Mason Mount: How midfielder ended Chelsea's long wait for homegrown star
Mason Mount was adamant. "I'm not going anywhere," he said. He was 15 years old and everything he'd spent the past nine years working towards had been offered to him - a scholarship contract with Chelsea, with the promise of a professional deal as soon as he turned 17.
Those closest to him had their reservations, though, and a family meeting was called at the Mounts' detached, four-bedroom home on the outskirts of Portsmouth. Parents, grandfather, aunts and uncles were gathered in the kitchen as Mount's father, Tony, expressed his concerns.
A football man with decades' experience playing and managing at non-league level, Tony Mount appreciated the stellar footballing education his son had received at Chelsea's prolific, world-renowned youth academy. But, understandably, he feared there was no pathway to the senior side for the youngest of his four children. "No-one at Chelsea's academy has got into the first team since John Terry," he pleaded.
"I'm staying at Chelsea," the teenage Mount asserted, giving no consideration to his father's suggestion that he should, perhaps, take advantage of the interest several other top clubs were showing in him. "I've been here since I was six; it's my club.
"I will play first-team football here."
"If he hadn't learned to kick a ball," Tony Mount tells BBC Sport. "I think he might have wanted to box, although I'm glad he never did."
Mason Mount's keen interest in boxing was inspired by his maternal grandfather, Bill, a retired tarmacer who was a standout amateur boxer in his youth. The now-86-year-old father of three daughters doted on Mount as though he were the son he never had. He rarely missed one of his grandson's training sessions or matches as Mount's talent for football blossomed. Such gifted feet meant Mount was kept from stepping between the ropes and raising his hands, but his close relationship with grandad Bill ensured he was instilled with a boxer's resilience and work ethic.
Regular visits to Fratton Park to watch his beloved Portsmouth with dad began at the age of four, and the aspiring midfielder would pay particularly close attention to the technique and decision making of Gary O'Neil and Argentine playmaker Andres D'Alessandro - a signed shirt from the latter hangs in his house to this day.
But he was also exposed to an altogether grittier version of the game from an equally early age, present while his father, during spells in charge of Havant Town and Newport Isle of Wight, would kick over tea cups and issue expletive-laden dressing-room dressing downs. "I remember it kicking off and you dragging players, substituting them and having rows with referees," he recently told his dad.
"We used to watch Pompey, but we'd also go and watch non-league games," Tony Mount says. "When he was about 10 or 11, he turned to me and said: 'Why doesn't anyone pass the ball?' I laughed and said: 'Welcome to real football. Look at the tackling - tremendous.'"
Although he now stands an athletic 5ft 10in, Mount was undersized for his age until a belated growth spurt at 15. But he was never perturbed by competing against bigger boys. He was just five years old when his dad first took him along to a training session for children aged six and above at Soccer City in Fareham. "Yeah, he's just a really little six," replied the father when asked whether Mount met the age requirement. After a couple of sessions running rings around the six-year-olds, Mount was moved up to play in the under-eights category.
Mount was invited to join Boarhunt FC by the parent of another child at Soccer City. And it was as a six-year-old in his first seven-a-side tournament playing for Boarhunt - which was also his first time playing a competitive match on grass - that he was spotted by Chelsea scout Rob Winzar.
"The thing that stood out to me every time I watched Mason was his aggression," Winzar tells BBC Sport.
"His determination is second to none. Fantastic attitude. He's the best I've seen in all the years I've done it," adds Winzar, now in his 15th year scouting youth football in the south-east for Chelsea. "I've seen lots and lots of good players and Mason is the best."
When Winzar, who knew Tony Mount from the local non-league scene, approached the youngster's father, however, he was met with caution.
"The number seven who played in that team, is he your son?" Winzar enquired, after making small talk with Mount Sr. "I'd like to take him to Chelsea to the development centre."
"Nah, he's loving football," Tony Mount said, "just let him enjoy it. I don't want to get him involved in all that."
Accepting that he wasn't going to change Mount's father's mind, Winzar employed a wily trick of the youth-scouting trade and invited the entire Boarhunt team to Chelsea's Cobham academy for a tournament three weeks later. With Mount as their star player, the Portsmouth-based side won the competition, and the young midfielder was left in no doubt about where he wanted to play.
"Once we've got them in at Cobham, it opens their eyes up," Winzar says. "That was what did it."
It wasn't long before the fiery competitiveness that drives the otherwise unassuming young midfielder was again on full display. In one early session with Chelsea, Mount's group were partnered up to play one-v-one games in what the players called "the cage", a compact, all-weather pitch surrounded by fencing and with a small goal at either end. Beaten by his bigger opponent, Mount left the cage, his eyes red and tear-filled, so frustrated was he by the loss. He walked straight over to the coach leading the session and asked to be put back in against the same boy.
"Very small but bags of character and desire," Martin Taylor, who was a senior youth scout at Chelsea for 15 years, observed of Mount. "He's got a bit of grit about him. As he grew, he was still a tiny little dot in midfield, but he could take a tackle, he could give a tackle and he could play."
Between the ages of six and eight, Mount also trained at Portsmouth's development centre. When the time came to choose which club to commit to for the beginning of the under-nines season, the eight-year-old Mount and his parents discussed his options. "Dad, it's so tough at Chelsea," Mount said, putting his Portsmouth fandom to one side. "The boys are so good. The training is so good. I want to sign for them."
