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'Drogba was always my idol' - James out to emulate Chelsea FA Cup final hero

13:04 BST 14/05/2021
Didier Drogba Reece James Chelsea GFX
The right-back would dream of lifting the FA Cup with Chelsea as a youngster and has been an integral part of the resurgence under Thomas Tuchel

Reece James dreamed about being a Chelsea footballer from the age of six.

He was a west London kid looking to follow in his footballing brother's footsteps, with a father who coached at a local level. He managed to get his foot in the door at his boyhood club Chelsea, who offered him the slimmest chance to graduate from one of the world's best academies.

Back then, the FA Cup Final was a chance for the aspiring James to watch his heroes star for his favourite club even if getting a ticket for the showpiece was impossible.

Now, he’s gearing up to face Leicester at Wembley on Saturday.

"I have always dreamed of playing in a final as a Chelsea player. I didn't see one live. It was mainly all watching it on TV when I was young. I used to dream and hope one day I would be in a similar position, to lift trophies at the club I support," James said.

James is a genuine Chelsea supporter who used to pretend to be Didier Drogba, who scored in four FA Cup final victories for the Blues, and he even had a shirt signed by the whole team framed above his bed.

"Drogba has always been my idol," he responded to Goal in a chat with select media brands ahead of this weekend’s showdown.

"He would always score in the big games whenever we needed a goal, knocking it over the line."

"I still have the shirt signed by the whole Chelsea team from when I was maybe seven or eight. It was a great inspiration growing up as I would look at the shirt every day.

"Now, I'm in the first team and people are asking for my signature. At the start, that was a bit weird but as time has gone on I've got used to it."

James moved from being a Drogba-loving forward to starring in defence as he forged his identity as a young player. And the 21-year-old knows that things could have been different for him, having seen his talented brother Joshua released by Fulham and Reading. James himself also came close to the exit door.

"My toughest time was when I was around 15 or 16 years old,” he said. “It was around the time of my exams that I wasn't sure I was going to get a contract. So, everything was up in the air.

“That was the toughest moment in my academy career.” But James dug in and found his way to the first team.

Once he graduated to the senior squad, Frank Lampard's influence as manager was key. He trusted the then-teenager to play a crucial part in Chelsea's season of transition during a transfer ban.

"If it wasn't for him, you could argue I wouldn't be playing now. I am always thankful for what he did for me," admitted James. "It definitely helps a lot when someone who has had a career like him believes in you and it gives you a real confidence boost as well.

"I worked with [Lampard's former assistant] Jody [Morris] in the academy, so they helped integrate us into the first team and I think that had a massive positive impact.”

The sacking of Lampard in January was heart-wrenching for everyone associated with the club.

In an unprecedented step, owner Roman Abramovich even issued a statement outlining his regret at having to take such action. It may have been a difficult decision but replacing Lampard has proven to be a masterstroke.

Thomas Tuchel's impact has been immense, taking the club from 10th place to fourth in the Premier League, and leading them to the FA Cup and Champions League finals.

“It was very difficult when a new manager came in,” James said. “I didn't know what to expect and then we had to move fast because the games were coming fast."

"I was devastated that he [Lampard] was going. But I was also excited that a new opportunity was going to happen.

"I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but as time went on, our results turned around and our form picked up and we grew and got stronger as a team.

"[Tuchel’s] tactics are very different to what we were playing at the start of the season. We have changed formations and lots of roles have changed but I think as games go on, we get a stronger spirit.

"He made it very evident and clear what our goals are for this season; what we needed to do. One of them was to finish in the top four and the other one was winning trophies. We are in two finals now.

"I would say this season is the one where I have learned the most. Before this, I have never had to deal with a new manager coming in midway through a season. That's probably been my first learning curve.

"Then, I just think getting to grips and learning the way new players play is quite difficult as well. Once you get the hang of that and start gelling as a team, [it is easier]."