Soccer City, John McLaughlin and Andres D'Alessandro - the Portsmouth story behind Mason Mount's rise into Chelsea and England stardom
The collective might of Chelsea Football Club had assembled within Battersea Evolution.
The May 2017 gala dinner signified a glittering Sunday evening finale to a Premier League title-winning campaign for Antonio Conte’s exceptional side.
The architects of that Chelsea triumph were present as hosting duo Jeremy Vine and comedian Omid Djalili summoned award recipients to the stage, invitations extended to Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante.
Then arrived the unveiling of the Academy Player of the Year – Mason Mount.
‘Mace was 18, he had been captain of the side which won the FA Youth Cup and played regularly for the under-23s – and was called up on stage,’ said dad Tony.
‘He received the trophy from Jody Morris and the first thing said to him by Jeremy Vine was “You’ve been here since the age of six, obviously you’re a big Chelsea fan”.
‘To which Mason replied: “Well actually I’m not, I’m a Portsmouth boy, so I support Portsmouth”.
‘The audience loved it, they clapped him and cheered. It was in front of the Chelsea first team, Antonio Conte, everyone from the club – and he said that.
‘I thought “Fair play to you, boy!”. You don’t hide that fact, why would you want to? He’s proud and has seen us play some great games over the years.
‘After the 2008 FA Cup final, I turned to Mace and said “Make the most of this, it will be the last time you watch Pompey play at Wembley in my lifetime”. We were back two years later and it was against Chelsea.
‘The academy boys were each offered four tickets, but Mace turned them down, he wanted to be sat among Pompey fans.
‘I’ll always remember the Chelsea boys afterwards giving him a bit of stick, to which he responded: “Yes, you did win, but I bet you wish you were among our fans at our end, they were much louder than Chelsea”.
‘He was a little bit torn for that game. He has a massive allegiance to Chelsea, but Mace is a Pompey fan, no two ways about it.’
Last month, Mount became the seventh Portsmouth-born player to represent England.
Of that distinguished list, only Reg Flewin and Peter Harris have achieved such recognition while affiliated with their home-town club.
In the instances of Ray Crawford, Steve Foster, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Ward-Prowse and, of course, Mount, selection arrived while serving in the top flight with others.
Despite his affection for the Blues, Mount has been associated with Stamford Bridge since the age of six, having been spotted on his debut for Boarhunt – a local youth side coached by two-time Pompey promotion-winning right-back John McLaughlin.
Dad, Tony, spent 16 years involved in non-league management, starting as a player-boss at Horndean, then overseeing Havant Town, and finally Newport Isle of Wight, before stepping away to focus on his son’s career.
And he admits he was initially reticent over letting the former Purbrook Park School pupil link up with Chelsea.
Mount senior said: ‘Mace had an absolute passion for football, he wouldn’t go anywhere without a ball, wouldn’t even go to bed without a ball! So I started taking him to Soccer City at Fareham on a Saturday morning when he was five.
‘I remember them telling me he had to be six to start, so I lied and told them he was. “Cor, he’s little,” they said. I replied “Yes, he’s a little six”. Luckily I didn’t have to show a birth certificate!
‘After a while, one of the parents asked me if Mace wanted to play for a team outdoors. I thought “Do you know what, he is loving it and you can play indoors all you want, but it’s not like playing outside on grass on a cold, wet Sunday morning”.
‘So he joined Boarhunt, a mini-soccer team coached by former Pompey defender John McLaughlin, who was brilliant with the boys, a tremendous coach.
‘The first tournament we played was in Gosport and after it had finished, with us winning it, a man I recognised approached me and it was Rob Winzar, a former Gosport Borough player, but now scouting for Chelsea.
‘He asked: “Is that number 7 your boy?” When I confirmed it was, I mentioned I thought Mace was a bit young.
‘Rob replied: “Yeah, we take them young, we take them at six”. I had no idea.
‘He wanted Mace to go to Chelsea’s Cobham development centre on a Friday night – no chance. On those nights I used to run a soccer school at Chichester with one of my ex-players, John Price, and it clashed.
