In the first of two features with Noni Madueke examining the path in football that has brought him to Chelsea, the young winger recalls his early days playing youth football in London and explains why the self-confidence he inherited from his father has been crucial to his success.
Although Noni Madueke was signed from abroad, leaving PSV Eindhoven for Chelsea in January, he has always considered London his home, having grown up in the northern suburb of Barnet, and even has family ties to the Blues.
‘I’ve got two Chelsea fans in my family,’ he explained. ‘My little sister – her middle name’s Chelsea – and my brother, so it’s a Chelsea house. There’s three Chelsea fans now, because of me as well!’
He caught the football bug early on, idolising a young Cristiano Ronaldo and dreaming of starring in the Premier League just like him, leaving Noni with only one thing on his mind and giving us an early glimpse of the confidence and determination he feels was so important.
‘I knew I wanted to be a footballer when I was six or seven. I think it just came from being a kid and falling in love with the game of football, and then recognising that you’re actually good at it. As soon as I found out that it could be a job I was like “Bob’s you’re uncle, that’s me”!
‘I got scouted playing for my local team. It was in a tournament and I didn’t even play that well, to be fair. But the scout said I was extremely agile, had really good balance, was quick with an eye for goal. That was the first bit of feedback I ever got from a scout. I went to Crystal Palace and did a trial for a week or two and that was it. I got signed and that was the start of my journey.’
Of course, having to cross the capital to south London for training and matches with Palace wasn’t ideal for a child, but Madueke was determined to grab his opportunity with both hands now it had arrived, and credits his time with the Eagles as helping transform that early ambition into the belief he could achieve his goal.
‘It was tough. I used to drive all the way over there and get back really late. It was about an hour and a half to get there from where I lived. It was tough but when you’re a kid like that and you can play for an academy in a Championship or Premier League club, I didn’t mind at all. I just wanted to be a footballer.
‘It was crazy, that’s the first step, you’ve got one foot in the door. For any boy that wants to become a football player it’s an unreal feeling. At that age you think you’re a professional football player and it’s just a dream come true. I remember being so excited for the trial and going there I realised I was actually good, I could play there.’
However, it was later on when he really started to gain confidence in his own ability to make the cut as a professional footballer. Having been given the chance to continue his career closer to home, by joining the Tottenham academy at Under-12s level, he quickly rose through the ranks at Spurs.
It was then, as he was moving through the age groups, edging closer to the make-or-break period when players go full-time at 16 with things becoming more serious and professional every year, that belief became certainty.
‘I think I realised I could be a professional footballer between the ages of 13 and 16. Before that, I had a lot of belief in myself so I was telling myself every day I’m going to be a football player, but at around 13 to 16 I feel is the age when you start thinking “am I really good enough?”. It starts getting a bit more real.
‘At the really young age groups all the top players are scoring six or seven goals a game and you look at someone else and you may be better than him at that time, but then in six to 18 months’ time he’s way better than you. So I feel like you can’t really gauge it at that age, but when you get to about 14, 15, 16, then you can start thinking “I might have a shot here”.
‘When I was about 15 or 16, that was it, I knew I’d be a professional footballer. I just thought it was impossible that I would not be a professional footballer! A lot of it’s a gut feeling. You’re probably the best player, even playing a year up against older players, and I was playing for England, so that’s probably when I thought “I can do this”.
‘But it’s not as simple as A, B, C. A lot of people playing for top academies, playing for England, don’t make the jump. But I knew I’d make the jump just because of my mentality. I wouldn’t allow myself not to.’
That determination to succeed certainly seems to have served Madueke well during his early career and later as he forged his own path through the professional game which has now brought him to Stamford Bridge.
In the winger’s opinion, it is something he has always possessed, and he considers it an essential attribute for anyone who wants to compete at the highest level.
‘I think it comes from my dad, he’s exactly like me in that sense,’ he explained. ‘If he sets his mind to do something, it’s going to happen, so I feel like I got that from him.
‘For me it helps me a lot, but I feel like all the top players have it. You need to be humble, of course, but also a good type of confidence to know that you’re good enough. I feel like you need that to be able to confidently show all your ability.’
As he continues to settle into life in west London after returning to the capital in January, Chelsea supporters will no doubt get to see that confidence and ability on display at the Bridge.