“I was this 17-year-old kid playing for Chelsea, being talked about as a future England player. I honestly thought I’d cracked it.”
– Josh McEachran on his breakthrough
That was Josh McEachran, speaking recently about his promising start to life at Chelsea. At the time, he was 28, and had just signed with League One side MK Dons until the end of the season.
In an engaging interview with Football London, the one-time ‘wonderkid’ told a cautionary tale of a player who made every career decision for the right reasons, but still ended up tumbling down the football pyramid.
He’s often portrayed in the cliched image of a potential superstar who allowed his ego to get the better of him, but he’s now walked out on Chelsea, Brentford and Birmingham, each time with the motivation of just playing football.
He admits he took things for granted in the early part of his career. His star was at its highest in 2010, when he helped the Blues youth side lift the FA Youth Cup for the first time in almost 50 years, and weeks later won the Under-17 European Championships with England.
At the time, he had a contract offer on the table from Real Madrid, and was being told by Carlo Ancelotti he had all the skills to become England’s answer to Andrea Pirlo. He was 17 – how could that not go to your head?
With the benefit of foresight, he might have taken the Spanish giants up on that offer. Ancelotti was soon sacked and McEachran was cast out onto the loan carousel. He played for Swansea, Middlesbrough, Watford, Wigan and Vitesse, all the while Chelsea cycled through managers like disposable gloves before Jose Mourinho eventually decided McEachran wasn’t for him.
Rather than hang around in a vein attempt to win the Portuguese’s favour, McEachran made the call to walk away from the only club he had known. It wasn’t for the type of transfer he’d had on the table a few years earlier; it meant dropping a division and taking a huge salary cut; but he just wanted to play football.
Enter Dean Smith’s Brentford.
“Everyone was saying things had gone to my head and that I’d got too much too young,” he said of the move in March.
“It was horrible. I more than halved my wages to go to Brentford because I wanted to play football. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So I felt that decision showed everybody what my priority was.”
A career resurgence initially seemed to be on the cards, and he racked up more than 100 appearances across the city at Griffin Park. He was a favourite of Smith’s when available, but a freak succession of injuries meant he could never break 30 appearances in a single season.
He had some highs. The first senior goal of his career, against Birmingham in 2018, was an emotional moment, and he made more appearances for the club that season than he ever had previously. With his four-year deal at the club about to expire, he was offered a shiny new contract that would have kept him there for at least another season.
But he turned that down. Guess why?
He wanted to play regular football, and felt he wasn’t going to get that at Brentford.
By the time he joined Birmingham, though, it was September, and he had missed out on pre-season. Trivia time: what do you get when you take a player historically prone to injuries who has been out of football for a few months, and throw them straight into high-intensity first-team training?
He managed to make just ten first-team appearances for Birmingham before he took a blow to the knee in an FA Cup tie with Coventry in February 2020. His ACL had gone, and so had his Birmingham career.
The Covid-19 pandemic sent football spiralling into uncertainty just a month later, and with McEachran out of sight and out of mind, he couldn’t work his way into Aitor Karanka’s plans. Fast forward a year, and he had crunch talks with the Spaniard in January 2021, where he expressed a desire to leave. Why do you think that was..?
So he could play football.
Now fully fit, though, he wasn’t wanting for offers. A quick trial with MK Dons led to a short-term deal being offered, and he has hit the ground running in remarkable style since.
His arrival has basically turned the Dons’ season around. He’s just started five straight games for the first time since 2018, a run of games which encompasses four straight wins.
That’s shot them up to within sight of the playoffs, and after a decade of moving sideways and stagnating, we might just be seeing McEachran gaining the foothold he needs to clamber back up through the divisions.
It’s been a long, hard career for the one-time Chelsea prodigy. But at the end of the day, he’s still playing football: and that’s all it’s ever been about.