There is not much that can shock Mason Mount. Throw what you like at him, there’s a strong likelihood he has heard it all before.
After all, if you’ve been raised hanging around the dressing rooms of the Southern League, trying to listen in on your dad’s team talks, it’s unlikely that harsh words from any critic will come as a huge surprise.
Mount laughs at the memory. Since he was a toddler, his dad, Tony, had brought him along to watch the non-League team of which he was manager. ‘I won’t be able to say too much about what he said,’ says Mount, grinning. ‘It’s probably very explicit!’
Mason Mount insists that he isn’t fazed by criticism and is constantly seeking to improve
Mount stressed he has to win silverware with Chelsea to be truly satisfied with his progress
Mum, Debbie, kept him shielded from the worst of it. ‘She wouldn’t let me go in the dressing-room at half-time. She knew what my dad’s like as a manager. He got a bit heated and feisty!
‘He’s told me some great stories about late winners in games, winning cup games against a higher team where they have no chance, winning the national leagues, fights that have happened in the game. That’s what non-League is about. That’s what happens!’
Mount, though, was in his element. He was two years old when he was first at the games, clutching a football, wandering around with his mum in tow. ‘I would have loved it, being in and around it. Tough games and tackles flying in, red cards … that atmosphere has enhanced my love of the game.’
Mount also had an early taste of overseas football. ‘Dad was a manager at Newport, over on the Isle of Wight. I remember going from Portsmouth on the hovercraft to the Isle of Wight for games with my mum. It was a home game but an away day for us!’
Mount says that he learnt a lot from Frank Lampard but insists that he isn’t a teacher’s pet
The young man dictating the rhythm of the game against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night in a Champions League victory really was born to this. On Sunday he’ll likely start against Manchester United. He’s more than the academy protege now. He’s growing into being a key part of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
Though unambiguously tied to Chelsea since he was six, his first love was Portsmouth and his introduction to the top leagues came when he was taken to Fratton Park, one of the most evocative grounds in football, where you can almost smell the history.
‘I remember we sat on the side where the dugouts are and, it being an older stadium, there was a big pole in the stand and I was sat straight behind it. So I was trying to look around it and catching glimpses of the players!’
These were the Harry Redknapp glory days, before the descent into administration and down the divisions. ‘With all those players they had, I loved it. They are my first team and the team I support and follow. It means a lot to me.’
The outstanding memory from his childhood is the 2008 FA Cup final, the day Portsmouth beat Cardiff, when Mount was nine years old.
Mount remembers being inspired by watching Portsmouth win the FA Cup final in 2008
‘My dad took me, it was an unbelievable atmosphere and such a celebration when they won. I don’t remember too much from the game but I remember the feeling of walking out [in the crowd] at Wembley to a packed FA Cup final. It was something I’d never seen before. I was in awe of everything. I remember my dad saying: “Hopefully you’ll be down there one day playing in front of all these people.” Then a few years down the line, it’s really happened. It’s unbelievable.’
Mount’s tale is a little Roy of the Rovers. You get the impression that while that line will have been uttered by thousands of dads to thousands of sons over the years, the Mounts had genuine belief in the ultimate outcome.
In an era in which they had given up on fairy tales at the Chelsea academy, where no one had graduated to be a first-team regular since John Terry in 1998, Mount is the leading light of a generation that has finally broken the mould.
His dad famously once told him that he might be better off elsewhere as no one comes through from the Chelsea academy.
Mount, something of a prodigy in the youth set-up, simply told him he was staying and that he would be the one to buck to the trend. Privately he must have worried about his prospects as he saw talents come, go on loan and disappear into the vortex of the lower leagues? ‘No, I don’t think I ever was. I never felt like: “This is not going to happen, I’m not going to make it.” I was just so very focused and driven to make it.
The midfielder gained valuable experience on loan firstly at Vitesse and then at Derby
‘My development at every age group was good. If I was playing in one age group, I always wanted to play the year above. And then it came to the stage where I was in the [Under-] 23s and I needed that extra push.’ He went to Vitesse Arnhem for a year and then to Derby, under Frank Lampard.
‘I went to Holland and had a good season where I learned a lot about a different type of football. And then going to the Championship. We all know what that’s like, how tough it is. And that added a different part to my game. And then back to Chelsea and giving it a really good go. And it just happened.’
It happened under Lampard’s return and therein lies a multitude of conspiracy theories. Somehow it was assumed that Mount wasn’t playing on merit but that he was a favourite of the manager and his assistant, Jody Morris, who had nurtured Mount in the academy.
Some called him a teacher’s pet. No matter that England manager Gareth Southgate clearly saw what Lampard did too. As does, after a wobbly start, Tuchel. Mount has had to fight twice over, for his place in the team and to convince outsiders he deserved it.
‘I never really looked into that kind of stuff where people say [that],’ he says. ‘Frank added a lot to my game and helped me go to the Championship, learning that kind of football and then bringing me back to Chelsea. I learnt a lot. And now it’s a different kind of learning under a different manager. For me, at 22, to learn off these different managers with different views of football, it’s only adding to me and making me better and better.’
The Tuchel era got off to an uncertain start when he was dropped, along with Tammy Abraham and Reece James, for the first game against Wolves. Lampard’s great academy experiment appeared to have come to an abrupt end. ‘I’ve never experienced a managerial change in my career so it was different. I’ve seen it from afar, in the academy. But you don’t really know what it feels like until you’re in it.
