It is shorts and t-shirt weather as Ben Chilwell sits down at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground to look back as well as forward, putting some of his most significant tattoos on display.
On his left shin is the number 1235. ‘The 1235th player to play for England,’ explained Chilwell, who has his year of birth marked on his other leg.
On his left arm the phrase ‘halfway there.’
‘You’re never where you want to be, you’re always halfway there,’ he said philosophically before joking ‘and it’s halfway up my arm!’
On his right arm is an inked image of the Champions League trophy to commemorate Chelsea’s 2021 win.
‘I’m trying to make sure there are a few spots for a few more trophies,’ Chilwell smiled. ‘The World Cup would be a bit bigger than that.’
Chilwell can excitedly contemplate the prospect of things such as winning silverware again after recovering from an ACL injury that ruled him out for six months last season.
Like his club following Chelsea’s takeover, the new campaign represents a fresh start.
He said: ‘I’ve dreamed of playing in a World Cup literally since I can remember and to know it’s just around the corner is more motivation than you can know for me to try and seal that [left-back] spot down.
‘Not just for myself but for my family, everything – especially after the Euros in what was a difficult time for me. If I could go to the World Cup as the number one left-back, have a good tournament and hopefully as a team and we do really well and go all the way it would be amazing. It would be the highlight not just of my career but of my life so over the next four, five months I’m just going to do everything that I can to try and make sure that is my spot.’
His chances should be high as he has returned from his spell out with the England left-back position remaining one that looks up for grabs.
He said: ‘The injury as weird as it sounds happened at the perfect time because we are getting back now and still four or five months away from the World Cup so if I play well between now and then I am confident I will be in the squad.’
After overcoming what he now recognises was ‘mental fatigue’ having been overlooked and not given a single minute at Euro 2020, Chilwell was in top form, loving his football and locked in ‘a little friendly competitiveness’ with Reece James to see who could score or assist more out of the two Blues wing-backs when his knee gave way in Chelsea’s 4-0 Champions League win against Juventus last November.
With Chilwell’s injury being a partial rather than full rupture the initial decision taken was to delay surgery and see whether he could recover without needing an operation.
‘After the Juventus game I scanned the next day and there was no swelling,’ Chilwell explained.
‘The knee was unstable but no swelling and in every case of an ACL tear the knee blows up so they weren’t really sure.
‘We sat down with Andy Williams, who did the surgery on my knee and is a brilliant surgeon, and we came to the decision that it wasn’t 100 per cent necessary to do surgery.
‘If I didn’t have the surgery then there was potential I could have been back in a month and a half.
‘So I made the decision to go down that route, seeing if I could come back.
‘A week or two weeks after the Juventus game I was back jogging on the pitch and I felt completely fine.
‘Five and a half weeks in, I was two or three days away from training with the group, I was pretty much 100 per cent back.’
Then, having been what he thought was within touching distance of a January return to action, came the most untimely of setbacks.
‘It was actually Christmas Day that I done it,’ he revealed. ‘The plan was for me to watch the boys on Boxing Day and train with the group that didn’t play on the 27th but, Christmas day, I was doing a session outside and just felt it go again.
‘I Just planted my foot in a rehab session on the grass and my knee just buckled again. It wasn’t as painful but it was the same feeling I had against Juventus and I knew, I can’t go through my career going through this every month.
‘Then on Boxing Day I saw Andy Williams and he said ‘let’s crack on with the surgery”.
Chilwell says he is ‘quite good with adversity,’ a legacy of his Leicester youth team days when he used being the last player in his group to get their scholarship as fuel to return for the new season as the fittest in his squad, become captain and start training with the first team just months later.
Advice from his Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers about not getting too carried away by football’s highs or down about the lows has also stuck.
Both were mainly valuable during the early days after the injury as post-surgery his rehab ‘was as plain-sailing as it could be’ enabling Chilwell to make a morale-boosting late appearance on the final day of last season against Watford.
‘It was amazing for the manager to throw me in and give me a few minutes,’ he said.
‘Mentally more than anything it was nice to get back on the pitch, to feel being back at Stamford Bridge and the energy from the crowd.
‘Just little things like the hotel before the game, being involved in the team meeting, having dinner with the boys the night before. You take little things like that for granted. Being involved with it again, mentally it was nice. Going away for a few weeks in the summer, I knew I was going away in a good place where I had come back on the pitch and was fully fit.
‘Then I could enjoy my time off, forget about football for a few weeks, and come back knowing that mentally I’m 100 per cent ready to crack on.’
By those who have witnessed it, Chilwell has been praised for his mentality during his rehab, staying upbeat and involved with the group, something he in turn thanked Thomas Tuchel, his teammates and the club’s staff for helping instigate.
He has also remained in touch with England manager Gareth Southgate while sidelined.
Along with Chilwell Chelsea are also now looking forward to what the future holds, under new ownership after a turbulent end to Roman Abramovich’s reign.
He insisted the uncertainty while the club was in limbo did not penetrate the dressing room.
‘It doesn’t really get spoken about,’ he said. ‘We’ve got a job, which is to play football and win games for the club. Every other job, which we don’t know anything about, it’s up to them to sort out. All we can do is our best to help the team win matches.’
But clarity has now been provided following the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital takeover.
Chilwell said: ‘It’s a weight off the club’s shoulders, now we can move on, we’ve got new ownership, which seems amazing, they want to get involved and invest a lot in the club, which is a positive thing. The club’s in a good place which is very positive going forward.’
Big names have gone such as Antonio Rudiger – ‘one of the most influential players in the team last year’ – but others will be coming the other way
Chilwell was very much on message, sparking laughter when the subject of Raheem Sterling was raised.
‘It’s not clear [he is joining] until it’s posted on the Chelsea website,’ a poker-faced Chilwell said.
But when the new arrivals do get through the door they will join a group in no doubt, after dressing room conversations amongst themselves, about the greater consistency required to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool and land the major honours that eluded them last season.
‘Firstly, I don’t think last season was a bad season,’ Chilwell said. ‘We won two cups last year; we got to two other cup finals and we got top four.
‘[In] the Champions League, we were that close to getting to the semi-finals. That’s not bad if you ask me, against Real Madrid.
‘This is Chelsea, we want to win the big trophies. And of course we’re positive going into this season, like we are every season. We’ve got a strong team. Hopefully we can add to that strength with some good players. We’ve got a great manager – we know we’re not going to get a better manager here. New ownership. Great training ground. Good backroom staff. So everything’s in place to have a good season. It’s up to us now to work hard and motivate each other to make that happen.’