Big Interview: Nathaniel Chalobah
Nathaniel Chalobah discusses his move to England as a child, how he spent his time between spells at Vicarage Road, and his closest friends in the game, in the latest self-penned programme feature.
I grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but I don’t really have many memories from back then. I went back there this summer and it was just an eye opener; there’s real poverty over there. I hear some of the stories and my Dad tells me bits and pieces here and there. There was too much to fit in whilst I was there but I went to landmarks and visited family. They were shocked to see me because they hadn’t seen me since I was young. They told me stories about how I always had a football in my hand and would run around and kick the ball about. When you hear stories like that it makes you think that it was meant to be. I moved to England when I was seven and football made the move easier. I spoke Krio, which is kind of broken English, so I could speak fluent English pretty quickly. I would always go and find a football at break times at school and play with my mates. When people started to comment on my ability it made me more confident and I grew as a person.
When my brother Trevoh was younger I used to take him to play for his local team and watch him play. We grew up on Gypsy Hill and we didn’t really have age groups for teams there, so we would play on the same team together. I’m very proud of him and I’m also happy with the fact that he’s enjoying his football and trying to make a name for himself. His development had been crazy at Chelsea and then he had this spurt where he shot up and turned into a beast. He made the bench for the 2018 FA Cup final under Antonio Conte, which was a special moment too. I had the same type of pathway of going out on loan and trying to showcase myself. He’s on loan at Huddersfield at the moment. He’s doing the right things and going about it the right way.
I played with Fitz Hall in my first spell here on loan in 2012/13. Our relationship kicked off right from the start. I was playing holding midfield and I had a 6’4” Fitz Hall stood right behind me! He was like a father figure at the time because I was only a 17 or 18-year-old and he took me under his wing. We had Nyron Nosworthy, Manuel Almunia, Troy Deeney and Jonathan Hogg – these are big personalities in the changing room. Fitz showed me the ropes and was a more relaxing character. He was a big part of our team that year. We lived in the same block of flats as well, so he would call me around for dinner. He still looks after me now so he’s like the big brother I never really had. We speak every day now and I spoke to him when I left and when he was coming to the end of his career. Fitz is well respected in the industry, he’s a good guy and known for that. Like I’ve said, I like to keep myself around positive people and he is exactly that.
When you’re in Naples there’s one team and that’s Napoli, so playing there for a year was really intense. They love football over there – the city just breathes football. Everyone’s invested in that one club and that one team. It was really intriguing going around the place day-to-day and it was difficult always being recognised. You could be at dinner and someone would always come over and ask you for a picture. It was full on but I really enjoyed it and it’s a great city. The people out there are lovely people as well. It was a time for me where I really embraced the culture and the change. Tactically I learned a lot whilst I was there but it was also about life in general. The players there that I was playing with were top, top players. They came in every day and just enjoyed themselves. That changed my mentality in terms of my approach to football in general. I fell more in love with football over there because everyone was invested in it and the build-up to games was quite exciting.
It was incredible to play with the players at Napoli. That season we had Higuaín, whose finishing was unbelievable. I learned a lot from the midfielders that were there too, like Allan, Marek Hamsik and Jorginho. I remember looking at these players and thinking ‘Wow’. They didn’t just turn up every now and then, it was every single day. It was just fantastic to be a part of it. I still speak to Dries Mertens quite a lot and I saw him recently down in London. I speak to Kalidou Koulibaly every now and then too and bump into him sometimes. They’re really good guys over there. In some ways it was a difficult time for me and I was quite unlucky, but it was a great experience and a good learning curve for me.
Playing at the San Paolo was incredible. Maurizio Sarri was very particular with how his team played, so it took me a while to settle because I got there after they had their pre-season and I also had to learn the language. My first Europa League game was away at Club Brugge and then we played against Legia Warsaw at the San Paolo, where I scored. It was a special moment for me to score in front of the Napoli fans who had supported me so much at the time when I wasn’t playing. It felt like it was my way of giving back to them. After you score they announce your name and say it a few times and it was like a block of noise. It was surreal really. I watched the announcer Deci [Daniele Bellini] on YouTube when I joined and when he said my name over the mic it was quite special.
I knew Domingos Quina at Chelsea but because we were in different age groups we couldn’t really build a proper relationship. When I was at training in the Chelsea reserves and Domingos came to train I thought, ‘that boy is some talent’. Then when he joined Watford, the first thing I said to the kit-man was, ‘make sure he doesn’t sit too far away from me’. It is always going to be challenging coming into a changing room of people you don’t know, so because he knew me I think it made it easier. We get on like a house on fire. He’s like my little brother and it’s the same with Kane Crichlow. We go out for food and we go shopping in London sometimes. He’s got an older head on his shoulders, even though he can never stop laughing most of the time. His laugh is contagious and he does it every single minute. I like to keep myself around positive people and Dom is definitely one of them.
I met our Under-23 player Kane Crichlow in pre-season for the first time and funnily enough we kind of built a relationship based on the PlayStation. Domingos and I play Fortnite together and being stuck in a hotel you need to entertain each other. Kane said he played too and brought along his PlayStation, so we just socialised around that really. He was a good guy and a friend of mine. When he had his injury and I realised he was out here from Bermuda on his own and didn’t have any family around, I decided he could come and stay with me. He’s polite and well-mannered and was very respectful living with me and meeting a lot of my family and friends. We try to enjoy ourselves as much as we can at home because we are happy people so we play a lot of music. There’s a lot of dance moves and things that he’s still trying to figure out to this day! He’s very reserved and mellow but when you get to know him he comes out of his shell. It was good for me because the first week he was there he was quiet and didn’t say anything but by the time he was going to leave he was very chatty and energetic.