Football is a business. It’s not really about the elven guys on the pitch, it’s about the three or four off it who generate and dole out the money and the bloke on the other end of the phone who can shut down everything with a simple ‘no’. In the same week that indoctrinated fan boys queued all night to grab a new iPhone, Watford were themselves bobbing for loan apples. Ever the innovators, the great minds of Silicon Valley released not one but two phones – the iPhone 5s and the 5c. The former was the sublime beauty that we’ve all become used to: smooth and sleek, powerful and responsive; while the latter was a bit more clunky, less durable, and most importantly, cheaper.
In London Colney, the suits were having to make the same choice: pay over the odds for a product of undeniable beauty or go for the cheaper model that might not have the same specs, but could probably do the job regardless.
In the end, it was the fridge magnates at Nottingham Forest that plumped up the courage to cover the £30,000 a week payments required to secure the services of Nathaniel Chalobah, leaving Gianluca Nani to bring in Josh McEachran, Chalobah’s teammate at Chelsea and something of a forgotten talent.
It wasn’t so long ago that McEachran was the young English player – the guy that optimists pointed to for assurance that the future of the national team wasn’t as bleak as its present. He was, so they said, the number 10 that would unlock England’s potential like Mezut Özil has for our German friends. It was under such an impression that I travelled to Stamford Bridge to watch Watford’s youth team take on Chelsea’s in the quarter finals of the FA Youth Cup in 2011.
The match, an entertaining 2-1 defeat for the Hornets, turned out to be quite portentous for Watford: by this time next week, eight of the players that started will have played for Watford’s first team, with Bonham – a ninth – an unused substitute in the game, and Bernard Mensah another soon to be added. One of those eight, of course was Chalobah, and while McEachran spent the game advancing attacks and dancing around outside the area, Nate held fort in a holding role, looking assured but distinctly unflashy.
Since then, McEachran has struggled to turn the potential that was so avidly talked about into tangible results on the pitch. He had already made his Premier League and Champions League debut previously that season, and has since gone on to make 22 appearances in all competitions for the Blues, either side of a loan spell at Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea in the Swans’ first year in the top flight – a period that only saw him get on the pitch four times. He spent last season at Championship non-eventers Middlesbrough, where he earned the club’s Young Player of the Season award during his 38 games, but also the apathy of many of the Boro fans.
One Boro fan that I asked described McEachran as ‘a nice footballer, pleasing on the eye’ but one that does (paraphrasing to remove obscenity) absolutely nothing. ‘He fooled me for about ten games though, I thought he was decent at first, and so will you’. Not many will have come out of Middlesbrough’s 2012/13 campaign with much credit, so expecting a then-19 year-old to carry a team out of obscurity may be a bit unfair; but this underwhelming impact has been a noticeable trend since Carlo Ancelotti converted him from his advanced role into a deep-lying midfielder.
With Chalobah returning to Stamford Bridge this summer with rave reviews ringing in his ears, McEachran is very much yesterday’s man when it comes to Chelsea’s midfield prospects. It seems inevitable that comparison to the sultry Chalobah will follow him wherever he goes, especially in Watford, where fans will be expecting a similar impact to the one delivered by his predecessor.
They’re not the same player, however, and I wonder whether McEachran is actually what we need. Though Chalobah was billed as a defender upon arrival, his focus was really on attack, and the impetus he gave from deep in midfield with quick decisions and even quicker feet has been missing for a lot of this season so far. The Oxford-born McEachran, however, is slighter, more ephemeral, and, oddly, less sure of his place in midfield than Chalobah.
It seems to me that he’s more of a Sean Murray-type midfielder. That is to say, not a central midfielder at all. He’ll add to the bloated group of attacking-minded midfielders, and leave those who want to sit on the halfway line and create still limited. Iriney looks like he’ll struggle to play three games in a week, and Connor Smith – though talented – could use a spell in Leagues One or Two; we have Abdi and McGugan and Murray going forward, with Forestieri and Fabbrini fulfilling the traditional idea of a continental number ten, so why have we got ourselves another one?
Nevertheless, for all of his recent disappointment, we’ve secured another bright, young talent, and one would hope that we’re contributing less to his wages than Forest are for Chalobah’s. The talent pool at the club grows ever bigger and maybe, operating in a system that tries to accommodate expressive players, he’ll realise the potential that had hipsters foaming at the mouth two years ago.