In the second of our features on some of this season’s early stand-outs this week, we’re taking a look at Irish midfielder Conor Clifford. Having already featured for both the Under-18s and Reserves this year, he’s also picked up a first Under-21 cap and looks to be thoroughly enjoying himself.

It really has been all action for the Dublin-born youngster, which is apt as it reflects his box-to-box, tenacious playing style. In just three months this season he has represented four teams and whilst adding a fifth to that list might be asking too much, the way things are going you’d not bet heavily against it. He started the year captaining the Academy team but was soon moved into Steve Holland’s reserve team full-time with a number of older players heading out on loan. After captaining and scoring for the Irish Under-19 team he was added to their Under-21 party as a late injury replacement for their qualifier with Switzerland, and duly made his debut as a second half substitute.

This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Conor only turned 18 at the start of this month. It’s a rapid progression helped immeasurably by the decision to come to England a year ahead of schedule. Signed at the age of 14 from his local club Crumlin United – a team with a firmly established record in producing top quality Irish footballers including Robbie Keane – Clifford was due to come over to England for the start of his scholarship in 2007. However, he made the move to London a year earlier to play in the Under-16 team as a schoolboy, and grew acclimatised to a new city without his family for the first time, a story so common in youth football nowadays. Adopting all manner of midfield roles and positions throughout his first year in England, he was well set to hit his scholarship in full stride.

A regular captain of Dermot Drummy’s Under-18s, he weighed in with impressive performances in defensive midfield as well as a handful of goals, none better than the goal of the season strike at home to Ipswich, a thunderous first time volley from the edge of the area which crashed into the back of the net off of the crossbar. His outings had not gone without notice and he made the step up to reserve team football as well as the Irish Under-19 setup.

Perhaps most promisingly this season is that Conor has been used in all three positions of Chelsea’s diamond midfield and has excelled each time. He has the physical tools to compete and can run all day, but is no slouch with the ball at his feet. Already at the second level this season he has shown the ability to score (with a thunderous strike away to Wolves) and provide (a perfectly weighted through ball to Fabio Borini at home to West Ham) and is going from strength to strength with an all-round midfield game. He’s going to be a key part of the team this season, and from there who knows?

Chelsea’s midfield is one of the hardest to break into in world football, but it also features 30+ players in Lampard, Ballack and Deco. In the near future there will be a space available for either a youngster or a new signing, and Conor is at the head of a very large pack chasing hard for that place. If he continues to develop as he has done throughout his career, he might just make it his.

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