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Sam Hutchinson: Chelsea's next John Terry was forced to retire aged 21 but fought back

09:00 BST 31/07/2021
Sam Hutchinson Chelsea
He had been in the Chelsea system since the age of nine but the highly-regard centre-back was forced to retire aged 21 before a stunning comeback

For most players, an up-and-down career means patches of lost form, maybe being dropped by one coach or transfer listed by a club. These are the bumps which come with professional football as standard.

For Sam Hutchinson, those bumps were mountains. His ups-and-downs included being forced to retire, long periods of injury, a return to boyhood club Chelsea - and even later in his career, being released by a club only to return that same season.

Now 31, Hutchinson is an established Football League player, yet occupies a strange spot when it comes to assessing his career. On one hand, it is an achievement that he even has had one, for reasons that will become abundantly clear. Yet there is also a sense of what might have been; had Hutchinson stayed fit, he may have been a Premier League star.

Hutchinson joined Chelsea academy at nine, and made senior debut at 18 in May 2007, signing a new four-year contract that August. He earned caps for England Under-18s and U19s, and was called up to the U21s, although he had to withdraw from the squad injured. 

A utility man, able to play right-back, centre-back or defensive midfielder, Hutchinson caught the eye of the senior hierarchy at Stamford Bridge and looked set for a great future with the club.

Coming through the Chelsea academy to reach the first team at this point - still in the early days of Abramovich, where expensive signings were the constant order of the day - was no mean feat, even by the sky-high standards of Premier League football.

While Frank Arnesen oversaw the total revamp of Chelsea's academies, where the very best youngsters were scooped up from around Europe, Hutchinson was spotted playing youth football in Slough, and rose through the ranks as the club changed beyond recognition.

Comparisons were made to the only notable Chelsea academy graduate of the time - a ball-playing, cultured defender, his style of play was referred to as "John Terry-esque".

He was hand-picked by Jose Mourinho to be moved into the first team, and would captain the Blues reserves whenever fit - which was not often.

Even that usual killer of a young talent's career, the managerial merry-go-round, could not stop Hutchinson, as Carlo Ancelotti also kept him in the first-team picture and took him on a senior pre-season tour to the United States. However, he was also often in the U.S. for specialist treatment on his serious injuries.

He was only able to make a further three senior appearances for Chelsea before having to retire due to a recurring knee injury in August 2010, aged only 21.

Hutchinson had what is called a chondral defect - essentially, he had a hole in his right knee, which made playing football at a professional standard unbearably painful.

“It wasn’t a big call [to retire] at the time because I hated it,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “I just wanted to stop the pain and stop everything. I never wanted to come back. I didn’t want to play for Chelsea either because I blamed them for it, even though it wasn’t [their fault], it was just what happened.”

Chelsea promised to keep supporting the player following his release, saying in a statement that he "will work in our academy while also studying sports science at university. He will later pursue coaching qualifications."

However, this could not detract from the crushing blow that Chelsea felt there was no way Hutchinson could make his way as a footballer - "it has been decided he will not recover sufficiently for the physical demands of a professional career."

This also had an impact on Hutchinson's mental health, the player admitting himself to the Priory Clinic for help.

However, removed from the spotlight and the pressures of being a Chelsea homegrown academy talent, Hutchinson was able to focus on recovery, and quite remarkably, 16 months after the club published his footballing obituary, he was re-signed by the Blues, with the treatment in his knee at long last having had the wanted effect.

"It's great to be back and I am looking forward to the future," he said in December 2011, after being handed a new contract and the No.27 shirt by Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas.

He made his Chelsea return in a 6-1 Premier League win over QPR in April 2012, the culmination of years of suffering in order to return.

"The QPR game was a long time coming, so it was very exciting for my family and I had a load of tickets and got everyone down," he told The Independent.  "It was good for my mum, dad, two sisters and girlfriend. They have all been through it with me, and it was great for everyone."

However, he was still not out of the injury woods. A loan spell at Nottingham Forest in 2012-13 was severely disrupted as he needed further injections in his troublesome knee and he was not able to fight his way back into the Blues first-team picture with any degree of regularity. In May 2014, his contract was ended by Chelsea for a second time - this time for good.

Hutchinson did not have to spend months attempting to regain fitness alongside university studies. He was signed by Championship side Sheffield Wednesday, where he enjoyed his best run of fitness in his career, finally settled at a club where he could become a key player.

In 2015-16 and 2016-17 - the only two seasons of his career where Hutchinson managed to play 30 games or more in all competitions - Wednesday reached the play-offs twice, losing to Hull at Wembley in the final of 2016, before being eliminated in the semis on penalties by Huddersfield the year after.

Hutchinson also reinvented his style of play, moving from defence into the centre of midfield at Hillsborough, and swapping the cultured ball-playing motif for more of a blood and thunder all-action approach, which made him one of the best midfielders in the Championship.

He was certainly respected at Wednesday, becoming captain and winning Player of the Month three times in 2016-17. He even managed to finally return to Stamford Bridge, facing Chelsea in an FA Cup match in January 2019.

As is typical with his career, however, Hutchinson has not had a totally smooth ride at Wednesday. After being frozen out by former Owls manager Garry Monk, he was released by text message in September 2020 - only to re-join four months later, as Wednesday battled against relegation, a fight they eventually lost.

Now 31, Hutchinson is charged with leading Wednesday's bid for promotion from League One, England's third tier. As fights go, a tough one - but it is hardly the most daunting he has ever had to face.

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