For Callum Hudson-Odoi, the reality is that had things worked out differently in January he could have been a Bayern Munich player, watching the Frank Lampard academy-fired revolution at Chelsea from afar. How would that have felt? “To be fair, I wouldn’t know how I’d feel because I’m not there,” he replies, showing the kind of swerve with which he has made his name.
It does not take long for his true sentiments to emerge. The 19-year-old winger was almost driven to Bayern by a combination of frustration and impatience – the former caused by the Chelsea manager last season, Maurizio Sarri, who barely played him over the first half of the campaign. Bayern had been confident of closing the deal; perhaps too confident. The simple fact was they did not impress the Chelsea hierarchy with the way they went about their business and it is easy to feel their approach served to harden the London club’s resolve to keep their young star. Bayern offered £35m plus £5m in add-ons but Chelsea said no. It did not matter to them that Hudson-Odoi had lodged a transfer request.
Plenty has happened to him since then. He got a little run in Sarri’s Premier League XI in April, although curiously not before he had made his first England start against Montenegro in Podgorica at the end of March. Then there was the ruptured achilles that finished his season, ruling him out of important fixtures such as the Europa League final against Arsenal and England’s Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands. That was tough.
Hudson-Odoi felt a surge of excitement when Lampard replaced Sarri; he signed a five-year contract in September, worth £120,000 a week and he can now reflect on having regained fitness after what ended up being five months out, making an impact for Chelsea and regaining his place in the England squad. With Raheem Sterling dropped for the Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday night after his altercation with Joe Gomez, Hudson-Odoi senses opportunity. It feels as though things have worked out for the best.
“Definitely,” he says. “I’m really happy that I stayed at Chelsea. I’ve been there all my life, I’ve loved the club from day one. Obviously, the academy boys who have come through are playing loads of games and it’s just a good bond.
“I was more thinking about it [signing for Bayern]. I wasn’t saying I was definitely going to sign or I wasn’t going to sign. It was just because of times last year where I felt a bit of frustration or times when I wanted to play more because I love the game.
“There were times where I was thinking: ‘What happens if I do that?’ But at the same time, I thought: ‘Chelsea is the club where I’ve been and this is where I want to become a key player.’ Doing it at the club where I’ve been is a massive thing. Does it feel more special? Definitely.”
There is an exuberance about Hudson-Odoi and he admits that at heart he is still the 13-year-old Chelsea ball boy who was once photographed celebrating a goal with Samuel Eto’o. There is a desire to express himself, a self-confidence and it derives from his childhood in south London, when he idolised Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo and loved to play cage football or simply in the street.
“You’ve just got to be confident in every game you play. There’s no way you can show fear or be scared of any situation. The cage football helped a lot. It’s where I grew up.”
Lampard has been tough, at times, with Hudson-Odoi, seeking to keep him grounded and create the right framework for his free-spiritedness. The manager, who has also blooded Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham from the Chelsea academy this season, was in no mood, for example, to allow Hudson-Odoi to bask in his comeback performance against Grimsby in the Carabao Cup in September, in which he scored and the team won 7-1. Instead, Lampard laid into him at half-time for failing to run in behind the opposition defenders.
“He is hard on me but it’s in a good way because he wants me to keep getting better,” Hudson-Odoi says. “The manager wants to win and he wants to win in the best way. He wants you to get better and that’s why he will tell you in the way he does.”
Lampard, plainly, was a key factor in Hudson-Odoi’s decision to re-sign at Chelsea. How many conversations did it take with the manager to convince him? “One,” Hudson-Odoi replies. “He just said he believed in me, that he wants me to play for him and things will go well for me at this club. It was exciting times that a new manager was coming in and you know that he will play at least some of the youth boys as well.”
Hudson-Odoi has his sights fixed on winning a place in Gareth Southgate’s squad for the Euro 2020 finals next summer but he acknowledges that the competition from Harry Kane, Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho is fierce.
“When people say they make up the best front three in the world, it’s a motivation because I want to be one of them. I want to have people say: ‘OK. There’s five of them now.’”