Whatever happened to Josh McEachran? It’s quite possible that in years to come, this will be one of those questions being asked by football fans when they’re discussing the latest failure by an England team in an international competition. He may be destined to be one of those players who was supposed to be on the cusp of greatness, only for it to never quite happen.
This is premature, of course. He is, after all, still only 21. But after going out on loan for two and a half seasons, he seems no closer to a berth in the first-team squad at Stamford Bridge. It would be hard to say that time on loan was completely wasted – he did do very well at Middlesbrough – but it certainly hasn’t proved to be the route to success at Chelsea that everyone had envisaged.
It seems incredible, but McEachran made his first-team debut for Chelsea nearly four years ago, at the age of just 17, under Carlo Ancelotti . It’s instructive (and possibly part of the problem) that since then Chelsea have had as many different managers as McEachran has had birthdays.
His precocious talent – particularly his control, passing and vision – was obvious, and if his slight physique was a worry, he showed enough body strength to be able to cope well with bigger, older Premier League players. He played 22 times for Chelsea – mostly at defensive midfield, which seemed a waste of his talents – before being loaned to Swansea halfway through the 2011/12 season.
It was the first of several dead-end streets for him. He and Chelsea certainly expected him to get more game time under his old Chelsea Reserves boss Brendan Rodgers, but he was to be disappointed. A better, if more unlikely, loan was set up with Championship side Middlesbrough – and after a rocky start, he flourished there. Last season, however, was a disaster – a spell at Watford saw him stay mainly on the sidelines before the loan was terminated in January; and then he spent time at Wigan, but played just 11 times for them and – certainly on the few occasions this writer watched them – seemed to be substituted regularly after failing to make a huge impression.
Whether the hurly-burly of Championship football is really the best environment for honing the skills of someone like McEachran is debatable. It certainly doesn’t seem to have improved his game, and it seems some managers at that level take one look at him and assume he’s too skinny to trust in their midfield.
If Chelsea are to make the most of McEachran, and he is to make the most of his talents, he needs to step up. Playing in the Premier League is essential, either on loan or back at Chelsea. At Chelsea, he will necessarily spend a lot of time on the bench or worse, but when he makes the first team he is likely to be playing alongside players of better calibre, which should allow him to improve his game. On loan, he will – if the right club is picked – get more game time.
This season is crucial for him. If he once more fails to progress, then his future – certainly at Chelsea – looks bleak.