Ben Chilwell smiles. There is almost an eye-roll. Yes, he has heard the legend of the All Blacks rugby team from his father, Wayne, a proud New Zealander; how their codes have made them so much more than the sum of their parts.
“I’ve definitely been made aware of it by my dad,” the Chelsea and England left-back says. “He’d like to tell me all the time that the All Blacks are the best team ever to play sport. The way they go about things is very proper and the way that he tried to bring me up was on a lot of their ethics and morals.”
Wayne is a Māori speaker who can perform the haka – the ceremonial dance that is perhaps the All Blacks’ most famous ritual.
“He translated it to me when I was watching a game of theirs against the Lions maybe 10 years ago,” Chilwell says. “With the All Blacks, it is doing everything right, not taking any shortcuts, being respectful. Whenever you put your mind on something, do it properly. Do it 100% or don’t do it at all.”
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, has drawn on the philosophy of the All Blacks, going so far as to use a Kiwi performance coach, Owen Eastwood, to instil core principles. Eastwood has worked with the All Blacks.
Humility, responsibility, sacrifice. The primacy of the team over the individual. Identity, belonging. They resonate strongly with Chilwell and it was necessary for him to fall back on them during a testing period.
When the 24-year-old starred in Chelsea’s Champions League final victory over Manchester City on 29 May, he was ready to take Euro 2020 by storm. Instead, he did not play and, when the new season kicked off, his frustrations would only continue.
Chilwell had taken a holiday after the Euros, which were scarred for him by the need to isolate for 10 days after a close contact with the Covid-positive Billy Gilmour of Scotland – a good friend from Chelsea. And, when he returned, he found himself behind Marcos Alonso in terms of preparation. With Thomas Tuchel preferring Alonso, Chilwell started only one of the club’s first 10 games. He was an unused substitute in seven of them.
In mid-September Tuchel said that Chilwell had been suffering from mental fatigue brought on by worrying about his situation from the Euros and now at club level.
“It wasn’t so much mental fatigue,” Chilwell says. “It was more that I was so eager to get back playing football and it was maybe coming across that I wanted it a bit too much. Me and the manager had a very honest conversation after the first few games where he said to me: ‘Mentally, you’re pushing a bit too much. We love you here, we know your qualities. Just relax. You’re going to get back in.’ Which was brilliant for me to hear.
“When you’ve got a manager that talks to you on a personal level, it helps because as a player, there is nothing worse than not knowing where you stand and what the manager thinks.”
One surreal story sums up the frustration that Chilwell felt during his isolation at the Euros. It came from the night when Ed Sheeran performed for the squad at their St George’s Park base and Chilwell and Mason Mount, who had also been forced to isolate, were given bedrooms that overlooked the concert.
“My window only opened about three or four inches but we still got to hear a bit of it,” Chilwell says. “Ed shouted up to me and Mase if we wanted a song because we couldn’t be there. The staff were really good at keeping me and Mase as involved as we could be.”
Chilwell’s fortunes turned on 2 October, although he describes what happened against Southampton as more of a “relief”. In his first start of the Premier League season, he gave away the penalty for 1-1 but went on to score the third goal of a 3-1 win. Two days later he was given a late recall to the England squad, having been omitted by Southgate in September and, in the 5-0 World Cup qualifying win over Andorra, he scored his first senior international goal.
Chilwell has since been a virtual ever-present for Chelsea and he was named at the outset in Southgate’s squad for these two qualifiers. With Luke Shaw observing concussion protocols, Chilwell is in line to start against Albania at Wembley on Friday night.
“The summer was difficult,” Chilwell says. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. But it’s football. These things are going to happen to the majority of professional players – low moments, high moments. I just needed to make sure I was ready … that I’d come through this stronger on the other side.
“With Billy, maybe we could just have not spoken to him, although we would never have known. 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. If I thought like that, it would just eat up at me.
“It was disappointing at Chelsea [in the early season] but again, I wanted to make sure I was supporting the team. Something strong with England and Chelsea is that the boys that don’t play are fully supportive. I made sure that was my mindset.”
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