Josh McEachran takes a moment to consider his answer. The question is admittedly complex, it requires brief introspection.
“Of course I have moments where I’m frustrated about what’s happened in my career,” he replies honestly. “That’s only natural. But it’s in the past, I can’t afford to dwell on it. My motivation is about what I can do next, what I can do to improve myself, what I can do to shape my future.”
McEachran is speaking to me the day after his 28th birthday, on which he signed a short-term contract with League One side MK Dons until the end of the season. For those who witnessed the midfielder thrive in the Chelsea first team under Carlo Ancelotti a decade ago, that reality may be hard to comprehend.
“I don’t think anyone would’ve expected what’s happened if I’m honest,” he admits. “Certainly I didn’t.”
As a 17-year-old, McEachran appeared to have the world at his feet. Having turned down a move to Real Madrid, many felt he would follow in the footsteps of John Terry at Stamford Bridge, become the next bona fide star to emerge from the Blues academy. A future in the England team also beckoned.
None of it appeared to faze McEachran. Not the column inches his name filled nor the intense focus on his life on and off the pitch. In fact, by his own admission, the only time he felt under pressure in those early years was in the FA Youth Cup.
“Playing in front of 50,000 people in the first team, alongside those great players, which young footballer doesn’t want that? It was just pure excitement for me,” he explains. “In the Youth Cup, though, it was different.
“People knew who I was, knew that I was training with the first team and was being brought back down to play. There was an expectation for me to go and be the best player every game. If I wasn’t, I would beat myself up. That was the pressure I placed upon myself.”
Those who watched McEachran during his time with Chelsea’s Under-18s can testify the midfielder often lived up to his star billing. Used as a number ten, he would glide past challenges effortlessly, open up defences with a rare combination of vision and guile. His left foot was – and still is – special.
Those at Chelsea knew it early on: Ray Wilkins once famously compared a teenage McEachran to Arsenal legend Liam Brady. And it’s why at just 15 years old, McEachran was called to train with the senior side, then managed by Luis Felipe Scolari.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says with a chuckle. “I was a kid, still going to school during the week. I was obviously very nervous, absolutely s**ting myself to be honest. But at the same time I couldn’t wait to train with all the big-name players.
“Everyone was so welcoming. The English lads were fantastic: Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry. The African players, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, were also brilliant, they were so kind and made it easy for me.”
Trips “across the road” at Cobham became far more frequent for McEachran thereafter.
He spent much of the second half of the 2009/10 campaign training with the Chelsea first team – which would win a Premier League and FA Cup double under Carlo Ancelotti – but there was the important matter of helping the Blues clinch their first FA Youth Cup in 49 years by overcoming Aston Villa.
“That was so, so special,” McEachran says. “Everyone at the club was excited. Even now, more than ten years on, when I look back it was still a really special time in my career.”
McEachran would lift the 2010 UEFA European Under-17 Championship with England just weeks later and was named in the team of the tournament. When the young midfielder returned to Chelsea that summer, he was officially integrated into the senior set-up under Ancelotti.
His debut came against MSK Zilina in the Champions League; a ten-minute cameo with the game won.
His second appearance arrived a week later in front of a packed Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were 3-1 down against Newcastle United in the League Cup when McEachran was summoned.
“I remember looking up at the clock as I was waiting to come on and seeing there was half an hour to go,” he recalls. “I was so excited to be getting a proper chance to show everybody what I could do.
“I feel I played really well. We managed to get back to 3-3 even though we were down to ten men for most of the second half. But then Newcastle scored in the last minute. I was devastated.
“After the game though, all the lads in the dressing room told me how well I played and that was massive. That was my first time in front of the Chelsea fans and I think I really showed them what I could do.”
Ancelotti clearly liked what he saw that night. McEachran made his Premier League bow three days later and featured in the match-day squad for the next 22 top-flight games, playing in seven of them.
