Cole Palmer and the sliding-doors moments that led to his Chelsea stardom

In mid-August 2023, Chelsea wanted to grant new head coach Mauricio Pochettino’s wish of signing a versatile attacker capable of playing across the frontline. In an ideal world, that player would be left-footed and strong at coming inside off the right wing.

This pursuit to acquire such a profile saw them target Michael Olise, who they believed was available for £35m owing to a release clause in his contract. Much of the media storm around the prospective deal made it seem like a transfer was a mere formality. However, Crystal Palace disputed the manner in which Olise’s clause was triggered, effectively accusing Chelsea of tapping up the player. Chelsea backed off and the young Frenchman went on to sign a new deal in the following days, reaffirming his commitment to the Eagles.

Chelsea, running out of time to secure another signing and now the subject of public scrutiny for failing to get Olise over the line, turned their attention to Manchester City’s Cole Palmer, who they had been tracking for a few months to that point.

Palmer was used sparingly throughout the 2022/23 season but saw more regular game time towards the end of the campaign as Pep Guardiola rotated his squad to cope with the physical demands of trying to win the treble. In those appearances, he showed signs of promise, though few could have honestly predicted the 2023/24 he was about to have.

Cole PalmerCole Palmer

Palmer impressed in limited minutes for Man City / Will Palmer/Allstar/GettyImages

Over the summer, Palmer was one of the standout stars as England won the Under-21 European Championships. Upon his return for pre-season, he had a very frank and honest discussion with Pep Guardiola. In confidentiality, he asked for a guarantee of minutes or made it clear he had other options, and backed himself to move and succeed.

Palmer has publicly admitted he did not intend to leave City, where he had come through the academy and spent 13 years from youth teams to the senior squad. But Guardiola was unable to give him assurances of minutes and the club were thus willing to negotiate a transfer at Palmer’s request, even after he scored an outrageous goal in their Community Shield defeat to Arsenal.

“He was asking for two seasons to leave and I said stay,” Guardiola said on Friday. “He said he wanted to leave. What could we do? I said stay because Riyad [Mahrez] is gone, but for two seasons he wanted to leave.

“I said many times, I didn’t give the minutes that maybe he deserved and now he has at Chelsea. I understand completely.”

For his part, Guardiola has always been respectful to players who wish to leave his teams. He has not stood in the way of some of City’s core cohort of recent years departing as long as the club received a fair fee.

Cole Palmer, Kevin De BruyneCole Palmer, Kevin De Bruyne

Palmer’s Man City exit had shades of De Bruyne’s from Chelsea / Michael Regan/GettyImages

And for once, Chelsea benefited from this sort of scenario. When Kevin De Bruyne left Stamford Bridge in 2015, it was because he was at odds with Jose Mourinho’s idea of slowly introducing him into the first XI. On this occasion, the Blues were able to act swiftly and take one of City’s talents. Palmer wasn’t so much unhappy as he backed his own ability and felt he would thrive at Chelsea.

Chelsea’s interest in Palmer stemmed from Joe Shields, the club’s co-director of recruitment and talent who formerly worked for City as a youth scout. Shields boasted a great relationship with Palmer and his family, closely monitoring his project through City’s academy.

Following the fallout from the Olise saga, Chelsea sought to keep talks for Palmer on the down low. Reports of an agreement with City only came to light less than 48 hours before he officially signed, but Shields always knew Palmer was there for the taking, even before Olise fell through.

It’s a move that has benefitted all parties. Chelsea brought in exactly the sort of player they and Pochettino craved, Palmer has announced himself as one of the world’s best talents, and City were able to make a sizeable pure profit on an academy product who played less than 1,000 minutes last season.

Cole Palmer, Marc CucurellaCole Palmer, Marc Cucurella

Bowing in the presence of greatness / Catherine Ivill – AMA/GettyImages

Palmer has been the hero of Chelsea’s difficult season and he’s a frontrunner for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Heading into Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against his former club, Palmer has joined Erling Haaland at the top of the Premier League’s scoring charts with 20 goals. He’s also surely a shoo-in to make England’s Euro 2024 squad, and on this form, you wouldn’t put it past him coming up with a moment of magic at the finals in Germany.

And yet this all came close to never happening given it’s unlikely Chelsea would have proceeded had they got Olise over the line. Everything has fallen so perfectly into place to allow this story to unfold. The next chapter they write together could be the elimination of his former side in the FA Cup semi-finals.


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