After only a few minutes in the company of Nicolas Jackson, it becomes clear how he has gone from street footballer to leading the Chelsea attack in just six years.
Jackson possess a rare self-assuredness – and his words are spoken with complete conviction.
'It was my dream from when I was young to play in the Premier League and now I’m here,' he says matter-of-factly. 'People may not understand but it feels normal to me. I always believed in myself.’
Jackson's formative years were spent in The Gambia. It was on the streets of the West African country that his football education began. There were no coaches. No demands. No rules.
'Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a football player,' explains the 22-year-old. 'But my family were more concerned with me going to school and you have to listen to your parents.
He continues with a smile: 'I was always playing street football with friends, you know? It helped me a lot, gave me a lot freedom. I would watch other players and learn on the pitch. It was really nice, something I will always remember.'
It was at 16 years old that Jackson moved to Ziguinchor, Senegal. He joined local side ASC Tilene, his first club and his first experience of organised football. It was a decision that set him on the path to Chelsea.
Jackson, given his talent, inevitably caught the eye and trophies were won with Tilene. Soon came the opportunity to join a professional club.
'My mentor – now my agent – found me there and took me to the first division in Senegal,' explains Jackson. 'He took me to Casa Sport. It was a little difficult but there was a coach [Badara Sarr] who believed in me.
'I was playing as a false striker or a number ten. When you’re younger, you want to be with the ball.'
Jackson established himself in the Casa first-team squad during the 2018/19 season. Soon came approaches from Europe and in September 2019, he completed a move to La Liga side Villarreal.
On and off the pitch, it was a dramatic change. ‘I had never been to Europe before,' recalls Jackson. 'I remember I got there really late but the sun was still out! That was different.
'It was not always easy, you know? I was on my own. No family. Different language. Different food, which I didn’t like. But I was focused. I had my dream. So it was ok.'
Jackson initially trained with Villarreal's under-16 side. It was his first taste of European football and there was an inevitable period of adjustment required.
'It took some time,' he accepts. 'I’d never been in an Academy before, never had that kind of football. So I played for the Under-16s and then the Under-19s. I learned a lot.'
After a year at Villarreal, Jackson joined Spanish second-tier side Mirandes. It was an important experience. Injuries had to be overcome. Form had to be found. Minutes had to be earned.
Jackson returned to Villarreal having made 17 senior appearances, but he felt ready for more.
'When I came back from, Unai Emery was in charge of the first team. He brought me up and he taught me a lot. He changed my mindset, my game.’
Jackson made ten first-team appearances for Villarreal during the 2021/22 campaign. He also continued to represent Villarreal B and his seven goals and eight assists ensured the side clinched promotion to the second tier.
Tomorrow's game against Bournemouth could have been very different for Jackson. Had fate not decided otherwise, he could have been wearing the red and black stripes of the home side instead of Chelsea blue.
In January, after establishing himself in the Villarreal first team, Jackson held talks to join the Cherries. However, a hamstring injury meant the move didn't transpire.
‘I wasn’t angry or sad when it didn't happen,' says Jackson. 'I was fine, I accepted it. Things happen – and I am someone who believes that things happen for a reason. So I was okay and ready to see what was next.'
Few could have expected the impact Jackson would make on his return from injury for Villarreal. He scored nine goals in nine matches, ending the season as La Liga's in-form player.
Then came Chelsea. Jackson completed his move to Stamford Bridge at the end of June, he joined up with the team for pre-season the following month and quickly became a popular figure in the squad.
‘I didn't think it would be hard coming here,' says Jackson. 'My English is good and the people here…it’s amazing. I’m happy. To go from Africa to Spain was more difficult, but I handled that.
'So I was perfect for me. It is an amazing group with the coach and my teammates. I hope we can do amazing things this year.'
Jackson has started each of our four Premier League games thus far and scored his first Chelsea goal in the victory against Luton Town. Yet it is all-round performance that has caught the eye.
There is a directness to Jackson's game, a willingness to take risks. That street football mindset underpins his game. ‘I feel used to this kind of football, comfortable,' he says. 'You know, in a way, street football is more difficult. No rules. No referees. Anything can happen.'
It has not gone unnoticed by several Chelsea supporters that Jackson's start to life at Stamford Bridge mirrored that of one of his childhood idols: the legendary Didier Drogba.
Yet any comparisons to our former striker are, for now at least, quickly shutdown by our current No.15.
‘Drogba is a legend; I am nobody here,' states Nico. 'I’ve just started, so let’s wait. When I finish with football, then people can talk.'