The youngest of our players out on loan this season, Nathan Baxter, has been doing things a little differently from the norm. He joined Metropolitan Police in the Isthmian League at the start of the campaign, where he made 22 appearances, before moving to Solihull Moors in the National League in January.
Having been at Chelsea since the age of seven, it must have been a culture shock so we caught up with our teenage goalkeeper to discuss his development in non-league football in 2016/17...
You started the season as a 17-year-old in the seventh tier of English football. How did that come about?
It was something I had been thinking about for a while. As a goalkeeper at Chelsea, you don’t have a lot to do, you play out from the back and you play for a team at the top of the league so it can be difficult to take the step into league football where it’s a totally different game. I was with the first team in Los Angeles in the summer and Henrique Hilario told me he thought I was ready to play men’s football. I had finished last season well as a first-year scholar, made my Under-21s debut and played well in the FA Youth Cup so the club agreed it was a good step to take for my football development.
What were the main differences from the Chelsea Academy to Met Police?
You quickly realise at that level that no manager cares about the Youth Cup or the UEFA Youth League. All they care about is if you can help their team get three points. People were talking about the manager getting sacked and it hits you quickly that people’s livelihoods are on the line. If we kept a clean sheet, we all got a little bonus and that’s an extra bit of money that the lads can use to take their wife out for dinner during the week.
With all due respect, if I make a couple of mistakes and the youth team lose, Jody Morris isn’t going to lose his job so as a keeper it was good to experience that pressure and the impact on the dressing room. For the first time I was walking out on to the pitch knowing I was playing for the weaker team and that had never happened to me before.
What convinced you to start your senior career in the Isthmian League?
I spoke to one of the goalkeeper coaches in the Academy who plays at a similar level and also looked at players like Sunderland’s Jordan Pickford, who has played in every division. Part of the reason was to develop as a goalkeeper but it was also about getting the games under my belt so when I try to get a loan in the league, the manager can see I’ve played 100 non-league games on loan and I haven’t just come straight out of development football.
The programme at Met Police was part-time so I could still do a lot of my training at Chelsea. I could come into Cobham a few days a week and get the quality of training and the gym programme that you associate with a top club but still play twice a week on loan so that was a big benefit for me.
You played every week for Met Police and helped ease their relegation concerns.
I went into a team that hadn’t won a game and were bottom of the league but when I left they were four positions above the relegation zone and I felt I’d played a big part in that. I played more games there than in the whole of last season and in my first game I did more in five minutes that I would in about five youth team games. Just having people behind my goal was a new experience; whether it was 10 or 100, it’s still more than you have at a training ground.
The whole experience developed me on and off the pitch going into an environment with men in the dressing room and it gave me the platform to jump up to the National League after Christmas.
That was quite a mid-season change, advancing over 40 places in the English football pyramid…
It was a big step to jump up two leagues, to play against teams like Lincoln City and Sutton United who had been doing so well in the FA Cup. The whole game is a lot more professional at that level, with bigger crowds and more pressure because you’re playing against full-time professionals who give you that physicality but who are also good footballers.
I think there was more expectation on me to hit the ground running. At Met Police it was my first loan and I was a 17-year-old kid so perhaps I surprised a few people but I was competing for my place straightaway at Solihull with two other keepers, one who has played over 100 games in the Football League. It vindicated my time at Met Police because I wouldn’t have got a loan to the National League straight from the Chelsea Academy.
You mentioned developing yourself as a goalkeeper as a main motivation behind this campaign on loan. What have been the biggest improvements for you?
Playing at this level has given me a lot of confidence, even when I come back and train with the other Academy goalkeepers. It took me some time to adapt because I was so used to playing out from the back but my long kicking has improved, although I need a lot more recovery work and stretching on a Sunday because kicking 50 times a game is a lot different to five times.
As a keeper, you’re expected to communicate with the team and be the leader of the back four so that has been a challenge, as a teenager, to organise defenders who have played hundreds of games at that level. I’ve had to take a lot more crosses, learn to play big games every three or four days, but I feel like I’ve made a lot strides. Not a lot of people would have expected me to end the season playing in the National League and it’s a year I’ll look back on having learned so much.
Solihull are still fighting for survival in their first season in the National League with two games of the campaign remaining…
When you go on loan, the manager wants you to buy into it and really behave like you’re a part of the club. I want Solihull to stay up as much as anyone and it would be a fantastic achievement for the size of the club. Everyone behind the scenes has worked so hard to try to keep us in the league, we’d had some great results but now we need to finish the season off well and try to stay up.