RUBEN LOFTUS-CHEEK is realising his potential in the heart of the Chelsea midfield.
The Blues star, 25, excelled against Brentford as the Champions League holders held on for three points, and has become one of the first names on Thomas Tuchel’s teamsheet.
His form wouldn’t have gone unnoticed at Orchards Academy in Swanley, Kent, where Loftus-Cheek went to school from the ages of 11-16.
SunSport dropped into the mixed secondary institution, approximately 15 miles southeast from Central London to find out more on the national team’s new hero.
Humble, focused and determined, we learned he was always destined to become a footballer, according to his former tutors who have watched his steady-rise from Chelsea youth player to first team starter and England international.
A natural-born athlete, Loftus-Cheek could’ve gone into a number of sports professionally, including tennis, Head of PE Stuart Nicholson revealed.
Nicholson, 45, taught his young protege for six years, helping him grow as a man and as a sportsman on the field.
Loftus-Cheek was already on Chelsea’s books by then, but that didn’t stunt his determination in conquering all at sports day in 2009.
Nicholson told SunSport: “As a young man, he was impressive. But on the football pitch, he was incredible.
“Ruben was a wonderful footballer from the first time I saw him, he had natural ability.
“First time I met him, he was already associated with Chelsea, who I believe he joined when he was eight or nine.
“He played for a local team in Swanley and was scouted very early and everyone could see in those days he had exceptional talent from day one.
“He played a few times, but he didn’t play every game. Most of the time he was training with Chelsea.
“But when he did play, he played with a very successful team. In that year group, he played with a good standard of boys.
“Many of those went on to play semi-professional and at a good standard locally.
“But they weren’t just good at football. They were all-rounders, good at cricket and cross-country.
“Ruben, himself, was very good at table-tennis, long-distance running and tennis.
“I think he had the potential to go into any sporting area he chose, but I think football was the one for him.
“He was so dedicated, you could see that from 12-years-old, to be the best he could be.
“Ruben was the form captain and his form group, unsurprisingly, won at sports day.
“He received the trophy because he was the captain.
“It wouldn’t have been just him, his classmates participated too, but he was certainly the top man in terms of the athletics events he was in.”
When Loftus-Cheek did turn out for his school team, he was literally head-and-shoulders above the rest. He didn’t quite fit his now 6’3″frame, but he wasn’t far off.
Nicholson recalled one performance that had a teacher from a rival school purring about his pupils’ skills.
“We played a school from Bromley away in the Kent Cup and I remember Ruben really stood out.
“It was an early round and his performance was incredible. He was playing this team almost entirely on his own.
“The opposition’s PE teacher came up to me and asked me questions about who this boy was that he’d just seen because he was incredible.
“I don’t think he gave away a pass once in that game, and we were playing a school that was bigger and had a better football reputation.
“The opposing teacher couldn’t quite believe what he had witnessed.
“He played central midfield for us back then.
“He was always very athletic and extremely fit. At times he’d play passes that people didn’t even see.
“He was a level beyond everyone else on the pitch. He’d see things on the pitch that other people, including myself, couldn’t see.
“But after a few seconds of the ball going into that area, you would realise. He was four, five, six steps ahead of everyone.”
In 2010, Loftus-Cheek was selected for the England under-15s team – a dream for any football-obsessed teenager.
However, when Nicholson pulled the aspiring footballer out of the classroom to share the good news, Loftus-Cheek was remarkably calm when told of his achievement.
It was almost like he had expected it to happen.
“On one occasion, when he was selected by the England under-15s team, I got notification via an email from the English Schools’ Football Association,” Nicholson explained.
“I was ecstatic for him, so I went to see Ruben in class, got him out of the lesson to tell him the incredible news.
“I shook his hand and said congratulations. He was quite nonchalant, he accepted it, but seemed to know it was going to happen.
“He always knew he had a chance of making it professionally, I’m sure of that.”
Nicholson praised Loftus-Cheek for setting an example for students at Orchards Academy who fantasise about becoming a Premier League star.
He also confessed it’s inspiring for all the teachers too.
“It gives everybody a lift in the school.
“Everyone is always talking about his achievements.
“And that’s not only the pupils, the staff get a lift too. It shows the students what they can achieve.