Mount celebrates with Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori against Wolves last season
‘It’s very difficult. You know what I’m like, I want to play every single game. But, with the new manager coming in, I understood that he went for experience [against Wolves]. We had a chat and I understood what his view was and that really helped me moving on. I knew I just had to keep working hard and show him what I can do.
‘Obviously now I have played or started mostly every game. He just said: “Keep working hard, I’ve seen you only for one session and I’m very happy so don’t let your head drop.” And that’s something I wouldn’t do anyway. I’m always someone who wants to strive to prove someone wrong or show something that maybe they haven’t seen.’
Last weekend, Tuchel demonstrated his more ruthless side with his substitution of Callum Hudson-Odoi after 31 minutes. You have the impression that he doesn’t leave the Chelsea players in any doubt as to how he feels or what he requires. ‘He’s very passionate,’ says Mount. ‘When he came in, we had a meeting, we had training and we had one day before a game and everyone knew their role with the team.
‘It was very clear what he wanted. The players understand what a new manager wants and what his goal of playing is, what he wants off the ball, what he wants on the ball, what kind of movement. He made it very easy to understand. We’ve been learning more and more.’
As for the impending death of the academy kids under Tuchel, there’s been a plot twist. Mount and Hudson-Odoi, notwithstanding the substitution fiasco, have been regulars, James is featuring and Tammy Abraham has made four starts.
Mount enjoys the memory of last season’s 5-2 win at Wolves, which was a coming of age party for the Chelsea kids: Fikayo Tomori, scored with an extraordinary long-range strike, Abraham, assisted by Mount, got a hat-trick and Mount scored the fifth.
‘I have good memories of that game, with me, Tam and Fik all scoring … I think it was Fik’s first goal and what a goal! It was brilliant for us as younger boys, experiencing that together. I’ve come through with Fik, Tam, Reece and Cal.
Mount says that he understands why Thomas Tuchel didn’t start him in his first game v Wolves
‘Seeing Fik start his first game or me play with Tam, watching Tam score his first hat-trick and Reece scoring in the Champions League … it was a special year for us younger boys and I feel we helped each other.’
For Mount, it wasn’t enough. He acknowledged that there were weeks when his performances didn’t quite match his high standards, that he risked being inconsistent. ‘I’m definitely someone who really looks at the game and studies what I do at the end of a season. I looked at some of the performances and games where I did have dips, maybe a couple in a row where maybe I didn’t have a big impact.
‘That was something I looked at coming into this season, where I need to get better. That was a big focus of mine, speaking to my dad as well, at the end of last season. I feel like I have implemented it and been doing well but feel there’s room for improvement.
‘I’m definitely not content with just playing well or having good games. I want to do more. I’m happy but I’m not happy until I keep getting better and better and I’m at that stage where I know I can.
‘A lot of it probably comes down to experience. It’s only my second season in the first team. That first season, I was very happy with how it went and was buzzing to be in the team and how many games I played and what I achieved. I was too over-excited at times and wanted to do too much and it probably wasn’t coming off.
‘It’s just going back to basics when you’re going through a tough time. You don’t need to try those passes which are tough and won’t probably come off. Go back to keeping the ball and when you don’t have the ball, work hard.
Mount is relishing the prospect of possibly playing with his friend Declan Rice at Euro 2020
Mount says that the journey that he and Rice have gone on together has been ‘crazy’
AND that’s something I probably didn’t do as well last season. I probably went through some times … where I wasn’t at the level I wanted to be. [This season] I’m a bit more relaxed. Because I’ve had that year of being in the Premier League and know what it feels like.’
His ambitions are clear. They won a fair few FA Youth Cups at Chelsea but Mount and his contemporaries will know that they have made the final step up when they’re clutching a major trophy. ‘Definitely, that’s all of our goals and I feel like I won’t really be happy until we achieve that. We need to be setting our targets at that vision of wanting to win Premier Leagues, wanting to win trophies, wanting to win the Champions League.
‘I feel like with the group we have, we can definitely do it. We’re very hungry to achieve it, very driven. With the older players, they have been there, done that had have that experience for us younger boys to feed off, to have little chats here and there and [ask]; “What’s winning at the highest level really like?” It really helps us. We want to achieve it and especially at a big club we’ve all come through at.’
For now, the top four, the FA Cup and the Champions League are the immediate goals. Another prize looms large though, the prospect of playing at Wembley in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament his summer, alongside his childhood friend, Declan Rice, whom he forged a lifelong bond with at Chelsea, until the academy let Rice go to West Ham.
Although Rice and Mount are close friends they are rivals in the battle for a top four finish
Rice was on the pitch when Mount made his England debut against Bulgaria last season, their families sat in the stands together. Sadly there were no fans when they partnered each other in midfield in the 4-0 win over Iceland, with both scoring. But it was a lovely moment to see childhood friends fulfil boyhood dreams together.
‘Me and Dec, we’re just best mates, so to do something like play for England, both score and both partner each other in midfield, that’s something we never thought about or realised we could do.
‘It’s a crazy thing to think about. Growing up together … going round each other’s house, having sleepovers is just what we’ve done since we’ve been young. Now we’re achieving, playing for our country and, with a big Euros coming up, hopefully having the chance to play in that. It’s crazy the journey we’ve been on, different journeys, different routes. It’s something you could make a movie out of or do a book.’
Best mates they may be, but there’s one area in which he will give no ground. With West Ham’s fine form, there’s a danger Rice will finish above Mount in the table. Mount’s response is instructive. He can’t allow that to happen.
‘I can’t stress that enough,’ he says. ‘He wouldn’t let me live that down.’ Friendship, after all, has its limits.