Callum Hudson-Odoi is all smiles again on loan at Bayer Leverkusen

‘You don’t want to be on the bench thinking ”why am I not playing?”’: After watching his career stall thanks to injuries and tumultuous nature of Chelsea, Callum Hudson-Odoi is feeling welcome and appreciated again on loan at Bayer Leverkusen

  • Callum Hudson-Odoi was left out of Thomas Tuchel’s first squad of the season 
  • Player felt it was time for him to try pastures new at least on loan this term
  • Impressed for his German side against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League
  • Hudson-Odoi endured periods of introspection about what he was doing wrong

The key moment for Callum Hudson-Odoi at the BayArena, Leverkusen, on Tuesday night came in the 87th minute, when he picked up the ball in his own half. 

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid had been gnarly and obdurate opponents all night but, having conceded three minutes earlier, they were now a little bit open for the first time.

Hudson-Odoi sensed it. Playing as a No10 — he had started the game wide left — he saw Mario Hermoso, a Simeone veteran and Spanish international, approaching. And he knew he had the speed to expose him. ‘I saw him coming and I knew from earlier that, if I take a touch around him, I’m going to get past him,’ the 21-year-old said later.

Callum Hudson-Odoi joined German side Bayer Leverkusen on loan from Chelsea this summer

A shimmy and a quick stab of the ball around the Spaniard and Hudson-Odoi was off. He was making strides into the Atletico half and then saw substitute Jeremie Frimpong outside him. ‘I thought, ‘He’s got fresher legs. Just give it to him and let him go!’

Frimpong played in Moussa Diaby who was arriving at the far post to score: 2-0. The BayArena erupted. There were 25,000 there on Tuesday night but this being Germany, where fans have status and are empowered to create atmosphere, it felt like 50,000.

Bayer Leverkusen needed this. They have had an awful start to the season and were sat second-bottom of the Bundesliga, so beating one of Europe’s finest teams felt like a potential turning point. And it was for these moments Hudson-Odoi came here.

After 90 minutes, he was substituted and universally applauded, as he had performed well and his link-up with Frimpong, which created the opening goal, was hugely encouraging. The fans behind the subs’ bench stood and applauded until he acknowledged them. It was as though they wanted to be sure he felt welcome and appreciated.

The youngster had fallen down the pecking order under Thomas Tuchel and sought greater game time

They can be reassured he does. The alternative for Hudson-Odoi, the man who broke Duncan Edwards’ record when he made his England debut at 18 — the youngest player to do so in a competitive game — was not quite as enticing at Chelsea. At least, it wouldn’t have been under Thomas Tuchel.

What would Wednesday’s Champions League game against Red Bull Salzburg at Stamford Bridge have looked like for Hudson-Odoi?

If he was lucky, he would have had a seat as a privileged spectator on the subs’ bench. Then, after the game, as the first-team players file through what is known as the mixed zone, the unused subs can be seen doing a late-night training session, performing shuttle runs under the deputy assistant fitness trainer.

Instead, Hudson-Odoi was in Germany playing his part in a famous victory against first-rate opponents. Last Saturday he was at Hertha Berlin, under pressure to perform for a struggling team with a manager who needed a result. They got a 2-2 draw. Real football, 90 minutes worth of it, rather than the odd cameo from the bench.

‘These are the games you want to play in,’ he says. ‘Nights like this are an amazing feeling: to know you’re getting a start, a massive crowd, big atmosphere, against a big team like Atletico.’

The former Chelsea youth player has long been one of their great hopes out of the academy

He is sat in a quiet corner of the bar at the hotel which had been home since the hastily arranged loan move, before he moved out to an apartment at the end of last week. Some die-hard fans and hardened executives are still drinking Weissbier as midnight approaches, but Hudson-Odoi sticks to soft recovery drinks. ‘I enjoyed that!’ is his summary of the evening.

There’s been much in the last year you suspect he hasn’t massively enjoyed as he waited for regular game time. It’s the quandary super clubs such as Chelsea find themselves in: what do you do with a superbly talented young player?

Manchester City managed it well with Phil Foden, but Jadon Sancho went to Borussia Dortmund rather than risk the netherworld of being the glorified extra in a star-studded squad. Both were team-mates of Hudson-Odoi when England won the Under 17 World Cup in 2017.

Chelsea have always used the loan system. When Mason Mount was 18, he was at Vitesse Arnhem, and, when he was 19, he was at Derby County. Reece James was at Wigan at 18. Both will be part of Graham Potter’s starting XI and Gareth Southgate’s World Cup plans.

But when Hudson-Odoi was 18, Bayern Munich made a £20million bid for him. At 19, Bayern wanted him on loan with a £70m buy-out clause. When he was 20, Dortmund wanted him on loan. On both occasions, different managers, Frank Lampard and Tuchel, said no, because he was too good to let go — though too young, apparently, to play consistently.

Hudson-Odoi has lived in that limbo for a couple of years. There have been good moments. He was on the bench for their Champions League win in 2021, but that was a vicarious experience. He played in the UEFA Super Cup and World Club Cup final wins, providing the assist for Chelsea’s equaliser in Abu Dhabi. But the nadir came at the start of this season, when Tuchel didn’t even have him in the squad for the opening game at Everton.

