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Published 03 March 2023 6 min read
Reece James

Reece James' grassroots story

Written by:

Reece James

Chelsea and England full-back Reece James reflects on his grassroots football journey, from Kew Park Rangers all the way to Stamford Bridge.

My first memories of football are playing in the park with my brother Josh, sister Lauren and my dad. There was a park behind our house in Mortlake and every day when we would get home from school we would go out and play football.

All three of us grew up wanting to be professional footballers so we would be out there trying to get better, improve and get to the top.

When we were growing up, there would be loads of kids in the area and we would have one big match. I had a team but I would still find the time to play as much as I could.

My dad helped our football development massively. When you are so young, you don’t always understand what you are doing and it was just a case of doing what he says. But looking back, he has helped massively throughout our careers and even now he still helps us every day. 

He never managed one of my teams but he had his own team that I would play for sometimes in the summer tournaments and stuff like that, but not a league team. 

A young Reece James with his father, Nigel
A young Reece James with his father, Nigel
My first grassroots team was Kew Park Rangers and I was there from around the age of five or six. I was playing one or two years up and then I signed for Chelsea from there. I played for Epsom Eagles as well. I can’t remember how old I was but I was there for a season or two at a similar time to Kew Park Rangers.

Conor Gallagher and Alfie Doughty were among the players who were at Epsom Eagles as well. So was Ben Dempsey, who was at Charlton. It was a very good team and we basically won everything.

I signed for Chelsea around the age of eight or nine. In my age group coming through we had Dujon Sterling, Martell Taylor-Crossdale, Rhian Brewster, Jamie Cumming, Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher, so there are a few of us who have gone on and done well.

It was all of our dreams to play for Chelsea but at the time we were coming through, it was known that it was hard to break through to the first team because not many had done it in recent times – you had Nathaniel Chalobah and Josh McEachran and a few others but not many broken in.

We knew what we wanted to do but it was deemed hard at the time. But when Frank Lampard got the head coach’s job, it definitely helped bring the academy and first team together. Even now he has gone, it is still where he has left it and you can see that with a few of the young lads breaking into the team last season. They have had their chance and been able to make their debuts and that is a credit to the players and the staff there as well.
Reece was part of a talented group of players in Chelsea's academy, including Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher
Reece was part of a talented group of players in Chelsea's academy, including Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher
When I was growing up, I was a striker and I idolised Didier Drogba. He played in my team, he played in my position and I always looked up to him. I just wanted to be like him, score like him and celebrate like him.

I stopped playing striker around the age of 11 or 12 and moved my way back into midfield. I had three or four years there and then found myself at right back around the age of 15. I hated it for two or three years. I didn’t like it and then one day it just clicked and I started to really enjoy it, around the age of 17. But it did take a lot of getting used to. It frustrated me a lot playing there when I didn’t want to play there.

But right back is the position I play most now and is a position I enjoy. I haven’t really played anywhere else to say it isn’t [my best position]. (Reece was speaking in June 2022)

I ended up staying at Chelsea the whole time once I joined but there was probably a stage where I was close to getting released around the age of 15 or 16. I was probably one of the worst in the group and they were unsure of how I was going to develop. They took a gamble on me by giving me a contract and I had to work hard to prove to people that I can play and achieve what I want to achieve.
Chelsea legend Didier Drogba was Reece's hero when growing up
Chelsea legend Didier Drogba was Reece's hero when growing up
When I was in school, I didn’t really understand the importance of things like diet. When I was with my friends, I would eat whatever they were eating and not take notice of what I am doing. I would just want to be one of them and not really take notice of what I want to achieve and where I wanted to go. Then one day it caught up with me and I was in a situation where I wasn’t fit enough to get around the pitch and couldn’t really move how I wanted to and it became evident that it had put me behind.

My dad would try to put me in the right direction with things like that but I had joined secondary school and you are becoming more independent at that age and you just eat when you are hungry. It caught up with me.

When I look at my development, alongside my dad, there were other coaches who helped me. There was one in particular in the Chelsea academy called Frank O’Brien, who I worked with between the ages of around 14 to 16. He was someone who made me do extras and would be at me every day about how I needed to work harder. Jody Morris and Joe Edwards then took over where he left me and definitely helped me get to where I am today.

In terms of school football, I only played in one or two school matches because they generally seemed to fall on my training days for Chelsea so I wasn’t able to commit to it. I left my first secondary school in year nine and then I moved to Glyn School in Epsom, which had a link-up with Chelsea where the teachers then came out to us at Chelsea.

When I think of my overriding memories of grassroots football, in those early days when you are so young, it is just about having fun, enjoying yourself and not thinking too much. I think a lot of youngsters now can overthink everything and try to think too far ahead. When you are in that moment, you need to just enjoy it, have fun and play every game like it is your last.