‘There are trains that don’t pass by twice.’
That is Lesley Ugochukwu’s answer when people query why he chose to leave his boyhood club Rennes for Chelsea just a few short months after his 19th birthday.
Ugochukwu had established himself in the midfield of a team that finished fourth in Ligue 1 last season, recording 35 appearances and 2000 minutes of football in all competitions. He is under no illusion playing time will be harder to come by at Stamford Bridge, but the lure of Chelsea proved too strong to say no.
‘Just look at all the trophies they've won and the legends that have passed through,’ Ugochukwu says.
‘I was attracted by what they wanted to do and what they saw in me. They say I can become a great midfielder, if I put in the work and everything goes well. It's up to me to prove that I can have my place in the long term. I wanted to take this step. When a club of this stature comes in for you, it’s very difficult to refuse.
‘In any team, you are not sure you will play,’ he adds.
‘When I arrived at Chelsea, I knew where I was going. It's up to you to prove yourself, to show that you deserve your place. Personally, I have never been afraid of competition. I have been learning with very good players like Enzo Fernandez, Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia, who is the same age as me. It's up to me to go and get the most minutes.
‘What I am learning at Chelsea, on a daily basis and during games, will allow me to strengthen myself and mature in my game. When you are young, you have to play, of course, but I feel ready to fight for earn my place.
‘I have great confidence in myself, in my qualities, in what I can do. I know that if I do things correctly, everything will go as planned. I have the trust of the club, of the staff, that’s what pushed me to say to myself: Go for it! If they came for you, it’s because you have the qualities.’
While Ugochukwu was born and bred in Rennes in north-western France, he has strong Nigerian heritage. His uncle Onyekachi Apam represented the Super Eagles, and though Ugochukwu’s future lies with the French national team – he has played twice for their Under-21s during this international break – his roots have helped him adjust to life in England.
‘The adaptation is going well. I'm still living in a hotel, it's a bit unusual but soon I will have my home. In the team, there are quite a few French people, and I open up to everyone. I have parents of Nigerian origin so it’s easier for speaking English, too. My parents stayed to live in Rennes. Of course, sometimes I would like to see them more often, but that’s how life is. Mentally I was prepared.
‘Signing for a club like Chelsea means something for them, too. In Nigeria, it is one of the big clubs that everyone supports. They were super happy. At home we are always happy, and to see that there has been this good news in our family is great. My parents did a lot for me and my brothers and sisters. It’s important to give back to them what they gave me.’
Ugochukwu singles out John Mikel Obi as an early inspiration, with their shared position and heritage. Didier Drogba is another Blue that springs to mind, and he dreams of emulating the Ivorian’s success after he too made the move from Ligue 1 to the Premier League. It is clear Ugochukwu’s early experiences of the English top flight have already left a lasting impression.
‘Playing in the Premier League is a childhood dream, especially at Chelsea which is one of the biggest clubs in England and also in the world,’ he enthuses.
‘Here, whether you play at home or away, people are singing everywhere. You can miss a pass, but if you recover the ball or make a tackle, there will be shouts from all directions. The atmosphere in the stadiums is incredible, the fans support you, they transcend you. It's the Premier League!’
The 19-year-old’s acclimatisation to his new surroundings has been aided by Mauricio Pochettino, with whom, it transpires, he had crossed paths long before Ugochukwu arrived in August.
‘You should know that my first start for Rennes was against him. He was at PSG. He talked to me about it again as soon as I arrived with the group in the United States.
‘He looks at his assistant and says to him, ‘Do you know that because of him we didn’t win the championship?’ It’s huge that he remembers that. I was 17 and I didn't expect him to remember at all. We drew 1-1, and Paris finished one point behind Lille that season.
‘Things are going very well with the coach. He has really given me a lot of confidence since my arrival. He tells me to go full throttle and to not hold back, to have confidence in myself, and that I am here because I have the qualities to be here.’
Now Ugochukwu is aboard the Chelsea train, we can enjoy watching his journey to the destination of greatness he so aspires to reach.