Reece James exclusive: How footballing building blocks helped Chelsea right-back thrive
Behind 20-year-old Chelsea right-back Reece James lie several priceless footballing building blocks.
One is a familiarity with his boyhood club, for whom he has impressed. Another is an invaluable stint at Wigan, where he completed his football graduation and football “meant more.”
But perhaps most crucial is James’ childhood of growing up in a family where football was played all day, every day, where age didn’t matter and comfort on the ball was habitual.
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“All we did was play football, whenever we had a chance we’d be playing,” Reece tells Sky Sports.
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“I had an older brother, Josh, who played, so I was looking up to him too. I was playing with his mates, two years older, and physically the gap is big. I got used to it quickly because I was playing with them so frequently.
“Dad and I would go through technical drills, and if you do that when you’re young, you pick it up much quicker when you’re older.”
Lauren, Reece’s sister, is in Manchester United Women’s first team, while his father Nigel runs an academy having been involved with non-League clubs. Reece was also fast-tracked to train with his older brother Josh at Fulham’s Under-9s, an impressive feat at grassroots level, but even more remarkable in a Premier League academy.
In Nigel, softly-spoken and composed, it is abundantly clear why Reece’s foundation is so strong. A qualified coach, Nigel would have Reece doing hand-eye co-ordination skills at a young age, before introducing repetitive drills, somehow without boring the youngster.
“It’s something I do with a lot of the kids,” Nigel tells Sky Sports. “We played football pretty much every day, doing the same things, repetition, repetition, repetition, without the kids realising it’s repetition.
“Reece has always been very focused. We could pull this right back to when he was seven. He was an Under-7 at Fulham, while also with Chelsea, but Reece trained with the Under-9s. He trained with them for a whole year, Tuesday-Thursday sessions with the main group.
“Having that, alongside what he gained from myself, that really enhanced his development.”
James has been at Chelsea since he was six, and after a year-long loan at Wigan, the pacey, powerful right-back has won a lot of admirers at Stamford Bridge and beyond. With 25 appearances, including 11 Premier League starts, he was awarded a new contract until 2025 in January.
Reece James in the Premier League 19/20
Alongside Tammy Abraham (22), Mason Mount (21), Fikayo Tomori (22), Callum Hudson-Odoi (19) and Billy Gilmour (18), James is surrounded by familiar faces as Chelsea retrace their young British routes under Frank Lampard. The transition into the first-team dressing room was seamless.
Reece says: “It’s obviously great, growing up supporting the club and now playing for the club. When I knew I was staying at the start of the season I didn’t know how much I was going to play because obviously I’m at a world-class club, and everyone is at a very high standard.
“Ever since I moved into the changing room, everyone made me very welcome and looked after me. I know a few of the lads as well, because we played together coming through the academy, so when I saw a few of them it was a lot better because they’re familiar faces.
“There are four or five of us in the group now who have come through together, and I think over time we are going to gradually improve together as a group. Obviously I know all of them now, and knowing the young lads when I got here helped a lot.”
It was at Wigan – just promoted to the Championship under Paul Cook – where James came into his own last season. He arrived looking for experience at right-back, but the man in his position was fan favourite and Player of the Year Nathan Byrne.
After Byrne was injured in pre-season, James came in and never looked back, even becoming close friends with Byrne. He succeeded at right-back, and midway through the season was moved into midfield, winning Player’s Player of the Year and Player of the Year. One journalist posed the question as to whether James was Wigan’s best-ever player.
“Obviously it was my first season in senior football, so when I first arrived there I didn’t know what to expect.
“It was different because everyone had a lot more to play for, it meant a lot more to everyone, so they didn’t want to lose. Most of the games last season we were scrapping to get points, so it was a tough season, but that helped me a lot.”
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James showed his versatility at Wigan, but while at Chelsea, right-back is his position. In previous eras, James would already be on the brink of the England squad – Fabio Capello took one natural right-back in Glen Johnson to South Africa in 2010, while Martin Kelly was Johnson’s only under-study in the Euro 2012 squad – but nowadays, the competition is heavy.
Nevertheless, the right-back position is where James is able to showcase his strengths at both ends.
“I still feel right-back is my position. I think as time has gone on, people are taking more risks at full-back, the position is a lot freer, and you can attack more and defend more. As a defender the first job is to defend, but obviously I love going forward.”
What’s most evident is James’ comfort on the ball, something he believes is credit to Lampard’s management style.
“There’s freedom here, obviously we’re the ones playing on the pitch, so you do what you feel is right at the time. If you are more comfortable on the ball, you’re going to have more time on the ball.
“We’re all still young, so we’re going to make mistakes in games, so when you do make a mistake you try to analyse it, and see where you can improve next time.”
There’s freedom here, obviously we’re the ones playing on the pitch, so you do what you feel is right at the time. If you are more comfortable on the ball, you’re going to have more time on the ball
There is hype around James at present. How he deals with that while improving remains to be seen, but the odds are on his side.
“He’s very easy-going, really easy-going!” says his father Nigel. “He’s very calm, never really gives you a problem, and was always respectful. He was someone who if he went to someone’s house, they loved it.
“Having that, and having the ability to go with it, without being flash, where everyone wanted him to be in their team. Nobody seemed to have any jealously, because of the character and person he was, so that played in his favour all the way through his youth career, and probably will all the way through his career from now.
Reece has already had to overcome difficulties, putting weight on in his early teens and finding it difficult to complete matches. In his rare free time, the youngster worked it off, built strength and is now rewarded with a physique and frame beyond his years.
“Reece did some extra work on a Sunday – his only day off – we would go to a running coach in Bromley and Sutton. It was a struggle, but it was something we had to do. Reece had to look at himself and he decided he had to make a lot of sacrifices and changes with his diet and lifestyle.
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