The agony of a year lost was quickly wiped away by relief when Ruben Loftus-Cheek started in Chelsea’s first game since the Premier League restart at Aston Villa.
It heralded the end of a mentally gruelling 13 months for the 24-year-old and the beginning of what he hopes will become a starring role under Frank Lampard.
The first of seven appearances now, including one assist, under the first-year head coach, a year removed from committing his future to the Blues in what was a timely boost following the agony of the achilles injury, which cruelly dashed his Europa League final dreams.
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Now though, despite Lampard’s patience, a healthy Loftus-Cheek maintains it is his time to shine by turning youthful promise into consistent production on the pitch.
“I don’t see myself as a young player any more,” Loftus-Cheek insists. “Frank came in [last July], but I was always thinking of signing for Chelsea before he came in.
“Frank coming in didn’t change my opinion to stay even more. I was happy at Chelsea and my plan was to stay here.”
The lengthy spell out allowed the Lewishman-born midfielder to comprehend the double-edged sword that his body brings. A weapon that compliments his excellent touch and soft feet, though its fragility, having also endured back problems since he was 16, has meant that it has often betrayed him.
There is perhaps a simplicity to his focus in the coming weeks though; carefully manage his body, while carving out a defined role, having previously slotted in where needed for club and country due to his versatility.
His talent can evidently translate onto the pitch at this level too. Chelsea can thank Maurizio Sarri for proving just that, despite leaving a complicated legacy in his short stint at Stamford Bridge.
It was the Italian who helped Loftus-Cheek to marry the belief that he belonged to his “devotion” towards the club.
“I was injured at the time [of signing my new contract]. I came off the back of a good season with Chelsea when Sarri was here. It was my highest scoring season. I played a lot more games and I felt like a Chelsea player who had contributed to winning in that season,” Loftus-Cheek remembers.
“So to get injured was a blow and to be honest I didn’t think I would be injured for so long. I didn’t think it would take a year for me to come back.
“So that was in my thoughts when I was signing my contract. But it obviously didn’t happen like that. I’m devoted to Chelsea.
“I’ve been here since I was seven years old. After the season with Sarri there was no reason for me to leave Chelsea.”
Much has been said about Lampard and the club’s transfer ban, yet before Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech even arrive, the head coach considers Loftus-Cheek as a new signing.
“I hope so,” Lampard admitted after defeating Norwich 1-0. “It’s difficult for Ruben right now, because of how long he’s had out, because of the stop-start of lockdown and the restart.
“But he’s worked really hard to get where he is right now. In terms of his body and his fitness, we have to give him a little bit of credit and time.
“These games now. He’s started today. He’s made little impacts along the way.
“What I want is a Ruben firing straight out the blocks for pre-season and next season. I know the talent he has, I know what he can bring us.
“It’s very individual. It’s different to what the rest of the squad bring for us, his physicality and touch on the ball.”
So while the promise of next season provides comfort, Loftus-Cheek knows that he can grasp redemption much sooner. The stakes are high though, away from a tense conclusion to the race to finish inside the top four, Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United provides a huge stage to relaunch his career.
Loftus-Cheek is conscious of the peculiarity that a hollow Wembley without fans will bring, though he is embracing the challenge to find alternative ways to summon the energy to earn victory against such a red-hot opponent.
“Yeah, I’d love for there to be fans at Wembley,” Loftus-Cheek admits. “It’s going to be even more eerie because it’s such a big stadium. And this far into a competition.
“This is the business end and this is when you want the fans to be involved, and to feel the energy and adrenaline in the stadium and in the crowd and the situation is very different right now.
“There’s nothing we can do about it. We have to try to play the same football and have the same motivation to want to win a game.”
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