Swansea’s Conor Gallagher: ‘Heart Surgery Made Me Not Take Anything for Granted’
End-of-season awards can be deemed trivial but, at Chelsea, the academy player of the year accolade carries considerable weight. Just ask Conor Gallagher, the latest recipient of that prize. “The previous three winners all play for the first team now, so there’s a bit of pressure,” the 19-year-old says, his smile broadening, referring to Reece James, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, fixtures of Frank Lampard’s squad after spending last season on loan in the Championship. “I was buzzing when I heard I had won, knowing the players that have won it and what they have gone on to do.”
For Gallagher, who joined Swansea on loan a fortnight ago having shone at Charlton in the first half of the season, that award was a welcome addition to an already handsome silverware collection. Three years ago Gallagher won the Under-17 World Cup with England under the now Swansea head coach, Steve Cooper and, last season, the teenager picked up a Europa League winner’s medal, having been an unused substitute as Chelsea beat Arsenal in Baku. “They are in a drawer at home,” he says. “They’re safe, don’t worry about that. I’ve got all the ones from Chelsea Under-18s as well. My World Cup shirt is framed, which is always nice to see because it always brings back good memories. It’s where everyone can see it when they walk in the house.”
Gallagher scored five goals in his first two and a half months at Charlton, form that earned an England Under-21 call-up in October, and the midfielder, whose work ethic particularly impressed his manager there, Lee Bowyer, is determined to continue his upward trajectory. Inspiration is hardly in short supply, with academy alumni Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham making a splash for club and country, while Billy Gilmour, Tariq Lamptey, whom Gallagher has played with since joining Chelsea aged seven, and James, whom he played with as a kid for Epsom Eagles, have been handed first-team debuts this season.
“I had a message from Frank Lampard earlier on in the season, saying: ‘Well done, your work is not going unnoticed,’ which is always nice to hear,” Gallagher says. “I always looked up to him growing up; scoring goals, making assists, working hard and just being busy on the pitch – that is how I want to be. Now he is the manager it’s very exciting.
“There are a lot of boys in the Chelsea squad now who have proved themselves and that is why they are playing now, like Reece, Mason, Fikayo and Tammy. They all played in the Championship and did really well and I feel like if I can do that, I think I can have a chance with Chelsea next season. I think the pathway is a lot easier now with Frank Lampard and the other coaching staff; they want to bring youngsters through the academy. You can see that this season so it is very promising for players like me and other Chelsea youngsters. I think it gives you more hope and drive to do well, because obviously there is more chance of getting to the first team.”
A January switch to Swansea meant Gallagher living away from the family home in Bookham, close to Chelsea’s Cobham training base, for the first time but there is no shortage of familiar faces in south Wales, with Marc Guehi and Rhian Brewster, both of whom also lifted the World Cup under Cooper, joining on loan this month. Gallagher played with Guehi and Brewster for Chelsea from the age of seven until the latter joined Liverpool at 14 and their relationship led to Brewster describing the trio as The Three Musketeers. “You could say that,” Gallagher says, breaking into laughter during his first major national newspaper interview at Swansea’s Fairwood training base before Saturday’s match at fellow play-off chasers Preston. “For us to be here together is really exciting because we are all good mates as well. That has helped us settle and hopefully that shows on the pitch as well.”
Gallagher says his tenacity is intertwined to the summer of 2018, when he spent two months sidelined after minor heart surgery. Gallagher felt his heart beating eerily fast on his return to pre-season training with Chelsea and fell ill, a few days after experiencing a similar sensation while at the Under-19s European Championship. “It was quite a tough one-v-one session and it was too much for me. I felt a bit dizzy and had to pull out of training and that’s when I got the checks, scans, and when they saw something was wrong.”
Gallagher spent 45 minutes under general anaesthetic and was told there was a 3% chance surgery would not solve his irregular heartbeat. “I just thought: ‘That can’t happen.’ I was a bit nervous but in my head I knew I would be fine and push on from that. I think it was good for me, because sometimes when you’re injured it gives you time to reflect and makes you even hungrier to come back and do well. I remember saying to my mum before the surgery: ‘I just want to get it done so I can work as hard as I can again’ and that’s what I did. Ever since then I think that’s when I really started to push on. I think it made me not take anything for granted. I got physically stronger and quicker and my all-round game has improved since I came back from that.”
The Guardian Sport