In the end, it wasn’t quite perfect. Mason Mount marked his competitive debut for Derby County with a goal, with one of those long-rangers that has become an early trademark, but Vito Mannone’s floundering rather spoilt the moment.
The moment still announced his arrival in a way, but the aesthetic was a little weak.
Mount is English football’s straight arrow. Two-footed and velvety, his craft and ball-striking stir the senses.
A classic No.10 with the capacity to operate from deeper positions, he’s a charming blend of shimmering technique and positional foresight. Good enough on the ball to hurt an opponent, but aware enough of the pitch to really influence a game.
There’s a highlight of his, from January 2017 in a youth fixture against Birmingham, which perfectly frames his range of ability.
Picking up a loose ball 10 yards outside the box, he shimmies away from one man, drives into the box and slaloms past two more; then, after quickly shifting his feet, he rams a shot high into the net.
Chelsea’s dominance at that level has been known to swell certain reputations in the past, but this was not that.
It was such a fluid passage of play, so comprehensive and dominant, that anybody watching would have fallen for Mount immediately.
He scored three that day, Chelsea got five, but as a goal it was an alluring flash of future intent.
He first come to real prominence in the summer of 2017, when England’s Under-19 side captured the European Championship.
Mount left his signatures all over that competition and, quite rightly, returned home with the award for the tournament’s best player. He had exerted a very authoritative type of influence in Georgia.
Between the clipped and chopped passes which pushed England’s game-breakers into space and position lay dozens of feathered touches; a glide away from trouble here, a setting touch there. He was, in the truest sense, class.
Performances at that level of the game can be seductive. After all, youth football is a controlled environment in which all sorts of false economies lurk.
At that time, caveats lingered about his size; he was small and little-limbed, ill-equipped to cope with the buffeting that the senior game would inevitably deliver.
A year on, though, and those concerns are in retreat. 2017-2018 was spent on-loan at Vitesse and brought some reassurance.
Fourteen Eredivise goals and nine assists certainly tells part of Mount’s story, so too do the highlights he left behind in the Netherlands, but the most encouraging aspect was arguably his growth – both figurative and literal.
He became more composed over the year, certainly more confident in his abilities, but he also – maybe – became bigger.
By the end of the season he was no longer the slip of a boy he was the previous summer. He was broader and heavier; not quite a fully-grown man, but certainly no longer a child.
There’s certainly something in that adaption. Mount didn’t actually start an Eredivisie game until November 2017 and yet, six months later, could credibly have been claimed to have been one of the finest midfielders in the competition.
That was certainly the view of Vitesse’s sporting director, Marc van Hintum.
“At Ajax there are no better players in the midfield. No, not (Hakim) Ziyech either. Mason has everything; work-rate, stamina, tactical ingenuity, technique, depth and dynamics.”
Consider that journey: 18 years old, out on loan in a foreign country, and – initially – out of the team for three long months. If adaptability is considered a key component within any career, it’s a quality which Mount can be assumed to possess.
The transition from youth team star to senior squad member is a stage which can have all sorts of dampening effects on a bright young thing, yet Mount returned to Chelsea glinting more sharply than before.
The close harmony of Vitesse’s relationship with Chelsea would have partly enabled that, and it would certainly have helped Mount to have club-mate Charlie Colkett alongside him in the beginning, but those kind of transitions will always depend on a degree of personal responsibility – on a player’s willingness to adapt around his new team and, if necessary, eliminate whatever issues are keeping him out of the team.
Mount passed that test comprehensively. At the end of the season, he was also invited to join England training ahead of the World Cup, essentially on a work-experience premise.
His time within the FA’s age group sides already ensures he has Gareth Southgate’s attention and, with the Chelsea patronage of assistant manager Steve Holland, his path into the seniors is already well lit.
The perfect mentor
So, on to Derby and the temporary care of Frank Lampard.
Time will tell what Lampard becomes as a manager, but the potential synergy is hard to resist: who better to direct the early days of a goalscoring midfielder than one of the greatest in the Premier League’s history?
However, tempting as it is to imagine the one-on-one shooting sessions at the end of training and a patient Lampard teaching Mount the science of arriving late in the box, his greatest value to his loanee will come from an example already set.
Lampard was not the most naturally talented player. He wasn’t naturally the fittest, either. What he was, though, was relentlessly driven and entirely dedicated to maximising the abilities he did possess. He chiselled away his own imperfections.
Trawl through the anecdotes and autobiographies of anyone who encountered him when he was a developing player and a familiar tale emerges. Lampard was the last off the training ground.
Over time, he evolved to a point at which he made the game look easy, but at the root of that was the gene which all greats seem to share: that obsessive capacity for self-improvement and a determination to keep learning from the players around him.
In a 2017 interview with Graham Hunter, Harry Redknapp spoke of that desire.
In fact, Redknapp rated him as the finest trainer he’d encountered since his father, Frank Lampard Sr., and recalled watching him practice alone from his office as the dusk settled around West Ham’s Chadwell Heath.
Of course, Redknapp has been prone to hyperbole before and, yes, Lampard is his nephew, but that’s still some endorsement given the range of players he’s coached.
Importantly, it’s probably also an indication of the sort of standard which Lampard, now a head coach, will try to enforce.
What he amounts to in this second career and what he’s able to achieve can only be proven by time, but he promises to at least command the respect of this new generation and, crucially, to be an exceptional role model.
— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) July 6, 2018
That’s critical. Many players have the ability to rise to the top of the game, but what invariably determines whether they do or not is their human development.
So while Chelsea’s decision to loan Mount to Derby would have been instructed by myriad factors, including obviously the opportunity to play regularly, the environment to which he’s being exposed will have been given the most consideration.
A football player is a person first and an athlete second. As in real life, success depends on maturity – on developing the right habits and social tools at the correct time.
For an athlete, that critical juncture usually occurs at a younger age and will determine how he or she deals with money, fame, and expectation.
It stands to reason, then, that Mason Mount couldn’t wish for a better loco in parentis. Who better than Lampard to help him refine his attitude towards the game?
Lampard’s career is testament not only to the virtue in extracting the absolute most from his potential but also, in the abstract, serves as an instruction manual for how to do that. Truly, it’s an optimal situation.
As a country, England has moved on. The groundswell of developing technical proficiency has calmed the population’s febrile desire for a saviour. Nevertheless, the prospect of Mount’s talent being steered by a Lampardian mindset is thrilling.
So, while Chelsea may continued to catch flak for their buy-and-dump loan policy, they’ve positioned their greatest hope in the best possible place. He’s under the incubating lamp with just the right heat.