Spare a thought for Billy Gilmour. Once heralded as one of Chelsea’s brightest youth prospects, the Scot seemed to be developing at the right time at Stamford Bridge. His emergence was timed perfectly, just as the club were learning, through the adversity of a transfer ban, to embrace their academy. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Reece James all got their chance to be first team regulars, and he appeared set to follow them.
Signing Gilmour from Rangers was a big deal in 2017. Though he went into Chelsea’s youth ranks, ready to wait for his chance, there was a real sense that they’d just signed one of Scotland’s finest footballers. With Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney turning heads and proving that there were top quality players being developed north of the border, Gilmour made his debut in 2019 under Frank Lampard, the man spearheading the turning of attention to internal development, fuelling comparisons with the likes of Mount and James.
His introduction was much slower and more considered. Everything seemed to be going well; with every appearance, he convinced further with his ability to control the tempo of a game, balance and passing range. There was a modern and complete midfielder just waiting to make his mark, and then the bad luck started and his opportunity to make it at Chelsea dwindled. Lampard was sacked, replaced by Thomas Tuchel, them came Covid-19 and injuries.
That chance was finally pulled away from him permanently this summe when the 21-year-old joined Brighton for around £9m. In truth, there was little chance of success at Chelsea by the end; he wasn’t rated particularly highly by Tuchel, and that was made clear by the fact that he spent much of the summer on a fruitless search for midfield reinforcements. Sometimes loan moves can propel a player into being ready for the next stage at a big club, but Gilmour’s progression was effectively condemned by a disappointing stint at Norwich City. He didn’t set the world alight and often felt the wrath from his own supporters, but struggling to impose yourself on a team as poor as the one he found himself in should never be ample evidence of quality. He was dealt a near-impossible hand.
When Gilmour made the move to the Amex Stadium, he was more than content with his decision. He name-checked Tarim Lamptey, another former Chelsea youth who has thrived on the south coast, as being key to his decision to move. There’s no doubting, either, that Graham Potter’s presence was a huge factor; working with such a talented, progressive coach in a much more positive atmosphere than the one he found at Norwich was too good to turn down.
Rather than being the end of Gilmour, it appeared the perfect opportunity for a rebirth; there are plenty of examples of talented youngsters leaving big clubs, developing and getting another chance at a later date. That all remains true now, but the big difference is the fact that Potter has gone to Chelsea ahead of an apparent culture shift at the club. There are even reports suggesting Tuchel encouraged Gilmour to join Brighton specifically because of Potter.
While the reality isn’t simply as straightforward as suggesting that because Potter wanted Gilmour at Brighton, he would automatically have utilised him at Chelsea, there is no getting away from the cruelty of this situation. Like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who effectively signed for Chelsea on the strength of his relationship with Tuchel, it is natural for Gilmour to feel a little lost in the upheaval, especially because Potter has gone in the other direction. But there are different levels of expectation at Chelsea and Brighton, more demand at the former than the latter even with a more long-term vision supposedly in place. Potter will have to work with more established, experienced players; in fact, the biggest downfall of managers who have failed to make the leap from small club to big club is their consistency in signing or playing the same standard of player.
But all is not lost for Gilmour. Brighton is still a great place to thrive and grow, with aims and plans that go well beyond Potter. Chances are the next manager will be just as progressive, just as detailed and just as hard-working. There is a platform to build on thanks to what has been left, and Gilmour can have an incredibly positive impact on that.
Whatever happens, though, he must surely thinking of what might have been for him. His career has suffered setbacks, but that has only led to a bargain for Brighton; here is a 21-year-old star in the making, only there are some who have forgotten that. With his best chance at Chelsea seemingly appearing after he left, he must now show what the hype was all about in the first place.