If Conor Gallagher’s breakout year on loan at Crystal Palace earned him his first England call-up, returning to Chelsea this season and fighting for his place in a deeper pool of talent threatened to send his fledgling international career into reverse. After being part of every squad since his debut, he was suddenly demoted to the Under-21s in September. The chance to play at the World Cup 2022 felt further away than at any point over the past year.
And yet, despite making just eight starts since being back at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea’s wider struggles, he made the cut. When asked to put a percentage on his pre-squad announcement chances of being on the plane to Qatar, Gallagher turns down the opportunity – “I’m not great at maths” – but he accepts they were slim.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect it,” he admits. “I was on the physio bench getting ready for training. It was 11 o’clock, and we were training at 12. I got a message through and I was just buzzing. Just so honoured to get that message and the manager to show his belief in me, and I can’t thank him enough.”
In a way, Gallagher’s demotion to the Under-21s may have made all the difference. Gareth Southgate values character as highly as ability, and he and his staff were hugely impressed with the 22-year-old’s response to that setback. There were no strops or tantrums from Gallagher, just two mature and professional performances, including a goal in a 3-1 win over Germany.
“I thought about it, and if I didn’t go and do my job properly and go and play with the 21s, then I probably would not be here now,” he says. “It’s about doing things right and always training as hard as I can and playing as well as I can when possible. Back then, playing in those two games for the Under-21s was a big factor.”
Given the concerns that staying at Chelsea could affect his hopes of a World Cup place, Gallagher has a right to feel vindicated in his decision, but his international prospects were only one of several elements he had to consider.
“It was a small factor. It wasn’t a big factor because I had to think smart and look at the whole season and my future,” he says. “There was the World Cup, which is obviously massive, but I had to think about the whole picture. My dream was always to play for Chelsea and I am lucky enough to be in that squad.”
He knows, too, that it will only prove to be the right choice if he can hold down a regular starting place. For now, he is still very much a fringe player.
“It’s football. The road is never just going to go up, there’s always bumps in the road. I’m not saying I am in a massive bump now because I’m at Chelsea and I’m in and out of the team. I’m trying to impress the manager as much as I can and play as well as I can, so it’s just about keeping believing in myself like I’ve done for the whole of my career so far and keep playing as well as I can.”
Making an impact at a World Cup would do no harm to his cause. Gallagher is very much the fifth-choice in England’s midfield behind Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson but Southgate believes his varied skill set means that he has the ability to step in for any one of those players, opening avenues into the line-up that are not open to other members of the squad.
“I feel like I can bring energy going forward and defensively as well,” he says. “In whatever position the manager plays me, I will do my best to play it right and be as effective as I can on the pitch. Whether that’s to score goals or try to win the ball back then that’s what I can do.”
Gallagher profiles as the archetypal box-to-box, all-action English midfielder of years past – the type of player that was ten-a-penny two decades ago but has been edged out by modern tactical trends. It is a style of play that could pose different questions of opponents and endear him to supporters.
“There’s always a few of those players in teams and of course, if I’m given a chance I’ll give my best to do that,” he says. “I’d always do my best to impress the whole country and the world.”
The likelihood, though, is that he will have to be patient and make the most of however many minutes come his way.
Accepting and making peace with that is always a difficult but necessary thing for players in his position. Through his determination to make it at Chelsea and his maturity when dropping into England’s age groups, Gallagher has already shown he understands the value of knowing your place and working hard to improve it.
“There are 26 players who want to play and only 11 can be on the pitch. Over half the boys are not going to be starting and people are obviously going to be disappointed but they’ve drummed it into our heads straight away that will be the case,” he says. “If you’re on the bench, if you’re starting, whatever, you’ve got to be there for each other and help each other, because that’s how we’re going to win a tournament. That’s how important that is.”