Even now, knowing what has happened since, there is something fresh and shocking to them. As you watch footage of the FA Youth Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester City, what strikes you above all is just how comfortable these miniature humans look with a ball at their feet, how effortlessly they bend the game to their will. The year is 2017, and Mason Mount and Phil Foden are facing each other on a football pitch for the first time.
Foden is just 16, and as soon as he gets the ball everything seems to speed up around him: those little whirring feet, the lethal bursts of acceleration, the quick first-time passes and skimming shots. “He wants to win the world and eat the world,” Pep Guardiola says of him now, and here you see the untreated version of that player: a kid in a tremendous hurry, fixated on the quickest route to his goal, and the goal.
Mount is a little older at 18, and as soon as he gets the ball everything seems to slow down: the sense of space being manipulated, pieces shifting around him, angles being calculated at processor speed. Unlike Foden he is not murderously fixated on goal: instead, he seeks to make himself available at all times: lurking, directing, dictating. It is when Chelsea lose possession, curiously, that he springs into life: snapping into action with the energy his childhood friend Declan Rice describes as like “a bumblebee in a jar”.
Chelsea’s youth team were rampant in those days, and after a 1-1 first-leg draw Mount’s Chelsea destroyed Foden’s City 5-1 in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. But the seeds of a rivalry had been sown.
And for all the subplots and meta-narratives winding themselves around Saturday’s Champions League final – the money, the super-coaches, the geopolitics – perhaps the real human heart of this game lies in midfield. Long before they had a clue about Pep Guardiola or Roman Abramovich or Abu Dhabi or the Teutonic pressing game, Mason Mount and Phil Foden were just academy kids with a baggy shirt and a dream. Now, aged 22 and 21, they will take the field in Porto for the biggest match of their lives so far.
Mount has been at Chelsea since the age of six, the club’s first genuine home-grown superstar since John Terry. Foden joined City at the age of four, the Stockport prodigy who already has his heart set on becoming a club legend. And perhaps the first thing to say here is that none of this was inevitable. Often when we tell these stories with the benefit of hindsight they feel predestined: the stunning childhood feats, the doting parents, the youth-team coach who asserts that “right from the very start, he was destined for the top”.
The truth is, you just don’t know. You only have to look at the team sheets from that Youth Cup final for proof of that. City’s left-back Tyreke Wilson now plays for Bohemians in the League of Ireland. Centre-half Ed Francis is now at Harrogate Town. Chelsea striker Ike Ugbo is now in Belgium on his fifth loan. These were some of the highest-rated teenagers in English football just a few years ago; the pinnacle of all the pinnacles that came before. Still, it wasn’t quite enough.
So why did these two make it? Simply put, they kept improving, and then improving some more, until it became impossible to ignore them. Even now Foden remains one of City’s most compulsive, exhaustive trainers, the sort of player who long after a session is over will continue to obsess over the most minor of details: body shape, running gait, how far to let the ball roll before controlling it and which part of the foot to use.
Mount’s approach has been built around eroding any trace of weakness. Early on he strove to compensate for his relative lack of size by working tirelessly on the physical side of his game, opting for a season in the Championship with Derby County over another foreign loan. These days he is keenly aware of his need to be more ruthless in front of goal, perhaps the only remaining flaw in a game that is remarkably well-rounded for a player of his age.
Even then, talent and hard work and obsession are not always enough on their own. You need a little luck too, and for Foden his great fortune was to spend his graduate years under the tutelage of the world’s greatest coach. Guardiola has grafted new levels of maturity on to Foden’s game, teaching him above all the value of timing and patience, of folding his own restless desire into the needs of the team around him.
For Mount, the arrival of Frank Lampard and Chelsea’s 2019 transfer ban gave him an opportunity many of his talented predecessors never enjoyed: the chance to get games under his belt, take responsibility on the ball, build a role in an emerging team. “I will not stop pushing him and I will not stop guiding him and I will not stop trusting him,” his new manager Thomas Tuchel has said, and perhaps it is only now, under the aegis of a genuine world-class coach, that Mount’s full potential is being realised.
What does it mean for these young men to be playing a Champions League final against each other, beyond a vindication of their own talent and the system that bred them? Perhaps it is to remind us that even in this disorienting, dislocated era of modern football, when clubs have never felt less tethered to place, a world defined by turbulence and flux, there is still a simple power in the tale of the local hero. And as these two brilliant young English midfielders prepare to take their rivalry to the next level, they remain bound by a common and unbroken thread: the journey that took them from the back garden and the academy pitch to the very grandest stage of all.