In the lead-up to this season, one radio station famous for talking sport tweeted a question: is Patrick Bamford good enough to be a starter for #LUFC in the Premier League?
The striker responded with four words that failed to disguise the eye-rolling weariness of a man who has heard it all a thousand times before: “And so it starts.”
For Bamford, such doubts about his ability began in the first half of this decade after Chelsea had plucked the then 18-year-old promising striker from Nottingham Forest and he went on to not feature in the first team in five years.
Temporary top-flight pit-stops at Crystal Palace, Norwich and Burnley saw him sidelined and then slighted as a player lacking the brawn and bite to go with his brain, before he was jettisoned and landed at soon-to-be-relegated Middlesbrough and a future in what many saw as his natural level of the Championship.
But Bamford, now 27, had other ideas and this weekend he is back at Stamford Bridge, armed with absolute trust from his manager, seven goals in 10 league appearances and a big point to prove.
Five years, seven managers, zero games
Chelsea are a club that have made a habit of hoovering up young talent as much in service of an efficient business model as the health of their first team.
Breaking through is a bonus, with the majority farmed out on loan and eventually sold for a profit.
In the same winter window that Bamford arrived at the club, they also recruited defender Kenneth Omeruo, striker Lucas Piazon and a midfielder by the name of Kevin de Bruyne. Loan spells served by this quartet during their time at the Blues? 20. First-team appearances? Six.
Initial fruitful loan spells back in the Football League, with MK Dons and Derby, suggested Bamford might be able to buck the trend and he was adamant in an interview with the Daily Mail that Chelsea had a long-term plan for him when he was lent to Middlesbrough for the 2014-15 season, which saw him score 17 times and win Championship player of the year.
But his chance never came with the Blues, who instead felt loan signings Radamel Falcao and Alexandre Pato offered better back-up to Diego Costa and Loic Remy.
Loan spells at Palace, Norwich and Burnley yielded 22 appearances, four starts, zero goals and no compelling evidence to his parent club demanding greater involvement.
His time at Turf Moor was especially unproductive, with Clarets boss Sean Dyche suggesting to him that his status as a young Chelsea player and his relatively affluent upbringing and private school education meant he had “never had to work for anything in his life”.
The years that followed have showcased the disproving of this myth, starting with the curtailing of his time at Chelsea in 2017 – half a decade that saw him overlooked by seven managers – and a move back to Boro.
Tony Pulis would begin the process of adding grit to guile, moving Bamford to a central attacking role and coaxing 11 goals from him in 2017-18 as Boro fell just short of promotion.
Marcelo Bielsa would finesse the job at Elland Road, making him a tireless modern, pressing forward capable of leading the line on his own, defending from the front and providing 16 goals to help Leeds back into the Premier League.
As former Liverpool defender and Preston fan Mark Lawrenson told BBC Sport, Bamford’s displays this season are a delivery on the promise of his earlier years.
“I used to go into Simon Grayson’s office when he was manager at Preston and speak to the opposing managers and coaches after games,” he said.
“Patrick was scoring a lot of goals in the Championship at that time and when his name came up, the consensus was at that level he looks a really good player but can he make the step up? No-one was too sure.
“Going from team to team on loan when he was at Chelsea probably helped him develop initially, but by the end it held him back.
“He has always had ability, but when I watched him when he was younger, he didn’t look like he was going to be quick enough at one stage to play in the Premier League.
“But he seems to have found half a yard of pace from somewhere, or at least it looks that way. That will be Bielsa, and the work he has done with him, of course.
“And Patrick is a talented player. He still misses a few, he always did, but his scoring ratio is good and for me he goes under the banner of ‘most improved’ because of the way he has worked on his game.”
One loyal manager, 10 games, 7 goals
Bamford returns to Stamford Bridge on Saturday as the English top flight’s joint-fifth leading scorer.
His seven goals have showcased the range of finishing that first brought him to Chelsea’s attention – his hat-trick at Aston Villa alone a master-class in anticipation, space manipulation and cool execution.
|Minutes per goal||122||216|
|Shot conversion rate||17.5%||9.6%|
|Expected goals per game||0.72||0.72|
|Goals per game||0.7||0.36|
That he is pretty much matching his expected goals tally with actual goals this season is a rebuttal to those who reduced his value to Bielsa’s side to the chances he took, and saw the abundance he missed last season as evidence for his omittance.
That he has remained a constant in the Argentine’s side is down to a combination of the qualities Dyche felt he could bring to Burnley – his intelligence and technique – and those he felt the striker lacked – hard work.
Bielsa purposefully distances himself from his players, but the clip of him running to hug Bamford after he had scored a brilliant volley in training or the way he greeted the striker with a gleeful “Patriiiick!” during their promotion celebrations are indicative of his respect and appreciation.
“It just shows, when you speak to young players and tell them there is no substitute for hard work – even if you might lack a bit of talent, the right attitude can take you to the top,” added Lawrenson.
“Maybe it’s because of the way Leeds play that has improved him because he has got half a yard in terms of pace and his brain will be thinking even quicker as well.”
With a record 260 to his name, Alan Shearer knows a thing or two about scoring Premier League goals and he now sees a player thriving at the top.
“He will be pleased with the start he has made in the Premier League, as will his manager,” Shearer told BBC Sport. “He could actually have more goals because he has missed a few chances as well, good chances too.
“He is never going to worry about that, though, because the time to worry is when you are not getting the chances. That’s not a problem in this Leeds team.
“His link-up play has been excellent and his work-rate has been superb. He wouldn’t be in that Leeds team otherwise because everyone has to do that.
“It has taken him a while to make a mark at this level and he had to leave Stamford Bridge to kickstart his career, but he looks at home in the Premier League now.”
Additional reporting by Chris Bevan.