The Homecoming: The Chalobah Brothers
In an age when you can communicate with anyone on any continent with ease, it’s ironic that political institutions grow increasingly opaque, but it makes sense that the latest generation of footballers are known for immediacy, honesty and transparency. You can hear it in the level-headedness of Victor Lindelof, the unwavering confidence of James Maddison and now in the openness of the Chalobah brothers; Nathaniel and Trevoh. The former, being the 25-year-old Watford midfielder and England international. The latter, being the younger midfield enforcer, and fellow Chelsea academy graduate, who is currently on loan to Huddersfield from his parent club.
They’re pure because of their origins. You’d be forgiven to think that Nate’s year in Napoli, Trevoh’s loan spell in Yorkshire or both of their journeys through the academy system would detach them from their roots. Or dilute the telepathy between them. Not so: “This place made us,” says Trevoh. “South London is special for the passion; the love of the game. Back in the day, people were always coming together to play the game, every day of the week to just enjoy it. Growing up, we had nothing else to really worry about but football.”
We’re stood outside a small sided cage in Gipsy Hill, in the borough of Lambeth, South London. It’s a scene that has been described so often that it’s likely you can see it in your own mind’s eye. Remnants of graffiti glimmer in the Sunday sunshine, the cage itself is dishevelled, peeling away ever so slightly from its frame. The trademark ‘no dogs allowed’ sign is in plain sight too. It’s eerily quiet. Or, the reality is, that’s normal now. Across London, across the country, cages like this aren’t at the epicentre of the community anymore. They’re not a place where your reputation is honed, where your football ability can be used as a currency to help you in the community. If you can play, life was a little bit easier on you. It’s a bit of a desolate scene now. There’s not a single echo of a ball bouncing around. There’s not a lot here. But, for the Chalobah brothers this was always it.
“My very first memory of being here – arriving in Gipsy Hill when we moved to London from Sierra Leone – was seeing this cage,” explains Trevoh. “There was something special about it. The park, too. We used to go and play there every day. We met a lot of friends here, a whole host of people who used to love football. It was our place.”
Like football, like the park, like the cage, like everything, the makeup of England’s most-exciting footballing brothers appears as conventional and pure as you can imagine, and it’s in that mix where the brothers thrive. Born in Sierra Leone before moving to the UK when Nathaniel was 10 and Trevoh was 6, the boys soon found their feet in South London. They credit their hard-working ethos and sole focus from their parents who were ‘always guiding and showing the way,’ which gave them the heart and desire to succeed. The cage at the centre of the estate was their little world; a world which they built their life around.
“I remember we were going for a game, it wasn’t really a game, but we were going to the cage to play,” smiles Nate who peers out the window of the studio once we arrive back in the warmth following our stint in the cage. “My friends came over and said yeah let’s go and play and I was like ‘Trev do you want to come with us,’ and he was obviously like ‘yeah, cool’ and I don’t think people were expecting much. He does a little trick and everyone was like ‘oh my god, rah’ and all of a sudden everyone’s like ‘oh, he’s decent,’ and then since that I just thought if were going to football then you can come. He never looked back”
“They used to call me Mango seed head,” adds Trevoh with a shy chuckle. “Whenever we used to go in the cage for football, that was what all the older boys called me. In the cage, it’s all about skills, who can do the most skills and when people saw I could do all of that they started to give me a bit more respect and the name eventually dropped.”
Although the interviews are conducted separately, there is something unique between the two. A genuine connection. They are two brothers with a shared childhood dream, London lads who have given an extra gleam to the current shine surrounding Chelsea’s academy, but this is a story that should be cherished by football fans everywhere. It is a tale of sibling solidarity – not rivalry – of two humble boys who are redefining what it means to be a footballing family. But it is also a lesson in how to cope with success and why hard work, dedication and determination will always be just as important as raw talent.
To track their journey to the top, Nate and Trevoh Chalobah took GAFFER on a tour of Gipsy Hill to discuss their life through football – and everything that came before it.
What is the significance of Gipsy Hill for you and your family?
Nathaniel: Ah, man, like coming back here just brings back so many memories. Like, I’m going through and can see so much; where we used to walk through to get to the park, where we used to chill, where we used to hang. It brings back memories because a lot of my friends are still close by, so I can instantly think back and reminisce on all the times I had here.
Trevoh: This place is the making of us. Growing up, the area wasn’t too good but this is where it all started. This is where our dreams began. We were here for quite a while – around 7 or 8 years. Moving here when I was 6 years old, I remember some parts of those initial days but my first real memory is seeing the cage. The park as well, where we used to go and play every day. We met a lot of friends there, a whole host of people who used to love football. We had community centres too and they were a big part of our childhood.