“I know he was exceptionally gifted, but fundamentally he’s just a normal young man who has worked hard and has gone to the top.”
Now that Loftus-Cheek has made it, you could be forgiven for thinking becoming a professional and earning a vast salary would’ve meant he lost touch with his roots.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, he regularly visits the school, often to attend his favourite event – sports day – to hand out medals to the kids.
“Ruben comes back for things like sports day to give out trophies,” Nicholson revealed.
“He stays in contact with the school, knows the developments we’re going through and is always interested in what’s going on.
“The pupils went on a school trip to Barcelona and he asked how that was and how well the football teams are doing.
“He also joked about wishing he got the chance to go to Barcelona during his time here.
“Our Year 10 won the local cup and he came in to present them with their trophies too.
“Then, he spent half an hour taking pictures with the guys and signing autographs.
“In the afternoon, he hung out with the teachers and after school he played football with the boys in the playground.
“The boys really loved it because they got to play with an England and Premier League footballer.
“It was a special moment for them they’re never likely to forget.”
Construction teacher Paul Gregory, a devout Chelsea fan, also spoke of his delight in seeing a former pupil come of age.
The 54-year-old echoed Nicholson’s feelings that Orchards Academy couldn’t have a better member of their alumni than Loftus-Cheek.
“He was an outstanding pupil,” Gregory said.
“What I liked about him was he was always immaculately dressed, always cared about how he looked and his appearance.
“He was really helpful with other students, as well as being a really nice kid.
“I taught woodwork to his really close friends more than him, but they’d all turn up together to class and he was a genuine lad.
“And being a Chelsea fan, I always used to talk to him about the academy there to see how he was getting on.
“He is a fantastic role model for these kids, and the fact he came back and spent hours with the kids, signed every single autograph speaks volumes for him.
“My son comes to the school and he had a kickabout with him in the playground.
“And the kids here need that sort of role model, especially in this school, because we are in an unprivileged area.
“They need that someone to focus on, someone that will help them aspire to be something.”
Gregory, who used to coach the school football team, respects the amount of hard work Loftus-Cheek put in to get where he is today.
He was particularly pleased when he saw his former pupil find the net in a FA Cup against Scunthorpe back in 2016.
“When he scored his first goal for Chelsea, my wife and my son were all watching the game on the TV.
“We all cheered, we knew him and it was a great feeling to see someone achieve something like that from such a small school.
“I know how much effort he put in, I live locally and would see him running around town or kicking a ball around.
“He’s a great example of getting through to the kids that if you try hard enough, you can get there. That’s exactly what Ruben did.”
PE teachers Molly Haworth, 28, and Connor Halsey, 27, hope that Loftus-Cheek’s success rubs off on their current students.
They were also wowed by his down-to-earth attitude.
“He came in to the school recently and all the kids got an instant buzz from him being there,” Molly revealed.
“He didn’t know then he was going to the World Cup in 2018, but we were sure he was going to get picked.
“He seemed quite laid-back about it all, but I think deep-down he was a bit nervous about it.
“When he was walking around the school, he was very cool and chilled out. He spoke a lot about Chelsea and Crystal Palace and enjoying his football.
“He grew up round the corner, so he’s just like one of these kids.
“Their aspirations were encouraged because he was just one of them once upon a time.”
Connor continued: “He’s very humble.
“He’s very relaxed, very down-to-earth. It was like we weren’t even sitting in a room with a Premier League footballer when he was with us in the staff room.
“The kids obviously knew about Ruben coming to Orchards Academy because he comes back regularly for sports day.
“But you can see the boys who knew who Ruben was were really spurred on by meeting him and what he had to say.
“Hopefully, they can achieve what he did with that same drive and determination in the future.”
Before we head out the school gates, our heads dizzier than parents of a star pupil getting glowing references at a parents’ evening, we’re grabbed by Catherine Yelding.
“I knew Ruben all the way from first year to 16-years-old,” the 54-year-old, who works in student support told us,
“He was always a really lovely boy, quiet, academic and just really well behaved. He wasn’t a show-off and had a cool, calm, collected personality.
“I think the girls liked him, but he just had his mind on his career and getting his course work done. He was always very focused.”