He has spent half his young life at Chelsea, played in every England junior team and faces Italy tonight for the Under-21s with a European championship semi-final at stake. Then next season the challenge of getting first team football at Stamford Bridge begins anew for Nathaniel Chalobah.
The 20-year-old has been one of the brightest prospects in Chelsea’s academy since he joined the club from Fulham at the age of ten. At a club where the transition from the academy to the first team has proved beyond so many promising young footballers, Chalobah says that he believes the latest generation, who have won four FA Youth Cups at Under-18s level in the last six seasons, will at last make the breakthrough.
The dream at Chelsea is that a group of young players including Chalobah, fellow Under-21 Ruben Loftus-Cheek, as well as Dominic Solanke and Izzy Brown, can come through into Jose Mourinho’s first team together in the style of Manchester United’s “Class of ‘92”.
Chalobah has started both group games for Gareth Southgate’s Under-21s in the tournament in the Czech Republic and is expected to line up this evening in Olomouc against Italy. England must win to be assured of a semi-final place, although a draw will be enough if Sweden do not beat Portugal in the other group game.
Chalobah is already a veteran of five loan spells at five different clubs, although he is yet to make his first team debut for Chelsea, unlike Loftus-Cheek, who, at 19, made four first team appearances last season. “I have seen Ruben play this season and I am honestly so proud,” Chalobah said.
“It is so good to see players coming through and to see the likes of Dom Solanke and Izzy Brown. You look at that and say ‘Wow, it is possible’. I am so chuffed for Ruben and so happy for him that he had a chance to play next year and I hope he kicks on.”
Chalobah was born the season that United’s famous generation began breaking into the first-team at Old Trafford, and while he has seen part of “The Class of ‘92” documentary it is easy to forget that for many of these Under-21s that era in English football feels very distant. The concept, however, of homegrown kids making it into the first team is one that appeals to every generation. Could it happen again?
“Yes, definitely,” Chalobah said, “it’s a big club and United are a big club as well, and if they were able to do that I don’t see why Chelsea couldn’t. It’s about the right timing, being in the right place and getting the opportunity.”
He added: “Being at Chelsea, there will always be that coverage. You are always going to be in the limelight. It can be difficult if you get let it get to you. I have always had people around me who have kept me focussed. I have always kept my head down and try to concentrate on my football as much as I can. It has been a learning curve for me.”
Chalobah was part of the 2010 FA Youth Cup winning team at Chelsea when he was just 15. He was named on the substitute’s bench for Chelsea’s first team in a League Cup game at the same age by Carlo Ancelotti. His progress has been extraordinary through the youth age groups and now, at 20, he faces the final leap into first team Premier League football.
He spent the last five months of the previous season on loan at Championship strugglers Reading having failed to get much game-time on loan at Burnley under Sean Dyche. Previously he has been in the Championship at Watford, where he was part of the team that reached the play-offs in 2012-2013, and then Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough the following season.
There is no fixed plan yet for next season but Chalobah, who has a contract at Chelsea until 2018, is determined to make the breakthrough at his parent club. “I have been there for ten years now. I would love to say I came through and played however many games as a Chelsea player. It is still important to be learning, still important to be playing games. I have been doing that the last few years.”
Mourinho has said in the past that Chalobah will figure in his first team plans one day. “I have nothing bad to say about the manager,” Chalobah said. “It is all about opportunities. I respect his decisions, He sees it out there every day and he has decided where he stands. For me it is about trying to improve as much as I can and trying to kick on.
“It can be difficult at times. You do have difficult steps along the way. I have been on loan at Burnley and didn’t play as much as I would have wanted to but I take a lot of experience out of that … you open your eyes to a lot of things. You learn to deal with going away and stuff like that. I can’t complain.”
His England junior career has also been remarkable, with Chalobah consistently selected far above his age group. He made his Under-16s debut aged 13; his Under-17s debut aged 14 and his Under-21s debut in 2012 aged 17. He will still be eligible for the Under-21s at the 2017 European championships
“I can remember my first game in Victory Shield, in Ballymena, 6-0. I came on for the last 20 minutes … it has been very special ever since that day. I have tried to kick on and stay focussed, I look back at it now and I am in the Under-21s and one step away from the seniors. It’s always an honour to wear the shirt, it would be good for us to kick on now and really try to win it.”
He was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and his family moved to London in 2002. One of the new generation of British footballers he says his affiliation to England is a strong as any player in the squad. He was scouted playing in Norwood Junction, south London, near his family home in Gypsy Hill and was originally at Fulham before moving to Chelsea’s academy at the age of ten. “I go out there every game we play and leave everything out there and I do whatever it takes to win a game in an England shirt.”