Separated from the English Channel by the Havant Bypass, the Farlington Playing Fields are a bustling hub of Portsmouth's local amateur and youth football at weekends, comprising 10 full-size pitches, cricket wickets in summer and a pavilion to the north-east corner. It was here that Tony Mount, at the request of the boy's parents, would conduct one-on-one training sessions with future Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse.
From the age of 10 to 14, Ward-Prowse would meet regularly with Tony to work through a series of drills designed to soften his touch and refine his technique. Mount, four years Ward-Prowse's junior, would watch on from the side of the pitch and, afterwards, ask his dad to run him through the same routine, and would later often join in with the older player's sessions.
"He always turned up really early to sessions," remembers Michael Beale, who worked closely with Mount while Chelsea's youth development officer. "When coaches were turning up 30 or 40 minutes before a session to set up, he'd already be there with a ball, playing and really enjoying himself."
Among his group of 1999-born peers at Chelsea - which included Declan Rice, Reece James, Rhian Brewster and Eddie Nketiah - Mount's skill stood out, but his maturity truly set him apart. As such, he often played in older age groups. At 17, he began to feature regularly for Chelsea's under-23s, and it was in one under-23 game, against Southampton at Cobham in November 2016, that he demonstrated his first-team credentials to those within the club whom it most concerned.
With several senior players having made themselves available, Adi Viveash's under-23 side was unusually stacked with experienced first-teamers, from John Terry to Michy Batshuayi, Cesc Fabregas to Kurt Zouma. This meant Viveash was only able to select a handful of his own players for the match, but he had no hesitation in starting Mount.
Manager Antonio Conte's expression gave little away as he watched from the sidelines with his assistant, Steve Holland, but the Italian couldn't help but be impressed by Mount's near-flawless 70-minute showing in the 3-2 victory.
"You could see the first-team players trusted him because he's so good on the ball," says Viveash. "The first thing you notice is that they're not afraid to give it him all the time.
"I know Antonio was very impressed with him after that game. That was probably a moment the recognition got gained. They started to ask for him if they needed a midfield player. It made an impression on them."
Mount had options going into the 2018-19 season. A place among the Chelsea first-team squad was not one of them but, having decided to further his experience with another season out on loan, Rangers, Norwich, RB Leipzig and Werder Bremen were all eager to provide a temporary home for the midfielder.
One interested club held a clear advantage, though. Managed by Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, Derby County were the obvious choice. The additional presence of Jody Morris, under whose tutelage Mount had lifted the FA Youth Cup, as assistant manager only further sealed the deal.
The year he spent at Derby, learning at Lampard's feet and playing 35 times in the Championship, certainly aided Mount's growth into the player he has become. But, in respect of steeling him for the challenge he faced in finally breaking into the Chelsea first team, the previous season - spent on loan at Vitesse in the Netherlands - was just as vital.
By 18, Mount had outgrown under-23 football and was desperate for a new challenge. A move to Vitesse - whose relationship with Chelsea has seen them act as a sort of farm club for many of the Premier League side's young players - was agreed.
After being named the tournament's best player when England won the European Under-19 Championship in July, Mount, upon Chelsea's insistence, took a five-week break in order to recharge for the new season. This meant he missed his new team's pre-season preparations and began the campaign on the fringes of the side.
A single, 13-minute substitute's appearance, in a 2-1 loss to AZ Alkmaar, was all he had to show for the first month and a half of the 2017-18 Eredivisie season. Mount's parents implored him to come home and ask Chelsea to find him another loan elsewhere. "Don't worry," Mount assured them. "I'll get in the team. I'm not coming back."
"I spoke to him at Vitesse Arnhem in the first couple of months when he was in and out of the team," says Beale. "I was expecting him to be down, but he was relishing the challenge; he was going to prove everyone wrong."
Mount was brought off the bench against Utrecht on 1 October with Vitesse 1-0 down. Within seconds of coming on, he side-footed an equaliser from close range. He scored again as a substitute against PSV later the same month, and by November's end he was starting regularly. After establishing himself as Vitesse's rampaging, goal-threatening midfield heartbeat, with 13 goals and 10 assists in all competitions, he was named in the Eredivisie Team of the Season.
Circumstances conspired in Mount's favour in the lead-up to the 2019-20 season. Chelsea's transfer ban - levied by Fifa as punishment for breaching rules around recruiting youth players - somewhat forced the club's hand into belatedly putting faith in some of the gifted players emerging from their academy. And the appointment of Lampard as Maurizio Sarri's replacement meant Mount, thanks to his season with Derby, had already earned the trust and confidence of the new manager.
For so long, many believed the chance to play regular first-team football at Stamford Bridge would evade Mount, just as it had for so many of Chelsea's academy graduates over the previous decade.
Suddenly, with Lampard installed, the opportunity he'd targeted since the age of six appeared imminent and inevitable. The key to the alacrity with which Mount has been able to grasp that opportunity - thriving at Premier League level to the point of earning his first senior England caps - lies in the fact he has always viewed his ascent to the Chelsea first team as nothing short of a certainty.
Those who know him best insist the 21-year-old does not consider his journey complete, though. "What does Mason want to achieve next?" Tony Mount ponders. "He wants to win silverware, with Chelsea and England."
"The best is yet to come, and he'll want to be the best," Viveash adds. "I'd certainly expect to see a better Mason Mount than you're seeing at the moment, which is brilliant for Chelsea fans and England."
Mount's self-belief has been justified, but the work he has always relished continues.