There’s a video out there, somewhere, of my first ever football match.
Literally first ever match.
I was six years old. I was playing for a team called the Woburn Lions, which is the village just over from mine outside of Milton Keynes. We had purple and light blue kits. Kind of awful looking things if I remember correctly. Mine was a few sizes too big because it had been handed down from an age group a few above ours.
I was wearing shin pads that cost four pound that my dad and I had gone to buy together. I remember that day … he got me black boots, too. He always said, “Only black boots until you can afford your own.”
We were playing a team called Green Lyef. I think I scored five goals. Me and my best mate at the time both did really well that day. We hadn’t ever had a practice or organised kick about — it was just pure football and pure mayhem. Shin kicking. Jersey tugging. Falling. Probably tears.When I think of that video, and that baggy purple kit, I see a boy who had no idea he was any good.
And my mate’s dad taped the whole thing on a camcorder.
I didn’t actually see it until six years later when I was a bit older.
I think back to that video from time to time now. You know, I’ve just had my 11th cap with England — which still sounds crazy to say, and it means more to me than I can put into words.
But the even crazier thing is, when I think of that video, and that baggy purple kit, I see a boy who had no idea he was any good. And wouldn’t know he was any good for a long time.
I see a boy who almost gave up. I see a boy that, if it weren’t for a hero along the way, he never would have made it.
Sometimes the best dreams aren’t yours — they’re the ones someone else tells you, you can achieve.
Let me tell you about my hero.
In 2012, I was playing for the U16s in the Leicester Academy.
I had always been a good player growing up, despite never working too hard at it. I just sort of had this natural talent that propelled me through the ranks when I was quite young. But something happened over the summer going into that season — everyone seemingly caught up with me. I don’t know if it was our group of lads sort of maturing and growing into their bodies, or everyone just put in more work than me. I went, in a single summer, from one of the top players in the side, to one of the worst.
It was tough on me, and it was tough on my dad. He drove me, nearly every day, from our home outside Milton Keynes to the academy for training. And on Thursdays after our sessions ended, our manager would read out the side that’d be starting on the weekend. For months and months, I’d never be in it. Not even sat on the bench, either. Just left out. Back to the academy on match days to train with the others who were left out.
I hated Thursdays, mate, I really did.
Courtesy of Ben Chilwell
When I think back to those days, I remember my dad’s car. It was a nice car, but I just couldn’t stand the sight of it on those Thursdays. I’d see it sitting there in the parking lot. And I knew what was ahead for me. I’d start the conversation in my head before I even got in the car, like a boxer weaving back and forth, dodging invisible punches.
Not in the team, again.
Ben, Son … you’re not working hard enough — you’re not going to go anywhere with this if you keep up this level of effort.
Dad, I’m doing my best.
We’d go to the park for two hours and just kick the ball against a wall. I’d hit passes and stare at the clock across the street, until exactly two hours would pass, and then I’d go home. He’d make me go running to keep my fitness up. I don’t know what he saw in me.
He knew talent, though, and he knew sport. He was a proper good tennis player back in his day growing up in New Zealand. But he never got the chance to go after his dream because he had to start working for his family.
I think, looking back, he saw a lot of himself in me. And he didn’t want to me to fall short of my potential.
Everything he did was coming from a place of love. He’s my hero. When you’re 15 years old, you never really know the potential that other people may see in you.
You have to want it because you want it — not for anybody else.
My mum and dad didn’t give up on my football. They saw what was possible — they saw the dream, and what it was made of. And they pushed me until I understood that. Their belief finally forced me out of my comfort zone, my cruise control. I channelled that energy my dad had and put it into my work.
Just watch me.
I used that fire to become the captain of the Leicester U16s the following year, and I was cruising along pretty well. I was comfortable, enjoying my football. But when I turned 18, my mental strength was tested again.
Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
I was away with the England U21s, when I got a call from my agent.
