England’s Ben Chilwell on giving up cricket, a ‘difficult’ summer and winning back his Chelsea place

Ben Chilwell, left, in England training with Chelsea teammate Reece James

In another life, on an alternative timeline or perhaps in a parallel universe, Ben Chilwell would not have spent this week hoping to help England qualify for the 2022 World Cup but would have been in Abu Dhabi, playing in yesterday’s T20 World Cup semi-final. He might even have been playing for New Zealand if his Kiwi father, Wayne, had his way.

“He would have wanted me to,” he says. “I wouldn’t have. If I had the choice, I would have chosen to play for England of course.”

It is not as far-fetched an idea as it sounds. Chilwell spent much of his youth playing cricket, turning out for his local club Flitwick. “I’d like to think I could have gone on to be a successful cricketer, yeah,” he adds. “Batted at number three and I was first change bowler. Bit of pace.

“I was always probably better at cricket, I just preferred football a lot more and it got to a decision at 14, 15 where I kind of had to pick one or the other.”

It was a fairly straightforward decision. Chilwell went back to visit Flitwick before Euro 2020 and met some of his former team-mates, who are several years his senior and now middle-aged men watching their sons play. “It’s nice to go in and just have a chat with them and they are very supportive and happy for me about how it’s going.

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“Maybe it was, looking back, a reason why I chose football over cricket,” he says of the age gap, “because I was playing with a bunch of people who had no similar interests to me. They all wanted to go to the pub after the game and I was going home to do my homework.

“Cricket’s a long day. You start at 10am and finish at 6pm, it’s a long day to be with people you don’t really have a lot in common with, so I guess that’s maybe a reason I chose football instead.”

English football and Gareth Southgate should be grateful, though it is a cruel quirk of Chilwell’s career that he has still played at as many European Championships as he has T20 World Cups.

Despite arriving to the St George’s Park as a Champions League winner last summer, he was one of only three outfield players in Southgate’s 26-man squad not to play a single minute during the tournament, despite the left-back spot being a close contest between him and Luke Shaw right up until the opening game.

Chilwell in fact only made Southgate’s matchday squad twice and watched most of the run to the final without a hope of even coming on as a substitute.

“It was difficult,” he admits. “I’ve been asked quite a lot recently since I’ve started playing and the way I’ve answered is a cliche – but it’s football. These are things that are going to happen to the majority of players in their professional career where they have low moments, high moments.

“The way I try to look at it, I was disappointed that I wasn’t playing in such a massive competition in England, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he adds. “But the way I was trying to go into the whole thing was that it happens to a lot of people in football. I just need to make sure I’m ready. I’ll come through this stronger and better on the other side.”

Chilwell might have hoped to play in the final group game against the Czech Republic, at least from the bench once progression to the knockout stages appeared likely, but he was self-isolating with Mason Mount, both of them having come into close contact with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, who had since tested positive for Covid-19.

Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell are battling for England’s left-back berth

Surprisingly, perhaps, there are no regrets over that short chat in the Wembley tunnel between three Chelsea team-mates.

“If I thought like that it would just eat at you,” he says. “In hindsight, maybe we could have just not spoken to Billy but we would have never known. Billy is a good friend and had a good game and I wanted to congratulate him. I’m sure Mase was the same.

“Of course, it ended up having a big impact on my summer but I don’t talk about ‘I should have done this or that’ or hindsight.”

Despite it all, Chilwell still very much felt part of the experience, even when isolating. “All the staff did a brilliant job ensuring we were as involved as we could be.” That included when Ed Sheeran visited to perform a private gig at St George’s Park before the last-16 meeting with Germany.

“We got to sit in two separate rooms and the window only opened about three or four inches but we still got to hear a bit of it and he shouted up to me and Mase if we wanted a song because we couldn’t be there.”

Despite never feeling excluded from the rest of the group, he freely admits the summer was less than ideal. It was not easy to return to Chelsea and have to fight for his place, either.

For the opening six games of the new Premier League season, Thomas Tuchel preferred Marcos Alonso and Chilwell was left to watch from the sidelines, once again failing to even make a substitute appearance.

Tuchel suggested that the disappointment of the summer was still affecting Chilwell, describing him as “mentally exhausted”. “I think it wasn’t so much mental fatigue,” Chilwell says. “I think it was more I was so eager to get back playing football, it was maybe coming across that I wanted it a bit too much.”

After the first few games of the new campaign, he sat down with Tuchel. “He said to me: ‘You know, I feel like mentally at the moment you’re just, in training, you’re pushing a bit too much to try and get back in the team – we love you here, we know the qualities you possess, just relax a little bit, you’re going to get back in’.”

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It was what Chilwell needed to hear. “Then it was just about being patient and making sure that I was ready so that when I was called upon to play I could do my best for the team.”

Five consecutive league starts have since produced three clean sheets and, more surprisingly, three Chilwell goals. In the absence of Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea’s attack has been recalibrated around the marauding runs of himself and Reece James down the flanks. As Tuchel promised, the opportunity eventually arrived and, like a loose hook shot dropping out the sky over midwicket, Chilwell has grasped it with both hands.

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