There were moments during Chelsea’s Champions League final win when you couldn’t quite believe how well Reece James was coping with the pressure of the occasion. Of course, even before kick-off in Porto, everyone knew how much quality the Redbridge-born right-back possessed, but his performance over the course of 90 minutes was genuinely enough to take your breath away. Indeed, that sharp intake of breath when City found space around the box was replaced by a sigh of relief after James almost single-handedly thwarted every attack.
As much as one tries their damnedest to stay away from overused cliches, it perhaps does sum it up best by saying that the 21-year-old came of age during Chelsea’s inspiring Champions League triumph. His excellent season may have gone under the radar up until that point, but his performance in the final certainly put him on the big stage.
A star is born in PortoEmbed from Getty Images
It was a humid night in the coastal city that is situated in northwest Portugal but James didn’t look like he broke a sweat once. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that he was tasked with keeping Raheem Sterling quiet for the evening. Astonishingly, there were early signs that it was going to be a long night for the Manchester City winger and not James, a situation that most thought would be the other way around. Indeed, James’ use of his commanding physique meant that Sterling couldn’t find a way to goal no matter how many times he tried.
One lasting image of that final will be Sterling sitting on the grass near the byline as he remonstrated to a referee that wasn’t the slightest bit interested in his pleas, while Chelsea’s young full-back busted a gut to join the attack after helping his team get on the front foot. And on it would go, for a full hour and a half, James prodding the ball away or making a vital block – it was an extraordinary performance that helped his team to a victory that defied the pundits’ predictions.
Indeed, most of the pre-game talk had been centred around the rise of Phil Foden and Mason Mount, the two young English stars who were predicted to dominate proceedings in the final and also propel England to Euro glory this summer. Of course, that’s not outside the realms of possibility given that as of 10th June, the Three Lions have been priced at 11/2 by Betway to win the Euros, just behind tournament favourites France. But it was James who arguably shone brightest on the night and who will play as pivotal a role as Foden and Mount in bringing football home to England this summer.
Born in Redbridge, made in Wigan
One could even argue that James’ journey in football is more captivating than either Foden or Mount, given that it was only three seasons ago that the full-back was on loan at Wigan Athletic, where he missed just one game. It was a campaign where Wigan would secure their Championship status with only a couple of games to go but even amongst the uncertainty of a traumatic campaign, James was head and shoulders above the rest. Of course, there were bumps in the road and things didn’t always go to plan up in northwest Lancashire, but the 18-year-old showed a willingness to learn from his mistakes.
Taking everything on board while learning his trade up north resulted in him finishing the campaign in the Championship Team of the Season. Indeed, this end-of-season momentum helped secure his place in Chelsea’s squad for the following Premier League campaign.
Without a doubt, one of his standout performances for Wigan came against Leeds in the final throes of the season when he was asked to play in midfield after Cedric Kipre was sent off inside 15 minutes. James proceeded to run the show at a partisan Elland Road and eventually helped Wigan record a 2-1 win that would mean relegation to League One had been avoided.
It was days like that in an intimidating West Yorkshire atmosphere that prepared James for nights like the one in Porto.
The right-back’s footballing education seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye, and in many ways, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that at just 21, James has already won the Champions League. But the undeniable truth is that his performance in Porto was deserving of Europe’s greatest club prize and he looks like the finished article already. His performance along with others managed to help nullify Manchester City, who won the league comfortably thanks to Pep Guardiola’s tactical ingenuity, as well as arguably being the best side in Europe for large stretches.
When the time comes in the next decade and a half for James to hang his boots up, there will be very few trophies that he hasn’t won.
So there it is! From battling Championship relegation to Champions League winner: The extraordinary rise of Reece James. Be sure to check out more great articles on the Premier League, including our Player Analyses. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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