Hudson-Odoi’s highlight in a Chelsea shirt remains the 2021 Champions League win in Porto

‘It was one of those difficult moments when you look at yourself and say, ‘What am I doing wrong? Have I done anything wrong to not even be in the squad?’ he says. ‘I would never say anything bad about Thomas, he was a good guy, a good manager. [But] the first game of the season, it was frustrating. Any footballer that isn’t in the squad would understand how frustrating it is.

‘Regular football gives you consistency and the more games you play, the more consistent you become, the more form starts to kick in.

‘You feel fresher, you feel better, you feel like… not that you’re getting treated fairly but that you’ve got the trust from the manager to push you and kick you on. You don’t want to be on the bench thinking, ‘Why am I not playing?’ And then it becomes weeks and weeks and the legs are rusty when you do play. The most important thing is consistent football. That’s what I’m getting here and it’s making me feel better.

‘Right now, playing games, momentum is kicking on and you feel refreshed: new country, brand-new experience. It’s definitely refreshing to know I get an opportunity to play games week in, week out, enjoying it and smiling!’

The winger enjoyed success at Chelsea but is seeking more opportunities to start games

The decision to come here was done so with the encouragement of Chelsea team-mate Kai Havertz, whose early years were spent at Leverkusen and where he remains a local hero.

‘Kai had only great things to say. He said, ‘I developed really well here, they pushed me on, they made me a better player, who I am today’. He was urging me to come: ‘Go and develop yourself, go and be you, be free. We know what you can do. Just go and show it consistently’.’

We’re so used to parroting the line about the Premier League being the best league in the world, we forget that the best-attended is the Bundesliga. And that because fans are an intrinsic part of the social fabric of clubs, the atmosphere is invariably better.

Hudson-Odoi was taken aback by the intensity of 40,000 fans at Hertha Berlin’s iconic Olympic Stadium last weekend. ‘It was very intense,’ he says. ‘The fans were crazy, a very good atmosphere. The stadium was massive.’

What is also intriguing is the pitch Chelsea’s new owner Todd Boehly made to Hudson-Odoi. When the loan deal was being negotiated, Tuchel was still manager. He didn’t appear keen on letting him go, but Boehly met with Hudson-Odoi and understood why he needed it.

Frank Lampard offered Hudson-Odoi plentiful opportunities during his spell as Chelsea boss

Boehly had one sticking point, however: there would be no clause for Bayer Leverkusen to make the deal permanent. Hudson-Odoi is exactly the kind of player Boehly wants Chelsea to nurture.

Being courted by the owner was a new experience; it’s not the kind of thing Roman Abramovich would ever do. ‘It’s definitely different,’ he says. ‘When a club is trying to get a player [on loan], they always want that option to buy at the end of the season. Todd was saying: ‘Listen, we want you back here.’

‘You’re still on the radar of being wanted by the club. The way he’s trying to set it up, there are a lot of young players he’s trying to buy for the next few years. It shows he wants to integrate the players into the team and help them develop.’

Last week’s comments from Boehly at a business conference provide further understanding. He name-checked Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah, erroneously attributing their rise to Chelsea’s academy. However, his point was more broadly well made: Chelsea had those players as youngsters and lost them because Jose Mourinho was more focused on short-term job preservation than long-term development.

As such, Chelsea allowed two of the world’s great players to slip through their clutches. It seems Boehly doesn’t want to risk the same happening again. For all the strides Lampard made with James, Mount and Tammy Abraham, the link-up between academy and first team remained flawed.

It never quite appeared to click for Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea after his injury that kept him out of the game for an extended period

Boehly is impressed with Neil Bath’s academy but revealed there still remain unnecessary firewalls, with data not shared with the first team. Lampard helped Abraham become an international but Tuchel didn’t fancy him and the club has spent £110m since trying to sign a centre forward. Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori play for England now but opted to leave Chelsea last summer to develop; this summer Chelsea spent more than £100m on new centre-halves because they had let two contracts run down.

In this context, the appointment of Potter makes more sense. Chelsea see him as the man to build the bridge between academy and first team as a long-term manager.

And so Hudson-Odoi will continue his quest in Germany for now. He is also a beneficiary of an excellent European education system and the ubiquity of the English language. ‘The whole squad speak English,’ he says. ‘Banter is very strong!’

He would never say a bad word about ‘good guy’ Thomas Tuchel, he said in his interview from Leverkusen

New friendships are being made and old acquaintances will soon be renewed. In two weeks’ time he will be at Bayern Munich and up against fellow former Whitgift School team-mate, Jamal Musiala. The pair grew up together in south London at Chelsea’s academy. When Dortmund come, he can hook up with Jude Bellingham, a former England Under 21 team-mate.

‘It’s good for young talents to come here, play games and experience something new,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you’re from London, you want to stick to that. But it’s time to come and develop, try something new and be open to it.’

Hudson-Odoi is properly out of the comfort zone now. And he couldn’t look happier.

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