In the latest interview in our series highlighting the development of Chelsea players out on loan, we hear from Ike Ugbo, who is spending the season in the Netherlands at Roda JC...
Ugbo has made an impressive start to life in Dutch second division. Only two players have scored more league goals than the 21-year-old so far this campaign in the second tier, so the official Chelsea website felt it was a good time to catch up with the young striker to discuss his first loan spell abroad, dealing with the pressure of leading the attack and working closely with a former Blues centre-forward.
Ugbo signed for Chelsea as an Under-10 and spent much of his formative years in our Academy playing in a number of different positions. It was only at the age of 15 that he nailed down a spot up front and his goalscoring record for our youngsters was impressive as he helped fire us to junior silverware.
His 10 goals in the 2016/17 FA Youth Cup, including six in the semi-final and final, were a key part of Jody Morris’s side retaining the trophy, while he also picked up a winner’s medal in the UEFA Youth League and Under-18 Premier League. After loans in the Championship and League One, it was announced this summer that he would be spending the 2019/20 season at Roda JC. They are currently 13th and Ugbo has scored 45 per cent of their league goals.
Firstly Ike, how are you finding life in the Netherlands? This is your fourth loan but a first abroad…
I’m really enjoying it. I feel like it’s one of the best starts I’ve had to a loan and you can see that with my performances and goals.
You’ve played in the Championship and League One, as well as many years in the Chelsea Academy, but how does life in the Dutch league compare to those experiences?
It’s really different, more technical and there’s a lot of that kind of stuff that I have to focus on. The physical side is not as much and we don’t have as many games, we don’t play twice a week as often, so it’s really bringing out a different side to my game.
Does that extra time in the week give you an opportunity to work on some of the technical parts of your game then?
Yeah, definitely. It’s only going to benefit me at the start of my career and to become better with that side of the game.
You’ve joined a club in Roda JC who have been Eredivise regulars for most of the last 50 years but who were relegated in 2018. What’s it like playing for them?
They got relegated two seasons ago but they’re still a big club in this division so there’s a bit of pressure on all of us and on me as well, to try to score as many goals as possible. I like that kind of pressure because it shows we want to push to get promoted back to the Eredivise. As the months have gone on, we’ve improved with our performances against the top sides and we’re showing everyone that we should be back in the first division.
You talk about pressure on the team and yourself individually as the leading striker, which must be a challenge?
I had time at the start of the season to get used to everything and adapt but everyone here has helped me adapt quickly. Now I’m thriving off being the main number nine and I’m just happy to do my best and try to get the goals.
Speaking of goals, you have nine already this season, which is your best scoring return from any previous loan spell in England.
Starting off this season, I knew I had to showcase myself and show people the skills and qualities that I have, especially after the last loan spells where I didn’t achieve the performances that I wanted. I feel I’ve started the season well.
I’m aiming to get 20 goals, keep going, keep the performances up. I’ve had two seasons now where I haven’t shown my best so I want to just finish the season strong and be in a good place.
Your previous loans have been at Barnsley, MK Dons and Scunthorpe United, where goals and appearances have sometimes been harder to come by.
Those loans taught me a lot and they’ve made me turn into more of a man to be honest. When I went on my first loan from the Under-23s to the Championship, it was a big jump and I was a bit disappointed as a striker not getting the goals that I wanted. The best thing for me at the start of this season was coming abroad, showing what I’ve learned on my previous loans and showing the qualities that I still have.
You have former Chelsea striker Tore Andre Flo as your loans mentor as well. How important has his support been to you?
Tore has been working with me since my first loan so he’s seen everything over the past couple of years and he’s really pleased with me right now. It’s great as a striker to have him on hand. He’s always giving me tips and advice after all my games, and pointing out things I need to work on to push myself to get to the next level.
Give us an example of the kind of advice he’s given you recently?
From my last loans, one of the things I wanted to really work on was my anticipation. I think now I’ve improved on it a lot and it’s not so much of a weakness. The area I’m focusing on now is the aerial side of the game. I want to get more goals from set-pieces so that’s something I’m working on now and Tore helps me with that.
The Eerste Divisie, Dutch football’s second tier, features a mix of established clubs like Roda alongside the B teams of clubs like Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. How important is that in giving you a different test from week to week?
When we play the younger teams it’s a bit like Under-23s football but they’re all exciting, young players so it’s a different side of the game. I remember when we used to play in the EFL Trophy at Chelsea so I know how they’re playing and what they’re trying to do.
It’s been a mixed start to the season for the team but you’re still only four points off the play-offs. Is that the aim for this campaign?
We didn’t start the season too well but as time has gone on, we’ve been producing better performances and the manager is aiming for us to go for the top position so the play-offs is the least we should aim for really.
How have you found life off the pitch in the Netherlands so far?
It’s really different out here but it’s good for me to mature. I’m trying to learn a new language and seeing new faces completely different from London - I’m just really enjoying it at the moment.
Of course, you’re not the first young Chelsea player to spend time on loan in the Netherlands. Mason Mount, who you grew up with in the same Academy age group, was at Vitesse for a year and his development since then must be encouraging for you?
When I watched Mason go to Vitesse and what he did out there, to see how he’s developed to become the player he is now, it’s obviously really positive. It shows me what I can gain from being out here as well to improve in my game.
Mason is not the only one of your former Academy team-mates to make an impact at senior level for club and country in recent months. As friends as well as colleagues, you must be delighted to see the progress of Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James?
I’m really pleased for them, especially because a lot of people didn’t really expect them to do as well as this. They’ve taken their opportunities and have shown the qualities they have so it’s something for me to look up to as well.
All I can do is just work hard and show my qualities. Hopefully that is good enough and obviously my aim is to come back to Chelsea and work my way into the squad as well.