Carlo Ancelotti was the Chelsea manager, holding court in a favourite Italian restaurant, when he insisted he had seen a player he was sure would make it all the way from the youth ranks to the first team.
A hush descended and the table groaned as a dozen well-fed football reporters leaned forward, pencils poised. How you spelling that Carlo?
Ancelotti urged patience. Nathaniel Chalobah must have the time to develop, he pleaded, although his secret was out when he named the 15-year-old among the substitutes for a League Cup tie against Newcastle.
Nathaniel Chalobah was named among the substitutes for a League Cup tie at the age of 15
‘He just took a liking to me,’ said Chalobah, eight years on. ‘He called me into the first team for training and gave me the opportunity to be around those players and to learn. I’m grateful to him.’
Ancelotti has since hopped from London to Paris to Madrid to Munich and has settled this summer in Naples.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old Chalobah took a long route back to Watford, the club where he made his senior debut as a teenager on loan against Brighton – Saturday’s visitors to Vicarage Road.
It is time to show the Premier League all the things he has learned along the way.
‘I’ve been on six loans,’ said Chalobah. ‘I’ve played through the ranks for England. I’ve played numerous games for Chelsea.
‘I’ve got a Premier League winner’s medal, which I sometimes forget that I have. It’s in a safe somewhere.
‘Obviously, I haven’t made my (full) debut for England yet but I’m working towards that.’
Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea was sure Chalobah would make it from youth ranks to the first team
Chalobah left Chelsea permanently last summer, resisting the offer of a new Stamford Bridge contract to rejoin Watford.
Last season started well with a first call-up to the senior England squad for games against Malta and Slovakia in September.
Then, back at Watford, he felt his knee give way as he launched a diagonal pass in training.
‘I thought I might have done something but just carried on training,’ said Chalobah.
However, Chalobah went on six loans at Stamford Bridge and took a long route back to Watford
‘I was just high on adrenaline. It was only when I stopped I realised it might actually be serious. Once I’d had the scan I realised I was going to be out for a while.’
It emerged that he had a fracture in his left kneecap and a tangle of scars is evidence of the operation and Chalobah’s long road to recovery.
‘It was difficult,’ he said. ‘I made the decision to leave Chelsea because I wanted to get as many games as I could. Prior to that, I hadn’t had many injuries.
‘It was frustrating, really. I dealt with it quite well, with a close family and friends around me. My agent, Fitz Hall, is a former footballer and he helped me. There wasn’t a moment when I was losing my head and going off the rails – in nightclubs every night, trying to drink my stress away.
Chalobah left Chelsea last summer, resisting the offer of a new contract to rejoin Watford
‘It was more about getting focused. I was trying to get fit for the World Cup but it wasn’t safe for me to do that.’
England manager Gareth Southgate, who worked closely with Chalobah through the national youth teams, invited him to the FA’s St George’s Park base, near Burton in Staffordshire, for treatment and a change of scenery – and to keep him involved around the squad.
Javi Gracia, Watford’s head coach, sent him on for the last 20 minutes of the club’s final game of the season at Manchester United, though he knew Chalobah was far from full fitness and faced working through the summer.
Chalobah’s holiday included two weeks in Los Angeles, where he worked each day with a strength and conditioning expert, building up muscle, followed by a week of complete rest before reporting for pre-season.
Last season started well for him with a first call-up to the senior England squad in September
He has used some of his free time to complete an online course in Football Business Management and, of course, he joined the millions cheering England to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia.
‘I dropped them a few messages to wish them well and kept in touch with a few of the boys,’ said Chalobah.
‘I told them how great they were doing for the country and how proud we were of them. They could probably see for themselves from the videos – all the people throwing their cups of beer in the air.
‘I watched most of the games at home. I don’t drink beer, and it’s a better option than being in a pub surrounded by people giving their opinions on football. Sometimes that’s not what you want to hear.’
But he suffered a fracture in his left kneecap and a tangle of scars is evidence of the operation
No pangs of envy, he insisted. ‘If it was a group of players I didn’t get on with, or if there wasn’t good morale and positivity around the building, or if I’d had a negative experience, part of me would have hated the fact that I wasn’t there, or I wouldn’t be happy for them.
‘But it was the complete opposite. Every time they played I was buzzing and excited they were doing so well. Going into major tournaments there’s always pressure on the boys and I just wanted them to do well.
‘The whole philosophy is changing in English football. The gaffer’s come in and brought his own style of play.
‘As you saw in the World Cup, everyone is comfortable on the ball. We’ve gone away from what I call the old England and the way they played football. It’s positive. We have to keep it going.’
England manager Gareth Southgate invited him to the FA’s St George’s Park base for treatment
Chalobah is a thoughtful and intelligent young man, well placed to share advice with the talented footballers trying to cope with the weight of expectation as they tackle the void between the academies and the Premier League. He has walked that path and his brother is on it, too.
Trevoh, 19, an unused Chelsea substitute at the FA Cup final in May, has joined Ipswich Town on a one-year loan and made his debut against Blackburn on Saturday.
‘As a player you know inside when the time is right,’ said Chalobah. ‘If you start saying, “You know what, I’ve played Under 23 football and there’s no motivation there any more” and you don’t get excited for games and you don’t get a buzz… that’s where you need to make a decision.
‘You think, “I need to go on loan and learn something new”. Go abroad if you have to. Experience playing in games that matter, where the three points are important, with players fighting for their bonuses because they have to feed their kids.
Chalobah used free time to join millions cheering England to World Cup semi-finals in Russia
You need to put yourself in that environment and see how you cope. Get a taste of men’s football. That’s the advice I would give my brother. He was getting that feeling. It was the right time for him. Go out and play. I’ve learned experience is the most important thing.’
At Chelsea, managers came and went. Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho passed through before Antonio Conte offered Chalobah a chance to be part of the first-team squad.
On loan, he enjoyed working under Maurizio Sarri at Napoli and Gianfranco Zola at Watford, the pair now in charge at Stamford Bridge.
‘Ultimately, I’ve no malice towards managers who didn’t give me a chance,’ said Chalobah.
On loan, he enjoyed working under Maurizio Sarri at Napoli and Gianfranco Zola at Watford
‘I try to focus on myself and work as hard as I can. If you have done that and the opportunity hasn’t arisen, then you think of the next step. I have taken something from every single loan.
‘Napoli was probably my best loan in terms of education and Watford probably my best in terms of experience.
‘I played a lot of games for Watford and we got to Wembley in the play-offs.
‘The Burnley loan made me grow up as a man – living away from home and in a regimented team. The Nottingham Forest loan was another learning curve after such a good season at Watford, going there and not playing.
It is time to show the Premier League all the things he has learned along the way this season
‘Reading was a good stop for me, as well. Middlesbrough… it’s all part and parcel of the player I am now.
‘I’ve never really had the opportunity to show all the improvements I’ve made by playing a full season. Maybe this is the year.
‘There was a little glimpse last year but five games just isn’t enough. I don’t like talking too far ahead, saying I’m going to do this and that, and then it doesn’t happen. But I’m working towards that. Fingers crossed.
‘I’m back in full training. So it’s now a matter of time.’