A few weeks later, he played the full 90 minutes as Chelsea thrashed Grimsby Town 7-1 in the League Cup. He had to wait a few more months for his real breakthrough moment, though. It was a man-of-the-match performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup in March that alerted the wider footballing world to his immense talent. Gilmour followed that up with another outstanding display against Everton, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic put the 2019/20 season on hold.
"He was incredible," Lampard said after the 2-0 triumph over Liverpool. "It’s easy to assess it as Billy the kid but I just assess it on the performance and he performed like a top-class player up against other top-class players. He came on against Sheffield United earlier in the season and people questioned him – someone said to me he looks like a 15-year-old boy but I have absolute trust in Billy.
"He might be small in stature but he’s huge in personality and talent. For me when I look at a midfield player I think do you want to receive the ball in all areas and moments, can you make angles and pick passes, do you put your foot in?
"He does the right thing and he’s humble as well – all his family were here tonight down from Scotland and he showed everyone that he’s some talent.”
While Gilmour was patently delighted to make the step up to the Chelsea first team, this was not a case of a local lad pulling on the jersey of the club he supported as a boy. Gilmour was born in Irvine, Scotland in 2001. He grew up as a fan of Rangers, whose academy he joined at the age of eight. At that stage, Gilmour was focused only on making the grade at Ibrox. Chelsea and the Premier League was far from his mind.
That changed as he got older. Gilmour, who was once part of the Scottish Football Association’s (SFA) Performance School programme, was fast-tracked through Rangers’ academy. The prodigiously gifted youngster was involved with the club’s Under-20s at the age of 15. Ultimately, though, the Glaswegian giants could not persuade this boyhood fan to stick around. In 2017, shortly before his 16th birthday, Gilmour agreed a deal to join Chelsea.
It was a brave move. Rangers are a huge club which, compared to Chelsea, provides an easier route to the first team for its academy products. Malky Mackay, the SFA’s performance director and a former manager of Watford, Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic south of the border, was one of many to make his reservations known.
"There's a good chance, in the next 18 months, Billy could have got into that Rangers first-team," Mackay said. “I did speak to Billy and his mum and dad as an independent, and someone who had been a manager in England and had dealings with young players who had the possibility of going to Manchester City. It is quite evident why they decided to do what they did.
“I would have loved to have seen him stay at Rangers and, by the time he was 21, we'd have an incredibly exciting talent. I really hope he goes out on loan quickly to someone and keeps progressing. I need good Scottish talent coming through. He's not physically ready for Rangers' first-team, but in 18 months' time, when he is 17-and-a-half, 18, that's when he becomes a Barry Ferguson. Barry had played 200 games for Rangers by the time he was 21.”
Mackay had a point. Over the course of many years Chelsea’s academy had become something of a running joke in English football. The Blues were hugely successful at youth level, and regularly lifted the FA Youth Cup. Yet despite that, first-team academy products were conspicuous by their absence. The last player to emerge from the youth ranks at Stamford Bridge and become a first-team star was John Terry, who made his debut for the club in 1998.
Gilmour, however, timed his move well. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was starting to show more of an interest in the academy as a production line for the first team, not just as assets that could be sold on for profit. When Chelsea were hit with a transfer ban in 2019, Abramovich appointed Frank Lampard as manager. A club legend, the former midfielder had just one year’s managerial experience under his belt. Yet his desire to promote talented youngsters from the academy was well received by Abramovich, particularly as the Blues were unable to spend in the transfer market at that time.
Gilmour was not among the first beneficiaries of this shift in emphasis. Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham were immediately drafted into the starting XI by Lampard. Mount remains there two years on, while Abraham has found game time hard to come by since Thomas Tuchel took the reins in January 2021.
In Lampard’s only full season at the helm, numerous youth-teamers were handed their debuts. As well as Mount and Gilmour, Reece James, Tino Anjorin, Ian Maatsen, Tariq Lamptey and Marc Guehi were all given a chance to impress. Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, who had made their senior bows before Lampard’s appointment, became regular starters under the ex-England international.
In the end, Gilmour did not play as much under Lampard as he would have hoped. A combination of the first COVID-19 lockdown and a knee injury meant he did not feature again until December 2020. He appeared six more times under Lampard, who was relieved of his duties at the end of January. In came Tuchel, and doubt was immediately cast on how often Chelsea’s academy products would be used in the first team. His decision to place Mount on the bench for his first game in charge did not exactly assuage those concerns.
However, such worries – harboured by Chelsea fans and neutral onlookers alike – misjudged why Lampard was making use of Chelsea’s academy graduates. In part, of course, it was a point of principle. Football fans love nothing more than seeing youth-teamers become first-teamers, particularly if they are born locally. There is invariably more of a connection with such players, and Lampard was taking a long-term and holistic view when he decided to blood so many youngsters in the side.
