Ruben Sammut’s journey from Chelsea glory to club-hunting during Covid

The last couple of years at Chelsea have been a triumph for youth development, with academy talents helping to lead the club into the Champions League and make their mark on the England set-up.

However, for every star of the dominant FA Youth Cup squads who has taken advantage of opportunities under Frank Lampard, there are others for whom the timings didn’t quite work out.

Ruben Sammut had a big role to play alongside the likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham but is only now able to enjoy regular football again in the sixth tier of English football after setbacks largely out of his control.

An English-born midfielder who played for Scotland right up to Under-21 level, Sammut won three successive FA Youth Cup titles with Chelsea, playing both legs of the 2015 and 2016 victories in a team containing Mount, Abraham and Fikayo Tomori.

He was also on the bench for their UEFA Youth League victories over Shakhtar Donetsk in 2015 and Paris Saint-Germain the following year and captained the Blues’ Under-23 side, but Lampard’s arrival as manager came too late for him to be handed a chance for the first team.

“You never know what the circumstances would have been if Lampard’s reign came a bit earlier, or another manager came in who played young players,” Sammut says on the morning of a game for his current club, Dulwich Hamlet.

“I was obviously the captain of the Under-23s at the time and if my performances at the time warranted a place in the first team I think I may have been given a chance. But I can’t look back on that and think, ‘I wish I was still at Chelsea now because of the opportunities that are coming.’ I think it’s obviously great what’s happening now, and I’m more pleased than anything for the boys.

“A lot of those boys that I played with – or the likes of Billy Gilmour, who was a couple of years below me coming up – you see how hard they work and it’s what the academy has always wanted: the academy players playing in the first team, which everyone over the years was more than capable of but never really got the look-in.

“I think for years to come it’s setting the tone for looking into the academy, because the Chelsea academy is probably if not the best in the country, definitely one of the best in Europe as well, and you can’t let your talent get wasted because you’ve got it right on your doorstep.”

While his peers seized their opportunity, though, Sammut has been forced to grow up fast, learning the unique challenges of navigating a football environment hit by the unexpected fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sammut is still in touch with most of his former Stamford Bridge colleagues; with some it’ll be the occasional message on social media, while he’s in closer contact with others. Those he mentions by name include the likes of Mukhtar Ali, who is now playing in Saudi Arabia, Wealdstone winger Charlie Wakefield and Isaac Christie-Davies, now at Barnsley after spending last season in Liverpool’s academy.

“I keep in touch with a lot of the staff as well. I speak to Joe Edwards, who works with the first team now, I’m still in touch with Neil Bath, the academy manager, so it’s always been good to get in contact with them.

“I take big pride in being part of a really successful team and being a big part of that is something no one can take away from me. It’s something I look at all the time and think that was a good achievement.

“But at the end of the day, youth football is a lot different from men’s football and it’s whether people take that seriously or not, but for me it was a big achievement that I look back fondly on and have a lot of good memories of.”

That notion of being part of a collective is something he’s only now rediscovering at Dulwich after hitting a couple of roadblocks since leaving Chelsea in 2019. One of these obstacles is something which countless players will face at some point in their career, but the other – attempting to find a new club in the midst of a pandemic – can be character-building almost by necessity.

Towards the end of his time in west London, Sammut was arguably a victim of his own importance to the academy squad.

As captain of the Under-23s as they embarked on a deep run in the EFL Trophy, he stayed with the Blues rather than joining the growing “loan army”, as he puts it, in the hope of leading the young squad to Wembley.

Ultimately they got within a penalty shootout of the final – losing to Lincoln City after getting past MK Dons, Portsmouth and Oxford United in the first three knockout rounds – but it meant Sammut’s first and only loan came the following season in less-than-ideal circumstances.

“For me was quite exciting at the time,” he says of his stint at Falkirk. “It was my first chance to play first-team football, and obviously having been in the youth teams of Scotland it was a chance to go up there and get back in the Scotland picture and do well. But I think, how football goes, circumstances changed a little bit.

“It was quite a tough loan move, and as a team we didn’t perform as well as the fans expected or as well as we expected. There were a lot of new signings and it proved quite difficult – we were in a relegation battle pretty much the entire season, so it was a different experience and I took a lot from that.

“I guess it built my character a little bit more as well, so although it wasn’t the perfect loan move, experience-wise I wouldn’t change it.”