You say the cage was the first thing you remember seeing, but who actually introduced you to the game?
Trevoh: Seeing my older brother playing football definitely inspired me. If he didn’t play football I probably wouldn’t either and I definitely wouldn’t be here today.
Nathaniel: You know what, it was a natural thing because the family loved football so I was brought up around it. There are baby pictures of me with a football in my hand. I’ve always loved it and watched it and it’s something I have a lot of interest in. It’s not easy when you come up and you love something – it’s easy to be distracted and veer away from it because of where you’re growing up. Gipsy Hill is quite rough but my love for the game let me stay focussed. I was blessed with a little bit of talent as well and I was lucky in some sense to get spotted.
Trevoh, were you always playing with bigger kids from a young age?
Trevoh: Yeah, I was that kid always playing with older people. Mostly people around Nate’s age and some even older. I think that helped me from day one because I knew how hard it is.
Do you think the people who you used to play with back then would say you were both always destined to make it?
Trevoh: They always did say that when they watched us play back in the day. When people around you say that, you know, it’s nice. Everyone was always incredibly supportive so for us to even get this far it’s a really special feeling.
There’s obviously a transition age where you know you’re talented but you’re still open to distractions. What moment did you have that tunnel vision, when both of you knew you could make it?
Nathaniel: I think I was about 12 years old. It might sound crazy but at 12 we trained Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and a game on Sunday. I was in a routine already. Go school, get picked up, go training and go back home then do that again twice a week. It hit me around that time because that was when the contracts were becoming more and more apparent, whether you’re going to get kept on or you’re going to get released. But also it was around I would say 14/15 where you’re getting a little bit older and your friends are like ‘we should go cinema let’s go see this,’ or ‘let’s go to this party’ – and you’re just like I’d love to come but I can’t make it I’ve got training, I’ve got a game tomorrow. Because I had been in such a routine from an early age, it was almost like this is it. You have to keep doing it, you have to do it, you have to make it.
Trevoh: When I first started out I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work and dedication to get anywhere. It’s mad how things change. How quick things can change in a year or a month. In each age level I’ve gone through in the academy I’ve grown in my understanding of that. Some players are different that they love to play the game but don’t watch much football outside of that but I’ve always watched it all. The Champions League, the Championship, League One – I’m always watching something.
Did you help Trevoh’s transition through the age groups too?
Nathaniel: Yeah, I’ve told him on plenty of occasions. Obviously nothing comes easy in life but I always tell him to enjoy the game and always play with a smile on your face. Enjoy what you do but at the end of the day you are in competition with someone and don’t ever forget that because you take one step back and someone is coming forward. I think for him it was more about being focussed and not being distracted and just keeping the mentality of ‘I want to be the best in my age group.’ Because I told him, with that mentality if you want to be the best in your age group then you will keep getting contracts and you can go onto bigger things. So, that was my main advice to him really.
Trevoh: I always knew that when you start in the academy, it’s only the first step, People may look at kids’ playing in the academy but they don’t know the full story. That’s when it all starts. Academy stages are incredibly important, it’s only you who can push yourself to the top.
Why do you think both of you play similar roles on the pitch?
Trevoh: Yeah, it’s weird. We both started out as centre backs too and now obviously play in midfield. It shows the versatility which we have as players. If I look at that cage and think of those times and consider what we do now, it’s mad.
Nathaniel: I think it’s just how we developed as people, I was a skinny, gangly kid and my head was too big for my body. My knees are too big (laughs) and I was like really tall, proper lanky and I had my spurt and shot up out of nowhere. So, I think I started off in midfield and I went into centre half and then back into midfield. It was almost like ‘okay, you’re going to get that physical side of things to come anyway, you’re going to get bigger, you’re going to get stronger and you’re going to get quicker.’ Now, if you have the ability to be on the ball and play in two or three positions, when all of that comes together with your physicality then you can use it to your benefit.
It was the same with Trevoh. He was quite tall as well but there was a period where he didn’t stop growing and he just shot up and he’s taller than me now. I think that’s when he realised that he could play. Because he started upfront for Cannons, his Sunday League team, and then went to Chelsea upfront but he just kept dropping back and back and then he played centre half and then into midfield.
What’s your footballing relationship like now? Do you still give pointers and tips to each other?