But no manager, including Lampard, will pick young players for the sake of it. The likes of Mount, James and Abraham would not have been used so regularly if they were clearly not good enough for the Premier League. In the same respect, Tuchel was never going to discard useful players just because they did not cost £60m. Mount has kept his place in the starting line-up due to the fact he is one of Chelsea’s best players, not because he joined the club at the age of six.
Gilmour, too, was never going to be banished to the reserves simply because he is not as high-profile as some of his team-mates. Now 19 years of age (he turns 20 in June), the Scot has, at the time of writing, been involved in all three of Chelsea’s fixtures in May. Tuchel’s squad rotation amid participation in the FA Cup and Champions League has led to Gilmour starting Premier League matches against Fulham, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Still, the Scotland international might not be starting too many games for the Blues next season. Recent reports suggest Chelsea will loan him out for the 2021/22 campaign so he can get more first-team minutes under his belt. Tuchel blocked a temporary exit for the teenager in January, but he is now said to be willing to allow Gilmour to spend next season at another club.
“I wanted him to stay [in January] because he has a big impact in training games and his quality is obvious,” Tuchel explained. We are happy to have him and are absolutely ready to push him and support him on his way.
“First of all, I like him as a person. For me, he represents everything a young guy from the academy should represent when he arrives in the first team. He is humble. I feel that he’s happy to be here, that he’s living his dream. He’s ready to give everything to fulfil his dream. He gives me the impression that he doesn’t think, ‘this is the end of the road, now I’ve made it’.
“He gives me the exact right feeling, the exact perfect mix of being humble and being impatient and trying every training session to improve, to learn and not showing too much respect [to the older players].
“As a player, he has a lot of qualities. He is very self-confident in our training games, is very strong on the ball, is a very strong passer, and is very smart in finding positions.”
With Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante ahead of him in the midfield pecking order, a loan move is probably for the best. Chelsea see Gilmour as their player in the long-term, but a temporary spell elsewhere would only make him a better footballer. The Blues might seek to tie him down to a new deal before sanctioning his exit, though. Gilmour’s current contract runs until 2023 and Chelsea will not want to be put on the back foot if the Scot goes onto thrive in another team’s shirt in the 2021/22 campaign.
The midfielder is unlikely to be short of suitors should he be made available for a loan move this summer. Able to play at the base of midfield or in a more advanced role, Gilmour has a lot to offer. He is intelligent and technically gifted, comfortable receiving possession in tight areas, and an excellent passer. He also has awareness beyond his years; Gilmour always seems to know where he is in relation to the ball, his team-mates and his opponents.
There are areas of his game he will want to develop further. Gilmour is only 5ft 7in and slightly built, so he will never be a midfield enforcer. Regular first-team starts will help him get used to the physical rigour of the professional game, while he will also hope to improve his capacity to break up opposition attacks.
In the more immediate term, Gilmour has a Champions League final to look forward to. Chelsea will face Manchester City in Porto on May 29, and the young midfielder will be dreaming of getting on the pitch. In truth he is unlikely to be involved, but simply being a part of the travelling party will serve his development well.
Then comes the European Championship. Scotland have not participated at an international tournament since before Gilmour was born. But 23 years after their showing at the 1998 World Cup, Scotland will take part in the Euros this summer – and Gilmour was selected as part of Steve Clarke’s squad for the pan-continental competition.
Steve Clarke put his faith in youth, selecting both Gilmour as well a fellow 19 year old Nathan Patterson. Clarke had until now resisted the temptation to hand Gilmour a senior call-up even if Gilmour has made valuable contributions to the Scottish Under 21 team.
Scotland will host the Czech Republic at Hampden Park in Glasgow, head south of the border to Wembley to face England before going back to Hampden for the final encounter of the group stage against Croatia.
As a product of the Rangers academy, Gilmour is likely eager to display his talents in front of a Glasgow crowd.
The midfielder has yet to make his senior debut at international level, but it is only a matter of time before that changes. The expansion of Euro 2020 squads from 23 to 26 players as well as the injuries of Kenny McLean and Ryan Jack paved the way for Billy being included in the Scottish squad. Even if he is unlikely to start their first game against the Czechs, he must be thrilled to at least be part of the Scotland group.
Barry Ferguson's words to the Daily Record after his selection to the Scottish squad serves well as an indication of just how highly many think of Gilmour:
"And as for Gilmour? I’m going to describe him in one word: Beautiful.
I just love watching this kid play because there’s absolutely no fear to his game. This is a boy who left Glasgow at the age of 16 to move to the bright lights of London and who is now breaking into a Chelsea team packed full of guys worth seventy or eighty million quid.And yet he’s telling them how to play, demanding the ball off them in tight areas of the pitch and dictating the game from midfield. He’s just a beautiful football player and trust me, it won’t be long until Thomas Tuchel is building his entire team around him. That’s how special this lad is - he’s an absolute superstar in the making."
Whatever happens this summer, one thing is for certain: Gilmour is one of the most talented young players in the Premier League, and he has a bright future ahead of him.