Billy Gilmour can become a legend at Chelsea - but only if he stays focused
Many an exciting young footballer has seen his potential go to waste through hubris and poor decision making - just how good Billy Gilmour becomes may depend on his ability to handle the hype
Billy Gilmour has captured hearts and minds. He might also have stolen Jorginho’s first team place at Chelsea. His performances against Liverpool and Everton were outstanding, he seems to have had a real, rather than illusory effect on the speed of his side’s play, and it’s not entirely coincidental that Chelsea, collectively, are playing with more attacking fluency than at any other point under Frank Lampard.
Gilmour, it turns out, has been exactly what they’ve needed. A deep-lying midfielder who cuts opposition lines with beguiling ease and who marches Chelsea up the field at a pace their opponents can’t easily cope with. It’s too early to say for sure, but even if Gilmour can’t sustain this initial burst of form, Lampard has found the remedy to an issue which has stymied performances all year.
For Gilmour, this is the beginning of the journey. In the obvious sense, of course, because these are his formative weeks in senior football. It’s also the start of his relationship with the club’s supporters and the footballing public as a whole. What enthralling times those generally are too – when every game shows something new, when every new team faced poses a challenge which he may or may not be able to meet.
It’s easy to forget that so many of the storylines on Premier League pitches are well worn. Most of the players who line up against each other on the weekend have been in opposition many times before and the battles which they take part are, while not entirely predictable, familiar and slightly stale. Players like Gilmour, who drop from the sky in the middle of a season, have a freshness and novelty to them. A rejuvenating quality, even.
A player’s realities can change quickly, though. Not in the material sense, although that’s obviously true as well, but in how they’re perceived and just how fluid their stock is during these initial steps. Already, Gilmour is the subject of little online skirmishes, with lines drawn between those who have been seduced completely by his talent and others who are either more sceptical or intent on denying it.
What an exhausting process that must be to suffer. Most footballers will claim to be oblivious to what’s said about them in public, but for a youngster that must surely be unrealistic. Imagine yourself in Gilmour’s position: you’re riding the crest of a wave, your form is excellent and, quite understandably, the impulse is surely to hear what the world is saying. To pick up a paper, to read a website.
But by opening Pandora’s Box, the player exposes himself to the noise – all the hyperbole, the praise, and invariably also the negativity.
That’s probably why it’s wrong to portray this as a situation free of pressure. Because that’s always the way, isn’t it? When a youngster breaks through, he has the support of his fans and a big bank of goodwill, and the temptation is to describe those weeks and months as a free hit.
But nothing could be further from the truth. In that situation, how quickly does a window of opportunity really stay open? During Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Everton, Armando Broja and Faustino Androjin made their Premier League debuts and how many people watching snapped to judgements about them within the space of a few minutes. How many decided after Androjin’s first few touches that, no, he probably isn’t going to be good enough?
Probably quite a few; that’s the demand for instant impact. There’s also an expectation that a player maintains his first impression, with any decline serving as proof of an illusion.
Think of Josh McEachran. Or even Jody Morris, all those years ago. Making it as a senior player only begins with making a debut. Thereafter, it depends on hurdling a set of obstacles which grow in height with rising expectation. Those initial experiences are very important. Confidence is delicate, public perception is extremely responsive; a misplaced pass is potentially perilous, a positional error can quickly become an asterisk.
For Gilmour specifically, the journey might not be quite so perilous. He is playing for a head coach with a genuine commitment to Chelsea’s academy and his direct rival for his position is someone whom the fans will never truly take to and who, more importantly, is yet to really convince in English football. How good is Jorginho? We’re still not sure.
But this is a tightrope walk for Gilmour and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Often, the mistake is to think that a player is cast in bronze by his first few performances and that by stepping on the pitch and drawing some headlines, his course is permanently set.
As has been proven time and again, though, building a career at a very top of the game requires a player to hack into the sport’s granite. He needs to meet the full range of tactical challenges and prove that he can cope with anything the league has to throw at him. All the while, ensuring that the experience doesn’t devalue him in the eyes of anyone who might have a direct effect on his future. That’s particularly true at Chelsea, where the resources exist to make immediate, ready-made upgrades. Lampard has softened that reality, but the club’s imperatives remain largely what they were and academy graduates can’t afford to be seen as projects or risks.
When the chance comes, it has to count. In addition to all the prohibitive statistics concerning academy graduation, that characterises the scale of the challenge. Getting an opportunity is tremendously difficult. Using it to carve a full-time place in the game is much harder.
Billy Gilmour will have to be this good for a while yet. And he’ll have to maintain those standards while the clamour and the doubt and the praise thrash around him.
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Seb Stafford-Bloor is a football writer at Tifo Football and member of the Football Writers' Association. He was formerly a regularly columnist for the FourFourTwo website, covering all aspects of the game, including tactical analysis, reaction pieces, longer-term trends and critiquing the increasingly shady business of football's financial side and authorities' decision-making.