Conor Gallagher is accustomed to finding himself the odd man out in hugely expensive midfields, the everyman among the extravagant purchases. He is often part of a £222m trio at Chelsea, a number made all the more remarkable by the reality that the Londoner cost nothing. Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo, however, commanded prices in excess of £100m and if Chelsea were the trailblazers, taking the cost of midfielders into previously uncharted territory, Gallagher could prove the sidekick to four men with nine-figure transfer fees. “Training and playing alongside midfielders worth £100-plus million pounds is good,” he said, with an element of understatement.
Arguably, no one else has more experience of it. While Jude Bellingham has withdrawn from the England squad to face Malta and North Macedonia, the sum Real Madrid paid to buy him could reach £114m. Declan Rice cost £105m. Such is Gallagher’s swift improvement that a player who has spent some of this season captaining Chelsea could be their regular partner in Euro 2024. Certainly, with Jordan Henderson in Saudi Arabia and Kalvin Phillips on the bench at Manchester City, Gallagher is presenting a more compelling case at club level.
Wednesday marks a year to the day since he boarded the plane to Qatar. With disarming honesty, Gallagher had admitted during the World Cup that he wasn’t quite sure why he was in the squad. “I wasn’t playing much for Chelsea and we were going through a tough period, so that’s why I said that in an interview,” he reflected.
A bit-part role at Stamford Bridge gave him imposter syndrome on international duty. “Last season, it was not really knowing if I was starting or not, not really sure what was going on, what team we were going for,” he said. He could have been collateral damage of the spending spree and arrivals of expensive midfielders. He feared for his place. “Of course, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t,” he said. “When top players come in your position, you think you have less of a chance of playing as much as I’d like.”
But if confusion has seemed to envelop Chelsea for much of the subsequent year, for now Gallagher is a beneficiary of the chaos. As a homegrown player, he assumed a particular value to Todd Boehly: he would count as pure profit in the books if sold. There were Financial Fair Play reasons to cash in on Gallagher. Mauricio Pochettino saw footballing grounds to keep him. Tottenham and West Ham were among those to express an interest. Even as late as deadline day, his own future appeared uncertain.
“It was a crazy period in terms of ins and outs at Chelsea and I had conversations with the manager and he expressed that he liked me as a player and I was in his plans and I was really happy with that,” Gallagher said. Pochettino has ways of illustrating Gallagher’s importance. He has started every league game; whereas Fernandez and Caicedo, the £100m men, were both substituted in Sunday’s frenetic 4-4 draw against Manchester City, Gallagher completed the match.
He has spent much of the season as stand-in skipper, a Chelsea supporter leading his boyhood club when Reece James and Ben Chilwell are absent. “I love it when I get to wear the armband,” he said. It means he gets to captain the great Thiago Silva, to follow in the footsteps of John Terry and Frank Lampard, both inspirations to him. “More so Frank, because he was my manager last season and he helped me a lot,” Gallagher said.
Lampard had longevity at Stamford Bridge. Gallagher has been on Chelsea’s books for 15 years. It remains to be seen if his association with them will last for much longer. He is in the final two years of his contract; Chelsea may yet look to cash in, though Gallagher is optimistic he will sign a new deal. “I’m sure that will get sorted out,” he said. “Everyone knows Chelsea is my club and I love playing for them.”
If he is learning from the World Cup winner Fernandez and the biggest ever Premier League buy Caicedo, he has been shaped by non-league midfielders as well. His own career has involved spells at Charlton, Swansea, West Brom and Crystal Palace before breaking through at Chelsea. His brothers – Dan, Jake and Josh – are more accustomed to turning out for Dorking, Welling, Leatherhead, Aylesbury and Maidstone. “They have a great understanding of the game even though they’re playing at a lower standard,” the more successful sibling said. “They are all midfielders so there’s parts of their games I’ve taken off them and put in mine.”
That said, there was a harsh start to the learning process. “They chucked me in goal,” Gallagher recalled. “They gave me the goalie gloves and just battered balls me at me.” He is not the only England call-up in the family: Jake attracted attention from the England C team, representing the non-league game. The levels may be different but the aims can be the same. “Hopefully I can start to play more for England,” said Conor. It isn’t quite the same as teaming up with Caicedo and Fernandez, Bellingham and Rice, but it could be a breakthrough season for Gallagher with country as well as club.