Nathan Baxter is the latest subject of our series where we speak to one of our players out on loan and the young goalkeeper explains how he’s adjusted to life in Scotland and reflects on his unique journey up the football pyramid.
A pre-season shoulder injury disrupted his start to the campaign just weeks after his latest loan move to newly-promoted Scottish Premier League side Ross County but Baxter has returned to fitness and to the Staggies side, playing 14 games in a row including away at Rangers and Celtic.
The 21-year-old is now at his fifth loan club after working his way up from non-league with Met Police, Solihull Moors and Woking into League Two at Yeovil Town. He has over 135 senior appearances to his name already and was recently featured in our new ‘Life on Loan’ film, which you can watch below.
As he targets a strong end to the season north of the border, the official Chelsea website decided it was a good time to catch up with a keeper who has been with us since the age of eight.
Nathan, let’s start by reflecting on that pre-season injury…
‘It was obviously really disappointing to pick up an injury just two weeks into pre-season. Pretty much since I’ve been on loan, I’ve been injury-free and played almost every week so it was really tough at the start of the season to not have that excitement at 3pm on a Saturday.
‘Ross County were good with me and they tried to keep me involved with the boys. I went up to watch a lot of the games and it was important that I did that so I knew how we were playing. I kept speaking with the staff so that when I came back, I slipped in quite naturally and obviously Chelsea were great with me with the recovery. I managed to get back fit really quickly for that kind of injury.’
Dealing with an injury like that, especially the unfortunate timing, must be a mental challenge as well?
‘It helped that when I went back, I had those two weeks [before the injury] because I was already settled in the area and I knew all the boys from before. It was important that I got up to speed quickly so I did double sessions and things like that when I first got back fit to try and get myself up to speed.
‘Mentally it feels like a long time ago now when I was injured. It’s a shame that I couldn’t keep the run going of being available for selection pretty much every week but injuries are part of football so that’s something you have to deal with.
‘It gave me an opportunity to reflect and watch a lot of my games back, do lots of stuff in the gym that maybe you don’t have time to do when you’re playing Tuesday then Saturday every week. I was also able to watch a lot of Chelsea games and get to Stamford Bridge, which I haven’t really been able to do in the last few years.'
Since your return to fitness in late November, you’ve played 14 games in a row for a Ross County side currently ninth in the SPL…
‘I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a nice step up from League Two, even in what you would call the smaller games. It’s a bit different to what I’ve been used to because in League Two and the National League, anyone can beat anyone.
'Up here you have some games where you’re not expected to win but then the games where you’re playing teams around you are even more important. Every game against those lower teams becomes a six-pointer because there are only 12 teams in the league.'
How was the experience of playing in front of 50,000 at Ibrox and 60,000 at Celtic Park?
‘I really enjoyed playing at Rangers and Celtic - that was one of the key reasons why I made the decision to come up to the SPL instead of going to League One. In previous seasons, I’ve ticked the box of being able to play week-in, week-out consistently and now it’s nice to have ticked that box of playing competitive football in front of a big crowd.
‘It has inspired me to play in front of crowds like that every week. I’ve been accustomed to 3,000 week-in, week-out but coming up here, you get other big games like Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen so that was a key attraction to come to the SPL.
‘It’s what the top players do every week so it was a good opportunity to impress. I really enjoy those games coming up against teams who are in the later stages of Europe as well with good players so it’s another good experience that I’ve picked up on loan. It’s the first time I’ve played in front of such big crowds so it was enjoyable and it made me want to play in those sort of stadiums every week.’
In recent years at Woking and Yeovil Town, you’ve ended the season with individual honours but with the team having suffered relegation, which must be a strange feeling?
‘For me, it’s important to look at the clubs that I’ve been at. When you’re 18 and playing in the National League - which not a lot of players that age do - clubs that are challenging for titles aren’t going to be taking young goalkeepers with no experience, and certainly not for keepers that want to be playing every week.
‘So if you want to play, you have to go to a team near the bottom of the table and it’s been great for me over the last few years that I’ve had those really challenging experiences. Growing up at Chelsea where we basically won every week, I never had that experience of being on the weaker team and having loads to do. It was one or two saves a game, if that.
‘I’ve had the negative experience of relegation and although I’ve been proud of the way I’ve played over the last few years, it’s important that you do have a positive influence on the team you’re playing for.’
Christophe Lollichon is your loans mentor back at Chelsea so how important has he been to your continued development while on loan?
‘Christophe has probably been to half the games I’ve played on loan and he’s my day-to-day contact. He provides the technical help and support to me, which is really important because it means I get the best of both worlds. Often the goalkeeping coaches I’ve worked with at clubs have been focused on the result of the team and encouraged me to be very pragmatic in my approach but I also get to learn off Christophe, who’s more interested in my progression as a goalkeeper.
‘I’ve always felt the club have been watching me, even going way back to when I was at Met Police and Neil Bath [head of youth development] would come to see me regularly even when I was only playing in front of 100 people. Neil has been really supportive of me during the windows when I’m looking for that next move and he provides constant support from the top.’
This is your fifth loan and you’re already approaching 150 senior appearances at the age of 21. You must be pretty pleased with your journey so far?
‘If you look at the current England goalkeepers – Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope, Dean Henderson, they’ve all played in non-league, League Two and League One and they’ve all come out in the press and talked about how those experiences helped them. The experience for me of playing in the National League at 18 and then League Two at 19 has been great and those previous keepers to do that have gone on to have top careers, which is obviously my ambition as well.
‘Now I’ve come up to Scotland and had the experience of playing in some big stadiums so I feel like I’ve kicked on with every loan and at each level I’ve improved. It’s my dream to come back and play for Chelsea, that’s what I’m constantly working towards but I’m fully aware that I need to take it step by step because if you look too far ahead, you don’t do your job at the club you’re at.’
Finally then, on a personal and collective level, what are the targets for the rest of this season?
‘The size of the club we are in this division and the fact we just got promoted from the Championship, our main target is just to stay up. It’s something that I’ve been used to on every loan I’ve been on - the clubs have been odds-on with the bookies to go down so I’m used to that experience. The priority is just to make sure we pick up points against the smaller teams.
‘From a personal point of view, I’ve had a few important clean sheets, a few man of the match awards, some good performances against some big teams so it’s important that I keep that level of performance up.’