This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Swansea City matchday programme – 26th August 2017
For the rest of this season, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a Palace player, and already the loan move is proving to be a shrewd one. While his temporary club are benefiting from his all-action displays, he is making the most of his time in SE25 by reconnecting with his south London roots.
It took just 58 minutes for Ruben Loftus-Cheek to give his new supporters a tantalising taste of what to expect over the next nine months. As Huddersfield aimed to set Tom Ince scampering forward with a long raking ball, the current Eagles loanee had a former one in his crosshairs.
Before Ince’s eyes could light up, a 6’3” shadow crossed his path and a long leg swept in front of him, hooking the ball out of his possession. Having slid in to retrieve it, Loftus-Cheek was instantly back on his feet, taking a touch to steady himself before whipping a ball 50 yards onto Wilfried Zaha’s thigh on the opposite flank.
Highlights were few and far between for Palace on the opening day, but those five seconds encapsulated their first summer signing perfectly: defence into attack. Equally content with getting stuck into tackles in front of his own box or driving forward into the
opposite one, the 21-year-old has quickly won over the Selhurst faithful with his all-action displays, with chants already created in his honour.
“Obviously I didn’t want the results to start this way but for myself it’s great that the fans have really enjoyed watching me play,” he smiled when pressed on his new-found fan favourite status. “I get a good feeling from that and I’ve got to carry on trying to play that way.”
The adulation was always going to come eventually, if only due to his roots. Born and raised in Lewisham, one of the boroughs that adorns the Eagles’ shirt this term, Loftus Cheek is another Palace player who can truly state that they are South London and Proud.
His roots deepen when you take into account his half-brother Leon Cort being ex-Eagle whom he watched from the same Selhurst Park stands that he now receives cheers from.
“I’ve really enjoyed being back around the area where I was born,” he added. “I played football around here a lot, and I can remember playing for Chelsea’s academy at the training ground and Palace were always a tough opponent! I had a friend who was in the Chelsea academy who loved Palace so I went to a few games with him.
“It’s good for me to have that idol [Cort] in my family who has done it and got to Premier League level so he gives me advice. I’ve spoken to him a lot since the move and he was saying he won Player of the Year here one season, so I’ll have to see if I can do that too!
“I’m at Palace now and fully committed. I’m enjoying playing in red and blue and hopefully we can achieve something this season. It’s not been the best start but there’s still 36 games to go and cups to play in, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
The way he speaks about being an Eagle almost makes you forget that Loftus-Cheek actually belongs to someone else. He completed his season-long loan switch from Chelsea last month, marking his first move away from the Blues since he was brought into their academy system as an eight-year-old.
Despite boasting one of the best youth setups in the country, it takes a special player to break through at Stamford Bridge and become ‘one of their own’. While the reigning champions can claim that they have fielded 36 academy graduates since the turn of the century, only four have made over 25 first-team appearances – Carlton Cole, Robert Huth, Ryan Bertrand and Loftus-Cheek.
In such a competitive environment, he thrived. Aged just 16 he lifted the 2012 FA Youth Cup, before going on to captain them to another triumph two years later in the same season he held down a regular spot as the Blues won the U21 Premier League title. His name was a regularly listed alongside other future wonderkids in ‘ones to watch’ articles, but he admits he never got carried away with the first-team seeming so far away.
Evaluating his time with Chelsea’s academy, he said: “Back when I was eight to 10 it was all about having fun playing football with friends against different academies every week. I didn’t think too seriously about being a professional before I got to 12 or 13 and had a talk with my parents where they said that if I’m going to do it, then I have to knuckle down and work hard, so that’s what I did.
“As I got older, players would come in from different countries around the world and that’s good because you get to mix with different cultures, but it is really tough because the talent at Chelsea is really good. I managed to cope with it – my mindset back then was about training hard, trying to improve and whatever happens, happens.”
While others such as Scott Sinclair, Fabio Borini, Nathan Ake and the Eagles’ own Patrick van Aanholt utilised the loan system to make their names, Loftus-Cheek remained at the Bridge believing that he would benefit more from learning from some of the game’s biggest.
“Jose Mourinho gave me a lot of advice and said that if I wanted to play at the top level I had to work harder and do stuff off the ball,” he said. “I’ve taken that on board and that helped me a lot. When I came through he tried to push me, because if he sees something in you then he wants to help and develop you.
“John Terry was an idol, but also off the pitch he was so helpful and such a nice person – anything you needed you just went to John. Frank Lampard was also huge for me, as he played in my position and I tried to learn a lot from him. We had the ability in the academy to watch the first-team’s clips and I watched a lot of his.”
Then in December 2014, those megastars became peers. Having helped his team win the UEFA Youth League, Loftus-Cheek made his first-team bow as a substitute in a Champions League game against Sporting Lisbon, but having seen so many other players make just a solitary Chelsea appearance, the realisation that this was just the start of the journey rather than its end began to kick in.
“I found out the day before that I’d be in the squad, and I had to do a press conference for the first time which was pretty nerve-wracking,” he laughed. “My debut was a massive moment for me and I got eight minutes, but I really enjoyed it. It does make you think that you’ve done it, but I forget all about it a couple of days later because you have to move on and do more in the game.”
That was exactly what Loftus-Cheek did. A Premier League bow came the following month, and the next campaign saw him handed 17 further appearances. A change in management from Mourinho to Antonio Conte via Guus Hiddink didn’t stop his progress, and handed a more attacking berth, Loftus-Cheek would pick up his second Premier League title in May – meaning he has won it more times than all-but three clubs ever to have competed in the division’s 25-year history. It is a fact he is bashful about.
“It’s nice to have two winners’ medals, but I don’t know if it feels like I’ve actually won them,” he admitted. “For me, winning is contributing in 90% of the games and being an important player to the achievement. It doesn’t quite feel like I’ve won the Premier League but it’s nice to have the medals at home!
“Last season was such a good season. It felt like we were unbeatable; when the team is playing like that it’s going to be hard to get opportunities because the manager isn’t going to change a winning team, so for me it was just about knowing that the opportunities might not come every weekend but trying to stay focused in training to get better.”
Eventually though, simply training with the Blues’ first-team wouldn’t be enough, and so this summer Loftus-Cheek felt the time was finally right to quench his thirst for first-team action. “There wasn’t much talk up to the age of 20 about me going on loan, and right then I felt like I was improving a lot by training with players like Fabregas, Drogba and Lampard.
“However, there comes a time where games are what you need and it wouldn’t be the best thing for me to stay at Chelsea any longer, so I made the decision to go on loan. Wherever you go, there is going to be competition to play, and I came to Palace with a mindset of not being guaranteed to play and to do my best in training – I’m just trying to train the same as I did at Chelsea.”
Despite his time at Palace constituting just two Premier League matches, the England under-21 international is already feeling rejuvenated. Having shone at Anfield last week, he is finally experiencing what regular life in the top-flight is like, and he is thriving on it.
Breaking out into a smile, he said: “Knowing that you could be playing at these great stadiums that you’ve only been on the bench at before is exciting. I remember having the same feelings in the youth team when you’re just desperate to play football, and that’s when you play your best because you’re enjoying yourself. I feel like
a little kid again!” You can take the boy out of south London…