Most players would be forgiven for wanting to erase the memory of a 3-0 midweek defeat at Newport County, not to mention the journey home, but it’s one Conor Gallagher won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
For the midfielder, that Tuesday evening in September 2018 with Chelsea’s starlet-laden Under-21 side marked the start of what has since become an eye-catching career in the senior game.
Defeat in the EFL Trophy that night was merely a footnote. The opportunity afforded to the Blues youngsters was priceless, and one which had seen them going from playing for pride to playing for silverware; from playing against boys to playing against men.
As the players themselves will so often allude to, it’s the kind of platform for which there’s no substitute, and Gallagher is no different.
“I remember it clearly,” he says, speaking immediately after finishing training at his current loan Club, Crystal Palace. “Those were always big games because the Trophy gives you a chance to play against men, and they were usually at Stamford Bridge or at the opponent’s stadium, so I really enjoyed them.”
Indeed, Gallagher made four appearances in the competition that season and, ultimately, they would prove more than enough for him to impress. Like Chelsea team-mate Callum Hudson-Odoi and former England Under-21 team-mate Declan Rice before him, he would be able to use the competition as a springboard.
Also in the squad to face Newport were the likes of Marc Guehi, Billy Gilmour and Tariq Lamptey, all of whom are currently playing in the limelight of the top-flight, and whose names help make up a long list of similar success stories.
“Yeah, just thinking back to that side, there will be quite a few boys who have gone on to play in either the Premier League or EFL,” he adds.
“I would have only been 18 at the time, so it was all about learning, and to play against men was really important in that sense. At Chelsea, in the Academy, the Manager always wanted us to prepare for when we did go out on loan or play first-team football, and that was great. To have those experiences in the EFL Trophy was great for me.
“After losing to Newport, I think we then went and beat Plymouth 5-0, so it was great for us in terms of helping the players understand the level.”
Gallagher’s name was soon on the radar of Clubs across the land, attracting interest from various EFL sides, particularly after claiming a Europa League winner’s medal with Chelsea and being named the Club’s Academy Player of the Year for the 2018/19 season.
And it didn’t take him long to justify the hype. August of that year brought both a new Blues contract and loan move to Sky Bet Championship side Charlton Athletic; and with it, a chance to earn his stripes further.
“My time in the EFL was unreal,” he says with a reminiscent smile. “I was nervous, but a move to the Championship was important to me and Charlton were a perfect fit. I started well and my confidence just grew from the very start; I began believing in myself more and more as the games went on, and from there I think I’ve improved a lot as both a player and a person.”
Indeed, just weeks after making his Addicks debut, the plaudits continued to pour in, both in the form of praise from players and pundits, and an EFL Young Player of the Month award.
“It was amazing to be recognised like that in my first month,” he adds. Gallagher had been deployed as a box-to-box midfielder by then Manager Lee Bowyer, and it was working.
“It was a surprise, you might say, because I didn’t expect to come in and play straight away, but I scored a few goals and it almost came out of nowhere. I didn’t let it get to my head; I carried on working hard and it just gave me confidence to go and improve even more.
“I loved it at Charlton; the fans were great, and they always supported me. The experience and the confidence it gave me were priceless.”
In six successful months in South East London, Gallagher scored six goals, before being recalled by his parent Club in January and loaned back out to the Championship just 24 hours later. This time, Swansea City were his suitors, with their sights firmly set on a return to the Premier League.
Under the tutelage of now-Nottingham Forest Coach Steve Cooper, it was there that the youngster would be tested by a different, possession-based style of play, and would be surrounded by the experience of Andre Ayew, Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer, to name but a few.
“My overriding feelings are happy ones, definitely,” Gallagher says. “I was fortunate enough to go on loan to Swansea in January and that was a step up; they’re a great Club and they were fighting to get into the Play-Offs. I was really excited to be part of that and, thankfully, we made the Play-Offs and that was an incredible experience.”
And although the campaign would end in Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Thomas Frank’s Brentford, it had been a learning experience for many of the Swans’ younger players, Gallagher included.
“I think the loans have improved me each time and that’s been good for me and my development. Playing under different Managers with different styles of play or philosophies and playing alongside different players, it’s all helped me develop. I look back on my time in the EFL with only positive thoughts.
“I can pick out loads of people who helped me on the way. At Charlton, they were all just normal lads and that was brilliant. Most of them were older and had families, whereas I was only 19 and still getting used to men’s football, so they helped me a lot both on and off the pitch to help me feel comfortable. I can’t name just one – so many players helped me along the way.”
These days, Gallagher is a different animal altogether. With those positive EFL experiences and the advice of former team- mates and Managers still fresh in his memory, he’s continued to learn and raise his game, taking his talents to new heights at Selhurst Park.
The bright lights of Stamford Bridge might have alluded Gallagher on a more regular basis up until this point, but the feeling among his fans is that it’s only a matter of time before he’s turning out for his boyhood team each and every Saturday.
“I strongly believe he has what it takes to get to the highest level,” current boss and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira said of Gallagher recently, citing the midfielder’s “fantastic work ethic and positive attitude” among his standout attributes.
For many, there can be no higher level than representing your country, and with every member of August’s England squad having either played in the EFL, come through an EFL academy, or made their debut in EFL competition, the trail for players like Gallagher has been blazed for some time.
His well-deserved call-up to the Three Lions’ senior squad arrived in November 2021, in a moment which felt as much the end of one incredible chapter as the start of another.
“We’ve tracked him for a very long time in his loan spells at Charlton, Swansea, West Brom and now at Palace,” Manager Gareth Southgate said when discussing Gallagher’s inclusion.
With the quality of the League’s three divisions improving year-on-year, we can be confident that he won’t be the last EFL graduate to make the step up.
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.