Nathaniel: I sit back a bit more now. I sit back and let him get on with it. I feel like if you’re going to make mistakes you are better off making them and learning from them. I give him advice in terms of don’t do what I did in certain situations but I think it’s important for him to make his own mistakes because otherwise he is not going to be able to grow, he’s not going to be able to learn. Now, we speak every now and then, I ask him how the games were. Some of the games that I actually do watch I’ll give my input on what he did wrong, what he right. He does the same with my games as well.
Trevoh: For him to be playing in the same position, an important position, in the Premier League, it’s good for me to talk to him to see how I can constantly improve. It’s always good to have someone who can help you in the game. So, we talk about the games whenever we can.
What do you think is the greatest strength of your game right now?
Nathaniel: I’d want to say my drive and the ability to stay calm under pressure. When everything is 100 miles an hour, if you give it to me I’ll slow it down and that’s just because I want the ball and I want to play football. I’m comfortable on the ball and confident with my distribution as well. Even though, right now I’m not so good with my distribution!
Trevoh: I would say my ability to play – not only being fast and strong – but I’ve always been able to play and that comes from how we played as kids, we had the confidence to try things.
What would you say each others strengths are?
Nathaniel: Trev is powerful. I’ve seen him knock the ball past people and run. He’s got a great confidence. He’s got that strength of ‘I’m going to push it past you and I’m going to get that ball anyway’ he’s a confident player. I think his distribution is good as well to be fair he’s got some good passes .
Trevoh: It’s his understanding of the game. Because he’s been on so many loans and even going abroad from such a young age, he’s seen and learnt a lot in that time. His understanding is unreal. Football is not all about your feet, it’s about what’s going on up here. He’s technical as well, which makes his all-round understanding hard to beat.
What’s the biggest thing you you’ve learnt from each other?
Nathaniel: That’s a tough question. I’ve learnt a bit more of a mellow side from Trev. When I was his age I was a bit more talkative, a lot louder, but he wasn’t talking in certain situations and I learnt that sometimes it is best to keep quiet in certain situations and just analyse.
Trevoh: We were bought up really well, our family is really close. Both our Mum and Dad were always guiding us, always showing us the way. So I think we’re quite similar. We were both quite quiet. We always just wanted to focus on what was best for us. That’s not just football, that was through school as well. We were always on time, always did things on time. We grew up knowing the importance of manners and respect. That has always been the main thing for us.
Nate, how much do you consider legacy when you play football? You’ve gone to play at Napoli at a time where not many young English talents were going abroad, you’re the second highest England U21 cap holder and you regularly go back to Sierra Leone to help communities there. You’re still young but you’ve packed a lot in…
Nathaniel: I’ve been fortunate in some of the experiences and paths that I have taken. I’ve got a great family support, my agent is here today and I’ve got a great relationship with him, we’re almost family, so for me I think it is important what you leave behind. I think if you’re in a situation where you are fortunate enough to help other people you should because I was raised that way. For me, its wherever I get the opportunity, if I’ve got old boots, old kit that I have left I’ll send it back to Sierra Leone and get them out to boys who aren’t fortunate. I was in a similar situation. I wouldn’t say that severe, but similar to a point where I needed boots and couldn’t afford them and I needed someone to buy them for me. Where you can help, you should because it’s nothing off of your back.
We did a little thing with Scorcher a few months back and he mentioned that he wore your Napoli shirt in one of his videos. What’s your relationship with him like?
Nathaniel: Nah Scorcher is my guy. I’ve known him for like 7-8 years now. He’s football crazy, if you talk to him about it, he won’t stop. He loves it. He’s a good friend of mine, I’ll listen to his music before games just to get me going. He’s not bad at football as well. He always at Goals, he’s a decent midfielder.
Was there anything else for you two beyond football?
Trevoh: Table tennis. I used to play with my Uncle a lot and I was pretty good. We always used to play in the back garden. I’m better than Nate at table tennis, for sure.
How important is style off the pitch to you?
Trevoh: I’ve always been massively into clothes; I’m always going shopping when I can.
Is there any competition between the two of you?
Trevoh: Nah, nah. I wouldn’t say so. We know who has the best drip. (laughs)
Finally, as it’s Christmas, what is the best gift you’ve ever bought each other?
Trevoh: Ah, that’s tough. The greatest present he bought me is one of those Nintendo consoles – the ones which you can switch up and the little screen. I play it a lot. Especially when travelling to games. He loves his trainers, and I know exactly what he likes, so I think the best gift I’ve given is a pair of trainers a couple years ago.
GAFFER would like to give a special thanks to Smokey Barbers.
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