Dujon Sterling has been a regular for Coventry City in his first season out on loan, and we caught up with the 19-year-old to hear about his development on and off the pitch.
Sterling, who made his Chelsea debut in September 2017, has already played 34 times for the Sky Blues this season, most often at right-back. He has been one of Coventry’s best performers, impressing with his defensive solidity as well as the attacking threat we have long witnessed at Chelsea.
In this revealing interview Sterling explains what he has learned about senior football, discusses the excitement of working with Adi Viveash again, and says why an escape room could be the key to Coventry’s late charge for the play-offs…
How has your first loan been going?
It was a bit of a struggle at the start. It wasn’t really bad but it was very different. There was a lot to adapt to in men’s football and it was hard.
After a couple of bad games I turned a corner, and the learning I was doing on the pitch and off the pitch with Adi Viveash and Mark Robins helped me to play well. They gave me confidence and I have had a lot of good games since.
This loan has made me more of a man, on and off the pitch, mentally as well. There have been tough times and I’ve had to deal with it. Also it’s been good just getting back to playing my football and showing off what I can do to all the fans, and getting the recognition I am in this league.
In what ways has it been different?
The style of football is very different, but also off the pitch. I have never lived by myself before. I never had to do that in my life. So growing up as a person, maturing, has been the main thing for me.
And what about the physical demands of playing every three days?
At the start it was a bit hard because I didn’t have a lot of game-time last season. Coming into this season it felt different. I could do it on the Saturday, but I would need four days to recover to play the next Saturday, but I would still play on the Tuesday as well, even if I wasn’t 100 per cent ready to go. That was a big part of me not playing to my full potential at the start of the season. Now I am used to it, I can do it all the time.
Considering the game-load you have had to undertake, has that made you take extra care of yourself?
Yeah. I have changed my diet a bit. Even changing juice for water. I drink a lot of water now. There are also other things I work on, trying to get a lot of sleep, at least 10 hours a night.
At Chelsea we were used to seeing you at wing-back, but this season you’ve mostly been playing full-back. What’s that been like?
It’s been alright. I don’t have a preference, whether it’s right-back, wing-back, or on the wing. I can play anywhere as we know from my Academy days. This season I have played right-wing, right-back, left-back. Managers know they can trust me to play in a lot of positions.
What aspects of your game have you been working on this season?
Definitely aerial duels. I didn’t used to head the ball a lot. Coming into this league a lot of goalkeepers kick the ball towards the sides. It’s just knowing when to time your jump, and to make sure you get good contact to get height and distance on the header.
What I have been learning from Mark Robins, my manager, is that even if I can’t win it, make sure you’re in a position where you can affect your opponent so he doesn’t get a good header. Even if it’s a 6ft 5in striker who has come out wide to head it, you can still get yourself in a position to block him off while he’s trying to run inside you.
I’ve been trying to do the same things every game and causing problems for other teams, not just going forward but defensively: make their wingers have a tough time. A lot of the wingers I have played against have been taken off on 60 minutes because they’re not getting anything done against me.
You mention causing problems for teams going forward. What aspects of your attacking game have benefitted this season?
I always think I have had the final-third stuff, but a lot of work I do on the training pitch is whipping in crosses. My crossing has improved a lot. I am accustomed to the one-v-one stuff, but I have been finding different ways to get to the byline, and making sure I lift my head up and pick the right option. That has been the main thing for me.
Adi Viveash is a man we know well at Chelsea and is now the assistant at Coventry…
It’s been really good. When he called me in the summer and convinced me to come to Coventry it was a no-brainer. I didn’t play much last season, which was frustrating but also a good learning experience being with the first team a lot.
My best football at Chelsea was when I was working with Adi for two years. That’s when I was a beast on the pitch. I knew to get back to my best I had to come and work with him again.
This season he has helped my understanding of the game and how to work on the pitch. Me and Adi look at my clips quite a lot. Little stuff like him saying I could’ve been two yards this way which would’ve helped me to block off the pass and make sure I could still get out to the guy. Things like that help a lot.
What’s it been like playing in front of big crowds at Coventry?
The fans are terrific. I’ve never heard a set of fans who scream and shout and sing as long as they do, especially away games. They always travel in numbers. They get the allocated tickets but they always have to give us more because they sell out straightaway. It’s a credit to the fans and we want to always try and put on a good performance for them.
Our average at home is about 15,000, the highest we’ve got this season is 30,000. It’s really good playing in front of all those fans.
When I came in, I took the right-back position from a fan’s favourite, so there was that at the start of the season. Since I’ve been playing well I haven’t really got any stick from any fans, they just say they wish I could stay for another season. It’s been really enjoyable playing in the stadium, under floodlights, on TV. Hopefully we can push on and get into the play-offs.
How have things gone for the team on the pitch this year?
It’s been really good. We’re young, we always get told our average age is 21-and-a-half, 22, something like that, so it was always going to be difficult. We don’t have a lot of experience compared to other teams, but we brought in David Meyler in January which has helped. He has played over 100 Premier League games, has play-off medals, and he has helped us since he’s come in and we’ve had a push for the play-offs. We’re six points behind, but we’ve recently drawn at Luton and Barnsley, the top two, and we could have won those games if we’d taken our chances.
We never used to do team bonding which showed at the start of the season, but earlier this week we went to an escape room. We had one hour to get out and we had to work as a team. We had to find all the different clues, all the keys. It was a good thing to do. It helped us communicate and also have an enjoyable time. When we are on the pitch we can do the same thing.
Did you make it out?!
Yeah, with seconds to go!
How have you found League One football?
Quite a few teams play passing football, like Coventry do. Sometimes you get a really good standard of game. Most teams have a big striker and go direct into him and have runners off it.
I’m obviously a lot smaller than most people, and a lot of players are built as well. They have filled out but I haven’t because I’m still young. The standard of the league has been alright and there are some top players in it.
What are your aspirations for the rest of the season?
For me personally I just want to end the season on a high, whether that’s in terms of getting more assists, or in terms of doing stuff that makes me stand out. It can set me up for a good season next season.
As a team we have never really talked about getting in the play-offs. Our manager says there is no pressure on us. It’s the other teams we are playing at the minute that have all the pressure. That’s why we are playing really well at the moment, especially against the big teams.
What level in the game do you think you can achieve now you’ve done well at League One level?
If the manager at Chelsea wants me to be around the first team, that would be the ideal situation. At the end of day what you want to do is play for Chelsea.
But if not this summer then definitely a Championship loan, because I need to make the step up to continue progressing as a footballer. We will see where it goes when I am back in for pre-season.