There were further outings in the Champions League too. And one in the FA Cup. By the end of his maiden season in the first team, McEachran had made 17 appearances.
“It’s well known that before I signed my first professional deal with Chelsea, Real Madrid had a five-year contract on the table for me,” McEachran says.
“But obviously I decided to stay at Chelsea because I was close to the first team. After that first season with Carlo it felt like the best decision I’d ever made.
“I was this 17-year-old kid playing for Chelsea, being talked about as a future England player. I honestly thought I’d cracked it.”
McEachran was named the club’s Young Player of the Year at the end of the 2010/11 campaign. He signed a five-year deal later that summer. It was recognition from the club for his rapid progress and undoubted talent.
However, the first big twist in McEachran’s career had already taken place: the sacking of Ancelotti.
The Italian’s trust in the teenager was absolute. It was he who remoulded McEachran into the player he is today; a deep-lying creative midfielder rather than a flighty number ten.
“All Carlo’s teams have tended to have that deep-lying midfielder, the playmaker,” McEachran says. “They’d be the one to dictate the game, to get loads of the ball.
“So he told me to watch clips of Andrea Pirlo, who was a huge player for Carlo. So I would go home and watch and Carlo was talking to me most days about my positioning and movement. He always trusted me with the ball.”
There’s little doubt Ancelotti’s departure harmed McEachran. His replacement was Andre Villas-Boas, who added Oriol Romeu and Raul Meireles to an already stacked midfield.
He made only five appearances under the Portuguese coach. So it was little surprise that McEachran decided his best course of action in January 2012 was to leave Chelsea on loan. He knew he had to play.
The then 18-year-old wasn’t short of offers yet one stood out: Swansea City. Then in the Premier League, the Swans were managed by former Chelsea academy coach Brendan Rodgers. It seemed a good fit, but unfortunately, the move didn’t work out.
“I didn’t get to play and I wasn’t even on the bench sometimes,” he says. “It was really confusing. I’m not sure what went on. It was a strange and disappointing time and it dented my confidence if I’m honest.”
Back at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas was sacked and replaced by Roberto Di Matteo. The Blues would go on to win the Champions League. McEachran could only watch on as a fan, although he did get to attend the victory parade. That must have hurt?
“I don’t regret going to Swansea,” McEachran replies. “If I had stayed at Chelsea, AVB could’ve sent me down to the Under-23s and I’d have been miles away from the first team.
“So that’s how I look at it now…although I suppose on the flip side, it would’ve been nice to have a Champions League medal.”
McEachran would spend the following campaign on loan in the Championship with Middlesbrough. He played almost 40 games for the club and was named the club’s Young Player of the Season.
Older, wiser, and with confidence restored, McEachran was ready to return to Chelsea in the summer of 2013 and reassert himself in the first team. But then came something of a hammer blow: Jose Mourinho was rehired by the club.
“I knew the type of midfielder that Jose liked,” McEachran explains. “So as a young, technical English youngster I didn’t think I was going to have a chance. It was at that point that I felt my time at Chelsea was coming to an end. That was really tough.
“Chelsea was all I’d known: from being driven to training by my mum and dad when I was seven to making my first-team debut at 17. It felt like it all changed in the snap of a finger.”
Then came the flurry of loans. He spent four months at Watford, five with Wigan Athletic. He was effectively treading water.
“Looking back now as a more experienced player, I realise I could’ve pushed myself more when I was out on loan,” McEachran says. “I didn’t perhaps help myself out in that respect. So I don’t just blame Chelsea for how they treated me with the loans, I blame myself too.
“I was young, a bit immature and naive. I’ve had a lot of setbacks since and they’ve helped me grow so much. If I had that maturity when I was younger, then perhaps I wouldn’t be in the position that I am in now.
“When I came back to Chelsea [in the summer of 2014] I didn’t really know what was going to happen next. The loan to Vitesse was then sorted and I knew my time at Chelsea was definitely over.”
