Actions speak louder than words. After Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat by Manchester United on the opening weekend of the season, Frank Lampard namechecked Reece James as someone who would be a “big player” for his side in 2019/20. Earlier this week he did something even more significant; in sanctioning Davide Zappacosta’s loan move to Roma, Lampard demonstrated that James is very much in his plans.
Cesar Azpilicueta remains first-choice right-back at Stamford Bridge, but James is now next in line. Chelsea will once again be involved in four competitions this term, so the youngster is likely to receive several opportunities to show what he can do – even if Azpilicueta, who has missed only two top-flight matches in the last four campaigns, is rarely unavailable for selection.
After captaining Chelsea’s Under-18s to Youth Cup success and winning the club’s Academy Player of the Year award in 2017/18, James embarked on a loan spell at Wigan Athletic last season. It is a vital part of any youngster’s development to play senior football at a competitive level, but the defender was not fazed by the higher stakes of a Championship relegation battle. James was outstanding for the entirety of the season, culminating in him winning both the Players’ and Fans’ Player of the Year prizes at the DW Stadium.
He also demonstrated versatility during his time with the Latics, playing at centre-half, as a winger and in central midfield on occasion. However, James’ immediate future lies at right-back, where his pace, positional astuteness and fine delivery caught the eye last season.
“He’s an 18-year-old boy but everything about the kid suggests he’s going to have a very strong career,” Wigan boss Paul Cook told the Wigan Post last season. “His ability is only matched by his temperament and his attitude. If every 18-year-old conducted themselves the way Reece does, football would be in a good place.”
Fellow academy products Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham have already become key members of Lampard’s squad for the season ahead, and James looks set to follow in their footsteps. Currently sidelined with an ankle injury, the right-back should be back to full fitness after the international break at the start of September. That is also the month in which Chelsea’s involvement in the Champions League and League Cup will begin, so the teenager is almost certainly on the verge of making his first-team debut for the club he first joined as a six-year-old back in 2006.
“At the end of the day, if you’re a footballer, your job is to play,” James told the Independent last week. “I would always prefer to play than sit around. If I’m not, I’m not going to be happy, but there are certain situations where you have to be patient.
“Frank Lampard is a club legend; he’s someone I’ve always looked up to. If a manager believes in youth and believes in you then, eventually, you know the chance will come. Ever since I’ve been at Chelsea, my dream has been to become a first-team player.”
Given both the words and the actions of his manager, James looks set to fulfil that ambition this season.