Plymouth’s Jordan Houghton: ‘Having John Terry in my repertoire was surreal’ | FA Cup
Jordan Houghton hadn’t arrived for a long time with his wife, Harley, at a family-run Italian restaurant in the Barbican docks area of Plymouth when they turned to his phone to tune in to the FA fourth round draw Cup. “We broadcast it seconds later,” Houghton explains. “A bunch of messages started coming in but no one really said who it was. There were only emoticons that appeared, so I thought, ‘We must have drawn a big one. Then the Next ball was Chelsea. We started cheering and people were turning around thinking, ‘What are they doing?’ It will be the first time that I will return there since I left the club.
Houghton’s 16-year-old association with Chelsea began when he was six and attended sessions at Isleworth before signing his first contract a few years later when the Roman Abramovich era was boiling. He was released in 2018 without making a senior appearance, but on Saturday is set to play his first competitive first-team match at Stamford Bridge for Plymouth Argyle, who will be backed by almost 6,000 supporters. His family, including his older brother, Chelsea youth coach James, will be among those on the outside. Houghton played the odd reserve game at the stadium, but his fondest memory came in the FA Youth Cup in 2014, when he scored as Chelsea emerged victorious in a stunning two-legged final against Fulham.
“I had my medal and shirt signed by all the guys but also the pair of boots I was wearing in the game framed because that’s a special memory I have,” he says of a final which was played in front of a crowd of 13,125. “I read Gary Neville talking about the harvest that happened at Manchester United, the class of 92, where they talk even though he won so many things in his senior career, that the Youth Cup was one of the highlights of his career. The Youth Cup is like the World Cup for an academy player. The maximum.
Among his teammates that day were Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen, who he could line up against on Saturday. At Chelsea, he grew particularly close to Loftus-Cheek, with whom he often played alongside a senior age group. He remembers the day when Jim Fraser, the assistant director of youth development, told him at the age of 15 that he and Loftus-Cheek had to train with the first team. “At Cobham you have the road from the academy to the first team, so you literally cross the road to the first team. It felt like something huge ‘crossing the road.’ We would be on the training grounds five or 10 minutes before training, passing the ball to each other without anyone, and the first-team players would slowly drip out of the building: [John] Terri, [Didier] Drogba, [Frank] Lampard, Deco, Ashley Cole…just one star after another. It was a surreal experience, seeing them up close and coming, shaking everyone’s hand and introducing themselves. You think, ‘You really don’t need to do this.’ »
Houghton has seen several top managers come and go. He believes Roberto Di Matteo helped bridge the gap between the academy and the first team, and recalls José Mourinho making a point of visiting each individual pitch during a summer camp to greet every youngster player when he was a shy under nine. “I was quite a reserved kid, so I would sit in the back and watch and everyone was running and jumping,” he smiles. Later, during Mourinho’s second spell, Houghton was called up to his squad for a post-season tour of Australia and Asia. “I still have videos on my phone of us arriving and the number of fans entering the airport…hundreds and hundreds of crazies; loads of people at the hotel waiting. It was an incredible experience.”
This tour saw him play alongside his growing hero Terry, who returned to Chelsea in December in a coaching role. Houghton joined Chelsea as a right midfielder but was moved to centre-back and remained there until the age of 16. This schooling helped him hone his game as a defensive midfielder, at the heart of a Plymouth side determined to return to the Championship. . “John Terry was my idol, so it was surreal to meet him, to train with him at 15 and to have him in my repertoire is a weird thing. To have him come back to work with the academy is great for all the boys coming in. When he was at the top level, he still had time for the academy players and wanted to make sure everything was fine for them.
Houghton also counts former Chelsea defender David Luiz as a good friend, someone who taught him ‘not to take life too seriously’, and he recently spoke to Mason Mount and Reece James, with whom he also played. He smiles at the mention of Diego Costa – “a few stories, but I can’t tell you” – and it’s clear he’s grateful for his upbringing at Chelsea. “It was like going to Cambridge or Oxford academies, the best of the best,” he says. “It’s a shame that I can’t go back now with my 26 year old brain in the body of this 15 or 16 year old and record almost everything because you would absorb so much more. In the moment you don’t realize take into account certain things.
Returning to Stamford Bridge promises to be an emotional occasion. “We were a big footballing family back then,” he says of his early life. “There were 20 people growing up in a team together. Good friendships, good people. Maybe someday when we retire we can have a good reunion and reminisce.