In re-watching some of last season’s reserve team fixtures, one thing became abundantly clear.
Throughout the season, on a consistent basis, Billy Clifford was the best player in a Chelsea shirt (although Jacob Mellis ran him close for a long time).
Statistically, of course, he was the leading appearance maker and chief creator with a team-high seven assists, but above and beyond pure numbers, the footage spoke loud and clear.
Having mainly played at right-back during his time in the Under-18s, last season saw a real return to the midfield for Billy under Dermot Drummy, a position he hadn’t played with any great regularity for some three seasons.
However, it was quickly apparent that he hadn’t forgotten how to play there and indeed, has thrived in either a central, more box-to-box role, or that of the playmaker, the number ten.
He doesn’t perhaps strike you as the classic playmaker sort, but upon closer inspection he has the attributes that fit the bill. Agile, quick of body and of mind, and blessed with patience on the ball awaiting the ball his creative vision seeks. A collection of quickly-thrown together clips attests as much:
It’s especially apparent when working in conjunction with select team-mates. Having grown up at the club with Josh McEachran, the two understand each other without having to think, whilst his friendship with Jacob Mellis and Adam Coombes (formerly Phillip) has clear on-pitch benefits.
They regularly appear on the same wavelength and an appreciation of what each of them can do results in those involved having the confidence to take on low-percentage options knowing what’s necessary to complete them successfully.
Of course, this is nothing new. Relationships between players has and always will added an extra dimension to the quality and efficiency of play all over the pitch, but at reserve level it serves as a timely reminder that it’s not simply about a player’s base talent level when evaluating his chances of succeeding at the professional level; we’re required to consider many extra factors.
Back to Clifford himself though, and when studying the tape, the team clearly turns to him in times of need and he’s more than happy to shoulder the responsibility. Manager Drummy is just as happy, and is not shy in expressing his admiration for the player:
“He’s a very good player Billy, an absolutely excellent standard of player for me and he’ll set the way we play; a leader on and off the field. [He’s] a fantastic trainer and he’ll set the standard for us on and off the pitch like that…we want that sort of leadership.
He just wants to play games. He needs to be challenged with top…games, the reserves and he trains with the first team as well. He’s a player who can play anywhere. He has a footballer’s intelligence, he has everything, and he’s a winner.”
Indeed he is, having played a key role in FA Youth Cup and Premier Reserve League trophy successes in recent times. He also joined Andre Villas-Boas’ first-team squad on tour in Asia in 2011 and has been on the substitutes bench in the UEFA Champions League.
At the age of almost 20 (October) and with a contract which runs until 2015, it’s time to consider the next step though. He hasn’t been selected for this summer’s tour of the United States and will spend the summer with Drummy’s Under-21 squad, but after looking more than capable at the same standard last season, attention must shift to a potential loan move.
His versatility and ability to play wide or at full-back will no doubt make him an enticing and intriguing prospect for lower-league managers on a budget, but the right level must be found in addition to the obvious necessary playing time.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that he would be perfectly capable in The Championship; certainly in the correct team he’d be an asset.
Unless he’s going to get more of a look-in at first-team level at Stamford Bridge, he needs to play elsewhere to be challenged and to further his development, because on the evidence of last season, and to the surprise of some observers, he’s too good for the level he currently plays at.