A permanent move to Sunderland followed in the summer of 2019, but that too hit a snag when Jack Ross, the manager who took him to the Stadium of Light, lasted less than half a season before being replaced by Phil Parkinson.

“I thought I trained well, there were times I had opportunities on the bench and travelled away for FA Cup games, a few league games, but the situation the club was in – in terms of not doing so well and being around mid-table – they needed to be up in the promotion area so I think [Parkinson] was kind of backed into playing a more senior team and players with a lot more experience than me, and the chances were just hard to come by then.

“It was obviously difficult to accept at the time but you have to agree results weren’t going our way and, although I felt I could maybe make a difference and add a bit of energy to the team, it’s a hard decision for the manager to make.

“Obviously my time was cut short there with that lack of first-team appearances and they thought it was best for me to leave the club and find first-team football elsewhere.

“But these circumstances with Covid and a lot of teams not being able to trial players, or a lot of teams having their budgets slashed and weren’t sure what players they were retaining or releasing, it proved quite difficult. I had to be very patient this off-season.”

Sammut reveals he started out by looking at opportunities with clubs in League Two, but a trial at Salford City put into focus just how different the summer of 2020 would be compared to those which preceded it.

“There was a big group of trialists at the time but we weren’t able to interact with the first team or train with the first team,” he says. “We had our own training group, all in our own bubble in a hotel up there – I think it’s Gary Neville’s hotel, right up by Old Trafford.

“So we trained together, we had a friendly against Man United Under-23s when I was there, and at the end of that week they let you know if you were to come back up, and if you came back up you’d be Covid tested and able to train with the first team. Unfortunately I wasn’t what they were looking for at the time.

“And then it was a similar case with a lot of clubs in the Football League – the Covid testing was quite expensive and they weren’t willing to pay for these trialists who in the end they might not be able to sign.”

Eventually, the priority became getting back onto the pitch and being on the books of a new team in time for the 2020-21 season. Sammut isn’t the only player whose response to the pandemic has been to move closer to home, but he admits the opportunity to be back in the south-east with a shorter commute – he car-shares with a couple of team-mates who live in Kent, about an hour away from Dulwich Hamlet’s ground in south-east London – was a consideration.

After training sessions with Dover and Bromley in the National League, a consultant reached out to him on LinkedIn and presented him with a chance to join Dulwich, who finished last season in the bottom half of the National League South – where he was reunited with a face from his past.

“I think for me at this time… just getting games and being close to home was important to me,” he says.

“The fact that it was only in south-east London, it did help – it’s only an hour commute and being close to home, especially in these times, and getting my feet back on the ground playing football and getting games, that was something I did look for.

“I didn’t want to be away from home, because I’d been up north at Sunderland and even though I did enjoy my time there, when you’re not playing that much first-team football it becomes that bit more difficult when you haven’t got that support system around you. That was a factor, and it’s quite good that [Dulwich] are a bit local to me.”

Dulwich’s management team have a solid record with young players, and Sammut already speaks highly of manager Gavin Rose and number two Junior Kadi, who have been together at the club for more than a decade.

“First of all they love being coaches, but they don’t want the sort of senior pro players that are coming in – they like working with young players who may have dropped out of the system but have the quality to get back in it, and they take pride in helping players get back into the leagues and play at the levels they can do, so it’s a credit to them.”

Among the youngsters to join League clubs after impressing for Dulwich are Reise Allassani (who moved to Coventry City before returning), Erhun Oztumer (now at Charlton Athletic) and perhaps the biggest success story of the lot, Brentford centre-back Ethan Pinnock.

Sammut is still just 23, the same age Pinnock was when he made his EFL debut, and that alone puts into focus how time is very much still on his side.

While there are some longer-term ambitions – he feels an eventual return to the Scotland picture is “an achievable goal” for the future, having been part of the team which finished third in the 2017 Toulon Tournament – the challenge for now is playing regular football and helping Dulwich Hamlet climb the table.

His new club are comfortably in mid-table at the time of writing, having sat 19th of 22 teams when the season was suspended last term, and Sammut’s energy and passing range have complemented the experience of another 2020 arrival, new captain Michael Timlin.

While the last 18 months have provided plenty of unexpected turns, Sammut is now at a point where he is not just a member of a successful academy team but a senior player in his own right.

By Tom Victor

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