We get to know Lesley Ugochukwu better in this exclusive interview, as our young midfielder reflects on his upbringing, his heritage, and the Chelsea he has discovered in recent months…
Lesley Ugochukwu was not short of childhood heroes. There was his father, who passed on the gift of football. There was his uncle, Onyekachi Apam, a Nigerian international he watched play for his boyhood club Stade Rennais. And there was John Mikel Obi and Claude Makelele, midfielders he studied closely either on television or his computer.
Those heroes shaped the player and person Ugochukwu is today. He is humble and honest, conscious of his good fortune, yet determined to achieve so much more. On the pitch the 19-year-old is physical, confident, and tactically astute. He is already making his mark.
For a man so young, Ugochukwu speaks with impressive clarity. His sensibilities come from a childhood full of happy times, and a family that ensured football was close to his core.
‘I remember the first picture of me was in a buggy close to the pitch at Rennes before a game,’ Ugochukwu tells us during a break between training sessions at Cobham this week.
‘My dad was a huge football fan and that is what he gave me, the heritage. When I was a little boy I would go to the games, and then with my friends I would be playing football all the time, enjoying it, laughing. Just the vibes!
‘I was at Stade Rennais from Under-9s. I went professional at 16. It was a great thing to start with Stade Rennais, a huge honour. Many players have come from their academy, like Eduardo Camavinga and Ousmane Dembele. And they gave me my education. I did all my classes there. I’m really grateful to them for that.’
Lessons learned on and off the pitch were supplemented by what Apam, his father’s half-brother, would tell him from his own experiences in the professional game.
‘My uncle was a big inspiration,’ confirms Ugochukwu. ‘He had some injuries that kept him off the pitch, but the way he played when he was in Nice inspired me a lot.
‘I remember when I was 15 years old, I went to see him in Nice. He gave me some advice about what I needed to do, and what I needed to avoid, for my career.
‘Everything goes fast in football, so you have to be careful what you do outside the pitch. He told me to focus on the football, enjoy my football and keep being serious, to not get distracted.’
Ugochukwu’s parents hail from Nigeria, moving to France before he was born. His uncle Apam represented the Super Eagles at international level, including at four major tournaments, and Lesley tells us he is extremely proud of his Nigerian roots.
His parents have given him the opportunity to learn about his heritage, and he has been to visit his grandparents, cousins and extended family in Imo State on two occasions in recent years. ‘They were very happy to see me,’ he smiles.
Ugochukwu’s Nigerian influences do not stop there. He could not help but be captivated by the performances of Mikel in a Chelsea and Nigeria shirt as he tried to understand the role of defensive midfielder better.
‘Most of the time when I saw him on television was the period with Mourinho,’ recalls Ugochukwu.
‘It was a great period. He was such an important player for Chelsea. And when you come from Nigeria, the names of Jay-Jay Okocha and Obi Mikel always come out.
‘As a midfielder, what Mikel did for Chelsea inspired me a lot. He was calm. He had composure. He had self-confidence. That’s very important for a midfielder, to give confidence to your team. He was strong without the ball, aggressive. That’s the kind of player I like. I want to have great achievements like he did.’
At Chelsea, earlier this season, Ugochukwu had the opportunity to meet another of his idols, Makelele, who told him his time would come. From one French midfielder to another, that was a special moment.
It epitomised a welcoming start to life in England. Ugochukwu had visited London several times, meeting family and friends and exploring the city.
He has his own place now, nearer the training ground, but enjoys venturing into the capital. He recently discovered the Twist illusion museum on Oxford Street, and loves old favourites like the London Eye and Tower Bridge.
At work, Ugochukwu does not hesitate in saying his expectations have been matched, if not exceeded. Now he is desperate to leave his mark on the club, just as some of those childhood heroes he loved watching did.
‘Chelsea is a big club, one of the best in the world, so I was expecting to come here with a lot of training pitches, and a good environment in the stadium. That’s what I have been seeing. The crowd is nice, the Chelsea fans are always behind us. The training ground is massive.
‘I feel comfortable here and I’m very happy. Chelsea is a family club with a lot of honour and value. When you come and play for Chelsea you have to give everything you have to the team.
‘I feel like being a Chelsea player is an honour, and you come here to win trophies because that’s what Chelsea do. That’s the mindset you need. And that’s what I want.’