McEachran’s season in Holland was impacted by injury. He made only 21 appearances for Vitesse, although the majority of those came in the second half of the campaign and he did help the side secure a place in the Europa League.
He worked under Peter Bosz, now at Bayer Leverkusen, and speaks glowingly about what he learned from the Dutchman and those on his coaching team.
“I loved it out there,” he says. “The style, the focus on technique, everything about it was great. I would really recommend it to any young English player. I was learning something different every day.”
McEachran knew he had to make a break from Chelsea in the summer of 2015. He still had one year remaining on his lucrative contract but was happy to give that up in order to kickstart his career.
After his experience with Vitesse, he was open to a move abroad. There were Dutch sides interested, a couple from Spain too. But a meeting with Brentford owner Matthew Benham convinced him to drop into the Championship once again.
Outside of the Chelsea bubble for the first time since he was seven years old, McEachran had a fresh start and plenty of motivation. He wanted to prove his doubters wrong, show those who thought the big-money contract handed to him by the Blues hadn’t stunted his progress.
“Everyone was saying things had gone to my head and that I’d got too much too young,” he says. “It was horrible. I more than halved my wages to go to Brentford because I wanted to play football. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So I felt that decision showed everybody what my priority was.”
Misfortune is something of a common theme in McEachran’s story. His pathway at Chelsea was closed through no fault of his own. At Brentford, meanwhile, injuries hampered him.
He broke his foot during his first pre-season with the Bees and only returned in December. Three months later, he broke the same foot again. “Thankfully I’ve not had any problems with it since,” he says.
He would suffer an ankle ligament injury during the following campaign at a point at which he had started to thrive in midfield under Dean Smith. He missed three months of football.
McEachran did play more than 100 games for Brentford but made the decision to leave the club at the end of the 2018/19 campaign.
A deal had been set up for McEachran but it collapsed and left him in limbo. He would eventually sign for Birmingham City in September 2019 and after undertaking a short personal pre-season, made nine appearances for the Blues, six of which were starts.
During his seventh, on February 4, 2020, McEachran suffered a knee ligament injury. It would keep him out for nine months, all but one of one which was during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With my recovery, I could either lie in bed and feel sorry for myself or I could attack it and give it everything,” McEachran says. “Dave Hunt, the physio at Birmingham, was with me on Zoom for an hour every day as I went through my rehab and strengthening work and it went really well.
“They were delighted with how quickly I recovered. I came back fitter and stronger, both physically and mentally. I think anyone who has had an ACL injury knows it toughens you up a bit.”
McEachran returned in November and was hopeful of helping Birmingham in their battle against relegation. But as the weeks passed, he was consistently overlooked by Aitor Karanka.
He eventually opted to speak with the Spanish coach to find out where he stood. The answer was unequivocal.
“He told me that because of the situation the team was in, I wasn’t the type of player he wanted to use. So I asked to leave because I wanted to get out and play. That’s all I want to do.”
McEachran was released on January 31 but soon began training with MK Dons. It didn’t take long for the League One side to offer him a contract. That was signed on Monday and the former England Under-21 international is looking forward to what’s ahead.
“What happened with Birmingham was a shock after such a long time out,” he explains on his way to training. “So I’m grateful to be given the opportunity and I’m excited to get back playing. People may look at it and think League One isn’t right for me, but that’s because they don’t know how MK Dons play.
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“There are maybe three teams in the division who want to get the ball down and play and MK Dons are the best at that in my opinion. It’s a huge reason as to why I joined. I think for where I am right now in my career, it’s a perfect fit.”
The past ten years have been far from simple for McEachran. He’s suffered painful setbacks and just as painful injuries. Those with lesser resolve would almost certainly have thrown in the towel, let their frustration over what might have been get the better of them.
That McEachran has kept going, kept trying to make the most of his undoubted talent is testament to his character. And he is ready to grasp his opportunity at MK Dons with the same assuredness that helped him shine at Chelsea ten years ago.