‘He’d just had his first game on grass, he was too young, I wanted him to enjoy it, not getting involved in all that. Rob had my number and said hopefully I would change my mind.
‘The next thing I know, Rob had invited the whole Boarhunt team, through the chairman, to play in a festival two months later, so they could have a look at everyone. The rest is history.
‘Afterwards, Mace came over and told me Chelsea wanted three or four of them to return on a Friday night. “Can I go, can I go?” he asked. They had got him – it was very clever!’
Inevitably Mount, who grew up in Claremont Gardens, Purbrook, before later moving to Denmead, was widely coveted.
At under-eight level, he was invited to attend a trial night at Southampton’s Marchwood training ground, proceeding to score 14 goals. Yet he declined follow-up interest in favour of pursuing his Chelsea option.
There were also 18 months at Pompey’s development centre, time spent training alongside his Cobham commitments, while also continuing to turn out for Boarhunt, who later merged with United Services.
Yet upon the offer of under-nine terms to enter Chelsea’s academy system, Mount had a sole focus.
‘Within three months of training with Chelsea, a teacher from St Peter’s Catholic Primary School in Purbrook approached my wife and mentioned they had a chaplain associated with the school who had recommended Mace to Pompey,’ added Tony.
‘I soon received a phone call from Dave Wright, who worked in their development centre with Steve Martin, and they invited Mace to train with them on a Monday night at Admiral Lord Nelson School.
‘So he was training with Pompey on Mondays, Chelsea on Fridays, United Services on a Saturday morning and playing in the Portsmouth kids league on a Sunday.
‘He loved it under Dave and Steve and I tried to keep him in there for as long as possible. There wasn’t a league so they played a few friendlies and festivals, I remember going up to Southampton University and Mace put on the Pompey kit and absolutely loved it.
‘Then, at the age of eight, he was able to enter the academy structure and, to be fair to Dave Wright, he had long said there was definitely a place in Pompey’s set-up.
‘I appreciated that, but Chelsea wanted him, too. I can’t say it was a hard decision, my heart would have wanted Pompey, but the quality at Chelsea was unbelievable in comparison, I am talking quality of training, not just facilities, the level of boys he was training with was so high.
‘We were fortunate. If Chelsea weren’t going to offer anything then we had the fall back of Pompey, which was never going to be a negative from our point of view.
‘To be fair to Pompey, Mark Kelly came around our house with Peter Storrie, trying to convince us to put pen to paper, but you can’t let your heart rule your head in those circumstances.
‘We asked Mace what he thought. He told us he wanted to sign for Chelsea.’
Agonisingly, Mount has still to play at Fratton Park at any level, yet has now turned out three times at St Mary’s during 2019 alone.
There was a penalty shoot-out victory with Derby in the FA Cup in January, while he marked his second England outing with a seven-minute cameo from the bench against Kosovo in September.
Then there was scoring Chelsea’s second in the 4-1 defeat of Southampton earlier this month, a sweet moment for any Pompey supporter to treasure.
Tony said: ‘We would often drive from Chelsea Academy training to Fratton Park to watch matches and Mason’s first hero was Andres D’Alessandro, he fell in love with him the moment he saw him. He was in awe and wanted to be like him.
‘I’m really good friends with Kev McCormack and one day Kev asked who Mace’s favourite player was – and he came back with a shirt signed by him. He still has it, ready to hang on the wall at his new home.
‘I recall going with him to a game and promising he could afterwards have a Pompey shirt with the name of player on the back.
‘He chose Gary O’Neil. Mace liked how he was a fellow midfielder, all over the park, box-to-box, and when we bought it he wouldn’t take it off. The next day the Portsmouth News ran a story that O’Neil had been sold to Middlesbrough!
‘When he was on loan at Derby last season, Mace scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win over a Bolton team which contained O’Neil. I told him to approach Gary and ask for the money back for that shirt!
‘Southampton fans know he’s a Pompey boy, they made him aware they knew that earlier this month. Mace spent most of the game listening to their stick, so his goal celebration was about letting them know.
‘After all, he’s Pompey.’