chelsea fans still remain starved of homegrown heroes. When club captain John Terry finally takes his leave, likely next summer, he will depart as the last Blues youth product to become a first-team regular, way back in the 2000-01 season. Despite many millions spent on scouting, luxury training facilities, a link-up with Vitesse that allows burgeoning talent to play in the Dutch top division and four Youth Cup victories in six seasons, Chelsea academy graduates have played just 70 minutes so far between them in 2015-16's Premier League, split between Ruben Loftus-Cheek on 63 and Bertrand Traore on seven.
Five years ago, McEachran was supposed to break that trend, and admits the expectation could lay heavy. "When I was playing, yes, a little bit," he says. "But there's loads of statistics, isn't there? So you try not to look too deeply into things like that. Chelsea handled it really well. They didn't really put pressure on me, I don't feel. I just went into training each day."
A wider pressure of expectations at Chelsea ended up contributing to McEachran's stall. The sacking of Ancelotti by owner Roman Abramovich in May 2011 for failing to defend the title brought in Andre Villas-Boas, and while Chelsea struggled, McEachran, also suffering some untimely injury problems, dropped from the reckoning and began his first loan, working with Brendan Rodgers at Swansea. Six minutes as a sub against Wolves on Jan. 2, 2012 would end up being his final competitive first-team appearance for Chelsea.
Former manager Jose Mourinho rarely appeared to trust youth throughout his second stint at Chelsea. "You need 10 minutes," he warned aspirant stars in August 2015. "In 10 minutes you can show me if you are ready or if you are not ready."
McEachran, who describes himself as "a holder, and a passer, dictating play," would have had 10 minutes to displace World Cup winner Cesc Fabregas, but does not dismiss his former boss' logic. "He's one of the best managers in the world and he hasn't got too much wrong," he says. "If he says he feels he can do that then I believe him."
By the time Mourinho returned to the Bridge in 2013, McEachran was in the midst of a treadmill of loans. Swansea saw just five appearances during five months, and while impressing in a struggling Middlesbrough team during the 2012-13 season, the then-England U-21 midfielder told The Guardian he had leaned "nothing" playing under Rodgers. In 2013-14, he made just eight appearances for Watford before a January loan to Wigan saw him play in a losing FA Cup semi, but left out of the Championship playoffs.
McEachran, like many of the 33 players Chelsea have on loan this season, became a satellite to his parent club, with contact maintained through visits by Eddie Newton and Paulo Ferreira, two former players overseeing player development.
"They would come three or four times a season to wherever you are and meet up with you, at the hotel, wherever you were staying, come to your games and keep in constant contact," says McEachran. "They didn't just forget about you."
Back at Chelsea, though, for preseason, the writing would soon be on the wall. "There was normally a reserve group, a loan group and a first-team group," McEachran reveals of the structure of training at the club's Cobham facility.
His final stop would be Vitesse, where he played alongside fellow loanees Traore and Wallace. Injuries slowed progress but once fit, he rediscovered his appetite for first-team football. "The Dutch league was good for me because it was technical, tactical, every team wants to play through midfield," he says. "I really enjoyed it."
And it was at Vitesse that he won the attention of Brentford, hopeful of promotion, under the Heathrow Aiport flightpath and owned by Matthew Benham, a sports-betting tycoon who prescribes a statistical, mathematical model for scouting. It was not McEachran's status as a Chelsea starlet with England caps at each representative level that won him his opportunity. Instead, according to those at his new club, it was the stats from 21 appearances in Dutch football.
"I met the chairman and he was telling me about the club," says McEachran. "The way I see Brentford playing is perfect for me. It's a footballing team, they play through midfield, so I couldn't wait to sign for them."
Last Tuesday at Cardiff, McEachran, coming off the bench after an hour to play in central midfield, helped turned around a two-goal deficit, only for Brentford to concede a 95th-minute winner to lose 3-2. Despite that disappointment, Chelsea's lost boy was just happy to be back playing.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.