After years spent taking pride in the success of his close friends Mason Mount and Declan Rice, Dan Kemp is reflecting on the best season of his career - even if it ultimately ended in disappointment.
Mount, Kemp and Rice were all born within the space of a week in January 1999, and formed a formidable midfield group within Chelsea's youth ranks. However, while his peers played in UEFA competitions this season, the 24-year-old has suffered relegation while on loan at Hartlepool.
If that sounds like failure, though, it shouldn't do. After a difficult few years, the midfielder - who spent time around West Ham 's first team with Rice has been playing some of the best and most consistent football of his career and still has plenty of time to climb the pyramid.
While Mount has already won the Champions League with Chelsea, Rice now has the chance to claim a European trophy of his own as he captains West Ham against Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League final. When he made his debut back in 2017, though, he and Kemp were equals.
After a difficult start to life at the London Stadium, West Ham had secured their Premier League safety before a final-day trip to Burnley. Manager Slaven Bilic used the opportunity to name a youthful bench, with Kemp, Rice and fellow academy talent Moses Makasi on the bench, but Rice was the only one of the three to make it onto the pitch.
"That was a great day," Kemp tells Mirror Football . "It was my first experience of the Premier League and just seeing what it's all about. The whole trip, really, travelling the night before on the plane and staying overnight in a hotel before the last game of the season. It was incredible, really. Obviously to spend it with your best mate and to see him make his debut, it was incredible.
"I think he came on in the 93rd minute - we were both warming up and both waiting to see who was going to get the call, and when I saw it was him I was buzzing for him. Obviously to see him make his debut was incredible and it was a great moment that I was there with him when he did."
Speculation remains that the upcoming final will by Rice's final game with West Ham. During the World Cup, he made the point that "you only get one career", and the England international is wanted by Champions League clubs, but it would be some way to go out.
Similarly, Mount could be on the move this summer. The Chelsea man has one year left on his current deal and has been linked with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool as the Blues look to refresh their squad under new manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Kemp still remains in regular contact with his old team-mates, even as his own career has gone down a different path. A cruciate ligament rupture came at the worst possible time, with the youngster having got on the verge of the Hammers' first team while also representing England's under-20 side, and he would eventually leave East London without making a first-team appearance.
A spell down the road at Leyton Orient followed, before Kemp made the switch to current club MK Dons in January 2022. As the Dons battled against relegation this term - unsuccessfully, in the end - the midfielder was given the chance to get minutes under his belt with League Two strugglers Hartlepool.
Keith Curle's side had just 12 points from their first 20 games, and spent the entire season in relegation trouble. However, with a career-best return of nine goals in just 16 games, Kemp gave them hope before they eventually fell short under Curle's successor John Askey.
"When I joined Hartlepool it was almost a given that the club would be relegated, the position they were in and how far adrift we were when I joined," he says. "But then to get some of the results we got and put ourselves in a position where it was looking like being possible to stay up was obviously great, and then that the club ultimately got relegated was also disappointing,
"But as an individual, from the limited game time I had at the start of the season to finishing the season and having a second half of the season like I did, it was really pleasing," he adds, thanking Curle and Askey, who he says enabled him to " go out there and play with freedom ".
"As an individual it's probably been my best season goals and assists wise and the way I finished the second half of the season with the individual awards I was able to get but also some of the memories I've had. It was good, but at the same time I had difficult moments."
Next up for Kemp is a return to Milton Keynes, where he will rejoin a side now preparing for League Two football after a final day relegation last term. Manager Mark Jackson was dismissed after eight winless games at the end of the season sent them down, with new boss Graham Alexander set to assess his squad ahead of the new campaign.
Before all that, though, Kemp he will be cheering on good friend Rice in Europe. It's the culmination of an eventful journey for the Hammers captain, who was released by Chelsea as a teenager in a move which shocked Kemp and his team-mates at the time.
"It was a massive shock to all of the boys in that age group," he recalls. "I remember on the day, we all got the phone calls. I think my dad spoke to his dad and just presumed we'd both got a new deal.
"Then I remember him getting off the phone and my dad saying Dec's been released and I was like 'what?'. I was so confused, I couldn't get my head around it.
"Obviously speaking to Declan he was gutted and took it really hard, but ultimately, and I've said this a few times, it's probably the best thing that could have happened to him. It made him even more determined to prove people wrong, and ultimately it looks like a crazy decision [from Chelsea] now off the back of what he's done."
Kemp also has time for David Moyes, despite the West Ham boss being the manager who let him leave the London Stadium. He insists the Scot, as well as Bilic and Manuel Pellegrini, was always "really good" with him during his time with the club.
The sight of his friends in a final is nothing new, either. Rice and Mount were both part of the England squad which reached the final of Euro 2020, and Kemp remains grateful that he was able to watch them live during that tournament.
It's the kind of thing they could have only dreamed of while coming through as schoolboys at Chelsea. Kemp maintains they didn't get ahead of themselves during those days, simply living in the moment, but he isn't surprised these moments keep coming.
"You don't really talk about that as boys, really," he says. "You're just enjoying it.
"You've all got your individual ambitions but it's just more about enjoying it whilst it's happening, not looking too far ahead because it's so unpredictable - even now you can't predict too far ahead. It was more about being so lucky you're all playing in the same team. Because we played in the same positions, as well - it was us three in midfield - it was just enjoyable in general.
"We didn't look too far ahead in that aspect, but for me especially, with them two, I always knew they'd play at the top level. You just get these feelings as a player, you play so much football against good players and bad players of all different level and them two were always the two that stood out.
"The fact that they could have a great career and play at the top, you just always had that feeling."2023-06-07T06:12:23Z dg43tfdfdgfd