“My conscience tells me that if, for example, Baker, Brown, and Solanke are not national team players in a few years, I should blame myself.” – Jose Mourinho, 2014
Every so often, a player appears at youth level that seems to have everything in their locker. Intelligent movement. Crisp passing. Two-footed. Good physical development. An eye for goal. Defensive nous. Leadership qualities. In Lewis Baker, Chelsea had one of these prodigal stars. His professional debut came aged eighteen away at Pride Park.
Seven loan spells and six long years later, Lewis Baker now threatens to be typecast as a ‘What Might have Been’ rather than an established top-flight star. Some rival fans lambast Ruben Loftus-Cheek being type-cast as a young starlet still – it’s worth remember that Lewis Baker is over twelve months older than Chelsea’s current No. 12.
Perhaps more baffling is that Baker seemed to be traversing the loan path – so polarising for so many players in the Chelsea ranks – successfully up until several years ago. Lewis Baker turned 25 last month and has never made a single Premier League appearance for the club, save sporadic bench appearances early on in his development.
Are Chelsea at fault for not planning ahead, and failing to map out Baker’s path as their attention shifted towards other starlets? Does Baker take a portion of the blame, not kicking on from stardom in Holland to really break into the first team? Should any other factors be taken into account?
This article does not aim to definitively answer these questions: to do that would be impossible. But it does hope to chart the story of now seemingly forgotten player, and assess how we’ve ended up here. It’s a long story, and ultimately a sad story, a tale of so-far unfulfilled potential, checked by a constant rotation of clubs and an inability to truly harness his undoubted talent.
Born in Luton, Made in London
Lewis Baker joined Chelsea as a 9-year-old in 2005, after a spell in Luton Town’s Centre of Excellence. To say he was in demand would be an understatement: most London clubs including Arsenal, QPR and Charlton Athletic, as well the famed Derby County and Aston Villa who were renowned for giving younger players opportunities.
Whether Baker was sold on the bright lights that lit up the new footballing superpower, or simply saw a chance to emulate the likes of Frank Lampard and Joe Cole, English stars plying their trade for the Blues, his progression would be swift. His first goal for the Academy was in March 2011 – an impressive finish against MK Dons; ironically one of his future loan teams.
By 2011-12, Baker at sixteen was stealing glances from jealous eyes. An England U17 debut in 2011 was just reward for hard work. Capable of controlling games, he was comfortable centrally or out wide and seemed to thrive despite his tender age. Already appearing from the Under 21s, Baker grabbed seven goals in all competitions as Chelsea won the FA Youth Cup against Blackburn. Although Baker started the Youth Cup campaign as an enigma, he repaid the faith Dermot Drummy showed him, scoring in the first leg of the final, the 4-0 rout of Blackburn Rovers at Stamford Bridge.
Just aged seventeen, Baker was a starring light for Chelsea’s youth teams at all levels. Although 2012-13 could not be considered an outstanding year for the Academy in terms of silverware, as Chelsea lost the NextGen and FA Youth Cup Finals, it was a proud time for Baker who captained the team for the first team. Across all competitions, he contributed ten goals in thirty-five appearances, despite being deployed across the midfield. What was equally impressive about Baker was his eye for passing – he picked up a number of assists and generally, the team played much better with him melding the midfield together, than when he was absent.
Was Baker going to smash the glass ceiling of the academy that had been slammed down ever since John Terry graduated?
Strength to Strength (and the Senior Team)
When Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea in 2013, he was surely made aware of several academy starlets. Andreas Christensen, a composed, calm young defender with a passing range to match any in his position. Nathan Ake, a battler and warrior who had already started to play for the first team under Rafael Benitez. Finally, Lewis Baker, the man who had everything and seemed destined to play the role of heir-apparent to now-club legend Frank Lampard. With the coffers no longer as free-flowing as before, Jose would need to be content with developing some of these young talents – or so it was assumed.
Baker in particular seemed to fit Jose’s philosophy. A hard worker on the pitch, he never gave up and would always battle and graft. There was a silkiness in his attacking play, but he was never one to shy away from tracking back, or a last ditch sliding tackle. Baker started the season in typically impressive fashion, starring as Chelsea recovered to smash Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium in the U21 Premier League. His terrific delivery found Alex Davey for the equaliser, before later curling an unstoppable free kick into the top corner. Set pieces were becoming another one of Baker’s trademark ‘party pieces’.
Baker continued to start on an almost-constant basis and would create and score goals with an equally frequent nature. He snuck onto the first team bench but didn’t play in the EFL Cup Tie away at Swindon Town.