“Huddersfield want you on loan. They’re a Championship side with a proper manager, and they want to give you some real time in the side.”
I was loving my football with the Leicester youth teams, and I felt close to breaking into the senior side — which was in the early stages of the miracle title push, and the buzz around town was incredible. But I heard my dad’s voice in my head, I knew what he’d say if I told him I passed up the chance. So off to Huddersfield I went — a step into the unknown.
There’s a point to all this, trust me. I’m not taking you with me back in time without getting you somewhere in the end, O.K.?
I got to Huddersfield at half-past three in the morning from the England camp. I had training the next day. I could barely sleep. I had never played on a proper senior men’s side. My heart was just racing lying in bed. I didn’t want the alarm to go off, I didn’t want to wake up. I was petrified.
I remember walking into the change room and feeling like everyone was watching me.
I felt that self-defeating version of me come back out, the one that didn’t want to work for fear of failure, and wanted to rely on his talent alone. I think everyone can feel that way in a new place, whether it’s a new job or new school — that sort of fear is common.
I just had to find a way to push through that at first. David Wagner, the manager at Huddersfield, was the one who really put the confidence in me that I could play at a senior level. He had seen a lot of talents when he was a coach in Dortmund with the youth teams — and he pulled me aside one day and told me I could be one of the great left backs one day if I kept working at it.
That’s the sort of thing you hear and it almost makes you nervous, you know. Like, Me? One of the greats?
You don’t forget something like that, though.
My play went up another level. At Huddersfield, I learned I could play at a professional level. That’s a special club.
I went back to Leicester a few months later after being recalled from my loan. To be in and around the club during the title push was really important to me and to a lot of the youth players at that time. We saw, literally, what it took to be a winner. And more importantly we saw what it meant to the longtime Leicester players, like Andy King. He’s a true club legend, and the support he has shown me has meant so much. Seeing him win the Premier League — that’s what damn dreams are made of.
He helped me grow so much. And over the last couple of seasons I’ve worked my way into the side and I feel like a real part of the club I grew up watching — which is the best feeling in the world, it really is.
Making my Premier League debut in October 2016, with my whole family in the crowd at the ground we used to go to when I was little … it puts all the tough moments into perspective.
And now I feel like I’m on my way.
I want to be the best left back in the world.
That feels good to say.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
It feels possible, too, because I look at a guy like Andy Robertson at Liverpool. He has a great story, right? Almost quit, like I did, kept at it, pushed himself past the limits he thought he had, and now he’s one of the best in the world.
I had a good chat with him a few months back at Trent Alexander-Arnold’s birthday dinner.
Anyway, I spoke with Andy for a bit and I told him he’s class and whatnot and he said the same to me. It was really cool to chat with him. And just to sort of pick his brain for a bit about football, it meant a lot to me.
Being part of the England setup has been a great experience in so many ways.
My debut was an incredible moment for me. The fact that it happened in Leicester at the King Power … I’ll tell my grandkids about that day until I’m blue in the face. But what I remember most — the image that will stick with me forever — was seeing my family in the players’ lounge, right after the match.
I took the elevator up to the lounge and the first thing I saw was my three best friends sitting with my mum, dad and sister. I saw the smiles on their faces and stuff, and yeah, I don’t know exactly how to put into words the feeling I had walking over to them. It gets me a bit emotional just thinking about it now. All I know is I had a big grin on my face, and we didn’t talk about football at all. We talked about the road it took for us to get to that point. Because it’s us, not me, who had reached this moment.
I think my dad and I maybe even shared a few laughs about the times we used to spend on the road, going to and from training.
Looking back, I’m grateful for his belief in me. All those people at the table in the players’ lounge believed in me. Even if I hadn’t yet figured out how to believe in myself.
So, yeah, that’s it.
That’s my blog.
It’s my first time doing one of these, so I hope you like it.
And if you’re a kid trying to make it as a footballer somewhere, I hope this gives you another perspective on things.