In the next edition of our feature where we speak to Chelsea players out on loan, we hear from Tariq Uwakwe, the 21-year-old midfielder who is currently playing in League One with Accrington Stanley.
After joining the Academy at the age of eight and progressing through the ranks, Uwakwe headed to Accrington in the summer to experience his first taste of senior men’s football.
Stanley ended last season in 17th place but have stayed well clear of the League One drop zone in 2020/21. As we head towards the climax of the current campaign, the team from Lancashire are chasing a play-off spot and currently sit eighth place in the standings.
Uwakwe has made 19 appearances and scored four goals, settling into a new position at left wing-back, though that is the not the only adaptation he's had to tackle. As the next episode in our latest Life on Loan series shows, it has been a journey of highs and lows including scoring a hat-trick on his debut and celebrating his 21st birthday hundreds of miles from home amid a global pandemic. You can watch the film in full below.
To mark the release of his story so far at the Crown Ground, we caught up with Uwakwe ourselves to see how he was getting on...
Firstly Tariq, as we head towards the business end of the season, how have you found your first experience of being on loan so far?
'It’s been a lot different to how things are usually at Chelsea but it’s been even better that I expected it to be. Being around the first team, getting to know different people and play under different managers has been good. I’ve enjoyed the experience, every minute of it from playing to being on the bench and coming on, to scoring goals and helping the team score goals. It’s been really enjoyable for me.’
What have been the main differences between being at Accrington Stanley and Chelsea?
‘At Chelsea you come in, eat breakfast, train and eat in the canteen again after. Here you have to do your own thing and make sure you are prepared yourself. I’ll have breakfast at my apartment before I go to train and then straight after training I come back, eat and wash my kit for the next day.
'You have to make sure you are prepared for the days coming by training and eating right. I think it's a good thing because it’s making me grow up and do these things for myself.’
Has being on loan during a pandemic made it even more of a challenging period for you?
‘With no fans in the ground, sometimes it does take a bit of pressure off you but coming here the one thing I really wanted was to play in front of fans in a stadium and experience some atmosphere week-in-week-out so it's unfortunate that we can’t have that now.
‘It has been more difficult with the situation but I’ve just got to take it as it is. I can’t change things I can’t control so coming here in lockdown has allowed me to focus on kicking on and keep doing what I need to do for the team.’
Does having fellow Chelsea loanees Nathan Baxter and Jon Russell with you at Accrington make life a little easier up north?
‘Yeah it does a lot. I've been living away from home since I was 16 but not to the point where it’s four hours away!
'When I first came here, I got to know the Accrington lads quickly and found it easy to fit in as everyone is really close. Having Nathan and Jon here as well made it a little easier because I have others who are from where I’m from.'
'As a footballer, there are sacrifices you have to make. When I do get time to go home, it makes things even more special but I speak to my family every day too.'
— Tariq Uwakwe
Your first game for Accrington gave you a first professional hat-trick. That must’ve been a special moment?
‘I had only played two pre-season games with Chelsea before I joined Accrington but I wasn’t too worried about that and was well up for the game against Leeds in the EFL Trophy. I got my first goal quite early and after that I just grew into the game and got my second and an assist before half-time.
'In the dressing room, I told my team-mates that I was going to get my hat-trick and I got the third one in the second half. It was the best way to start at a new club. That was probably one of the best days of my career, in terms of what it meant for me.’
You also scored on your professional league debut a few days later…
‘That has been the highlight of my season so far - it’s the best I’ve felt this season, coming in my first professional game. It was quite late and that was something that gave me a bit more joy because I realised I still had the energy and concentration to be producing at such a late stage.’
At Chelsea we know you as a central midfielder or left-winger so how has it been adapting to playing at left wing-back this season?
‘It’s been a bit challenging, just because it’s something I’m not used to. I had little stints in other positions as a youngster at Chelsea but to be up against people who have been playing in these positions their whole career has been tough.
‘It’s been more challenging dealing with how your opposition play – they could be playing with a fast winger who forces you to defend or I could be up against another wing-back who likes to come inside more. I’ve got to figure it out quite quickly as this league is demanding. The manager and players have been helping me a lot because they know it’s not my natural position but I think I’ve been learning more with each game and training session.’
Is it a position you can see yourself playing in the future?
‘It’s hard to say because I always see myself playing in midfield or higher up in the future. But as you see now, Chelsea are currently playing with wing-backs so you have to be adaptable. If I’m asked to play there in pre-season, I would be happy to take my chance to play and hopefully perform and show people that I can do that.’
Did your experiences of playing in the EFL Trophy for Chelsea Under-21s help prepare you for life in League One?
‘Yeah I think so. When we started playing in the EFL Trophy, Joe Edwards was our manager and the style of play he equipped the team with before games made us think about our opposition. As an individual, you keep these things in mind for when it’s your turn to go out on loan so you know what to expect and how to adapt your game.'
Finally, what has it been like battling for an unexpected top-six place in league football?
‘It’s tough because the Saturday and Tuesday fixtures get you. You’ve got to prepare yourself right and recover well because games come so quick. Our next two games are at Lincoln and Doncaster and at the moment they are above us but things change so quickly here. You just have to keep going because every game is a must-win.’