Scotland’s £8m Brighton gem who could be pivotal in securing first win over England in 24 years
Billy Gilmour has enjoyed a promising start to the season for both club and country.
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Football has a real penchant for habitual cruelty. In a game defined by its beauty, there are moments - all too frequent - during which it shows itself to be in possession of an ugly, sadistic appetite for injustice. Just ask Billy Gilmour.
The diminutive midfielder - who bears more than a passing resemblance to a bronze medallist in a junior Pat Nevin lookalike contest - enjoyed a breakout tournament at Euro 2020 a couple of summers ago. Or at least he did until his breakout broke down. A positive Covid test was enough to pluck him out of Scotland’s crucial group stage decider against Croatia, and Steve Clarke’s men were unceremoniously dumped from the draw shortly thereafter. Would the Tartan Army have continued their march had Gilmour not been dragged into a tangle with the virus? Perhaps not, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt their chances.
You see, in the two games prior, Gilmour had started to exhibit some of the traits on the continental stage that had made him such an exalted prospect in Chelsea’s academy system; he loosed incisive passes, he disrupted opposition flows with cerebral calm, he glided across the turf like an ink blue air hockey puck. And nobody felt his impact more keenly than England.
It is easy to be facetious about the 0-0 draw that the two cantankerous neighbours played out at Wembley that evening - refer to it as a Scottish win in the name of cheap goading, ask whether it sufficiently cushioned the face plant of an exit at the first juncture. But the reality is that it was a hugely tenacious and stubborn showing from the visitors, and one that hinged largely on Gilmour’s precocious influence.
Nobody on the pitch won possession more times in the centre of the park, and only one other player seized the ball more frequently in the defensive third. Of his 40 completed passes, 22 came in England’s half, and his overall pass completion rate fell just a whisper shy of 91%. By pretty much any metric, or at least the ones that matter, this was a sublime performance - the kind that crackles with an epiphanic promise.
And then, of course, came the upsets in all of their various guises. Covid struck, a loan stint with Norwich City never truly took flight, and before the dust could properly find peace, Gilmour was hurried out to Brighton for a fee of around £8 million. If it felt like a steal at the time, it has since come to take on the hue of an absolute pittance.
Even on the south coast, it took the Scot some time to settle. In his debut season at the Amex he made just 14 Premier League appearances, and only half of those came from the first whistle. But times have changed, and as they have, Gilmour’s significance has burgeoned. Without Moises Caicedo looming over him, the 22-year-old (and it feels rather absurd that he is still so young) has established himself as a regular feature of Roberto De Zerbi’s engine room. Four games have yielded three starts in the aftermath of an opening day cameo, and there are signs that the midfielder is slowly prowling into the throes of a renaissance. Only centre-back Jan Paul van Hecke, with his name like an accident-prone action movie star, has recorded a higher average pass completion rate this term, and De Zerbi’s continued faith would suggest that he sees big things in Gilmour’s immediate future.
Evidently, his national team manager agrees too. Clarke has included the Albion talent in each of Scotland’s last three European Championship qualifying fixtures, and the most recent of those outings have been a pair of full caps in the heart of midfield. In short, it increasingly feels as if Gilmour’s time is now.
Then again, had you asked anybody associated with the England squad in the aftermath of that Wembley stalemate, they probably would have told you that his time had already arrived two summers ago. The Three Lions will, therefore, be wary of Gilmour - but perhaps now with better reason than ever before.