Back at youth level, Baker’s goal against West Ham was akin to Lampard’s predatory instinct, further cementing the comparisons, as he appeared in the right-place-right-time to sweep home after a strike struck the post. Goals away at Cardiff and Bolton piqued the interest further.
At the same time, Chelsea had been handed a fairly kind FA Cup draw against Derby County. Although away at Pride Park, Derby were mired in midtable in the Championship, and once John Obi Mikel (yes, you read correctly) and Oscar had put Chelsea 2-0 to the good with a few minutes left, Baker was summoned by The Special One for a cameo. Radio 5 Live described him as ‘a player with great promise’, which seemed adequate assessment for a England U19 regular. The future glistened brightly.
If the first half of the year was consolidation and steady development, the second half of the year was the catalyst for kicking on and becoming a contender for England’s brightest young star of the time. Baker continued to score and assist often and he kicked it into overdrive from April. Alongside another first team bench spot, this time against Liverpool, U21 PL braces against Aston Villa and West Brom were the appetiser for a truly stunning goal against Arsenal.
Trailing to a Hector Bellerin strike in the first half, Isak Sessewankambo marauded down the right before laying into Islam Feruz. He crossed the ball in towards Baker, making his trademark late run into the box. The midfield star had the guile, genius and sheer impudence to backheel the ball first-time on the volley into the Arsenal net. It’s no surprise it ended up going viral and soundly won Chelsea’s Goal of the Season at all levels.
More importantly, it ensured Chelsea would go into the U21 Premier League playoffs as top seed. After dispatching Manchester City in a tense semi-final on penalties (Baker, as usual captaining the team, stepped up and put his away comfortably), Chelsea once more ceded home advantage, challenging the young stars to step up away at Old Trafford against Manchester United. With the scores tied at 1-1, Baker exchanged passes with Feruz before firing into the far corner past Ben Amos. It was Baker’s thirteenth league goal of a stellar season, and it cemented Chelsea’s name on yet another piece of silverware at youth level. In total, Baker played thirty-three times in the season, with an impressive ten assists and a sublime eighteen goals.
Sporadic Showings, Soreness, a Slip-Up and a Step Up
By the start of the 2014-15 season, it was clear that Baker had outgrown youth football quite dramatically. Now nineteen, Baker was one of several crown jewels in the academy that many Chelsea fans were beginning to have high hopes for. Was this affecting his temperament?
Although Baker did make several appearances in PL2 once again captaining the Blues, and once again scored against Manchester United, his promotion to the full first team was not yielding any opportunities. A disrupted U21 schedule, niggly injuries and competition limited his minutes. Regardless of Frank Lampard’s departure, Baker was not going to get a chance to instantly step into his shoes.
Chelsea had invested heavily in the summer, signing Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona to compete in an already packed midfield with Ramires, Oscar and Nemanja Matic. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s impressive physique had also caught Mourinho’s eye and he too stepped up in the pecking order. As a result, Baker needed to proverbially ‘toughen up’ and a spell of senior football on loan seemed to offer this opportunity.
Sheffield on a Wednesday in the Championship were the chosen option and Baker joined them on January 8th, 2015. Two days later, he made his Owls debut as they triumphed 2-0 against Nottingham Forest. A substitute appearance against Bolton yielded a start against Birmingham in the next game. However, Baker was hooked at half time in the next match against Reading and failed to make the next match-day squad.
Additionally, Wednesday manager Stuart Gray was critical of the young loanee to local Press: “Lewis didn’t make the squad because I felt that group of players I had out there would get the result. Competition is healthy and what people do know is that if they don’t pull their weight they will be out of the team and someone else will grab the shirt.” He missed out on the next match-day squad too. Something seemed to be up. Reports suggested Chelsea were unhappy at this omission. Seemingly so. Baker was recalled on February 10th 2015, just over a month after leaving.
Baker instead dropped down a division further to League One. MK Dons were the team this time and Karl Robinson had already garnered a reputation for giving young players a chance – the Dons’ promotion hopes were being spearheaded by Devante Cole and Dele Alli. Baker made quite the impression in his short spell, playing fourteen times in the league, including 8 appearances over 60’ minutes and scored three goals, as well as picking up a couple of assists.
MK were promoted to the Championship as League One Runners Up, and Karl Robinson was full of praise for Baker, calling him “one of the hardest working players he’s ever worked with.” Baker picked up additional silverware on his return to Chelsea as they won the Premier League and despite not featuring for a single minute, the Englishman still received a medal.
After a rocky start and bumpy middle, this year looked to be character-building for Baker and his international reputation increased with a promotion to England’s U20 squad. A bright future shined ahead for Baker. What could possibly go wrong?
Next Time: A Dutch adventure awaits for Chelsea’s Lampard heir-apparent.
Edited by: Dan