September 26, 2023

New Chelsea striker Nicolas Jackson’s talent was honed on the streets of Senegal

Nicolas Jackson - New Chelsea striker Nicolas Jackson's talent was honed on the streets of Senegal

Nicolas Jackson brings a lot of potential after a less than typical route to the top – Shutterstock/Omar Arnau

For young Nicolas Jackson, there would be no academy trajectory and no training in the art of football. He grew up in the south of Senegal and did not play for a professional club until he was seventeen. Chelsea’s new centre-forward, who signed an eight-year contract on Friday, learned the game in his own way and at his own pace. in the streets and avenues of Ziguinchor.

It is not uncommon for a top footballer’s journey to begin on the street. But it’s rare in modern times for a player to stay there that long, his talent unblemished and his gifts unexplored, before breaking through. Even as he approached adulthood, there was no expectation that he would one day become a star: His father, Jackson said, wanted him to give up football altogether.

However, Jackson was far too “stubborn” (his words) for that. He was willing to believe in his dream when others apparently didn’t, and he was also willing to work for it. Around the age of 16, Jackson chose to leave school – much to his parents’ initial anger – and devote himself entirely to the sport.

Chelsea co-sports directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley are certainly pleased he did, saying: “We are delighted to welcome Nicolas to Chelsea. He is a young player with great potential as he showed last season for Villarreal. We believe he is ready for this next step in his career and look forward to working with our new head coach, Mauricio Pochettino, and his Chelsea teammates.”

As he now prepares to start his new life in London, following his £34 million move to Stamford Bridge from Villarreal, Jackson and his family will surely look back on those days and reflect on the path he took. A fork in the road, a courageous decision and then the relentless pursuit of a goal few thought was within reach.

This is not to say that Jackson has now achieved everything he wanted. Only 22, his move to the Premier League is just the latest in a journey that has taken him from the concrete of Senegal to the fields of Cobham in five wild years.

Nicolas Jackson - New Chelsea striker Nicolas Jackson's talent was honed on the streets of Senegal

Jackson has gone from the concrete of Senegal to the fields of Cobham in five wild years – Shutterstock/Domenech Castello

The first breakthrough came when Jackson was spotted by Senegalese team Casa Sports after excelling in a street tournament. Such contests are for finding raw talent, and Jackson stood out from the crowd. After just two appearances for his new team, he had been called up by Senegal’s under-20s. Within a year, he was on trial for leading clubs in Europe.

Benfica was among those who scrutinized Jackson before he got the chance to train at Villarreal in the summer of 2019. According to a report in the Spanish newspaper AS, his trial was watched by the president of the club, Fernando Roig. Within minutes, Roig ordered his staff to sign Jackson on a permanent contract.

At the time, Jackson was more of a winger than a striker. His dribbling was so good that he was dubbed the “Senegalese Neymar” in his own country. But over time he has learned to take the lead, stretch the defense and bring his teammates into play. He is fast over the ground and with his height of 1.80 meters he is powerful in duels.

Adjusting to a new country is never easy, let alone during a pandemic, and it would be wrong to say that Jackson has always found it easy in Spain. In an interview with Marca last year, he said his new coaches were initially “angry” with him because he was struggling to eat the food at the club.

While adjusting to a new culture, he had a loan spell with Mirandes in Spain’s second division and then spent a season with Villarreal’s reserve team. Jackson was officially promoted to the first team in August last year by Unai Emery, now head coach at Aston Villa.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek leaves Chelsea for AC Milan

Ruben Loftus-Cheek leaves Chelsea for AC Milan

Emery is one of the sharpest coaches in Europe, but even he didn’t expect Jackson’s rise to continue at such a pace last season. The striker finished the campaign as a full Senegal international and with 12 goals in 26 appearances in La Liga. Only three players in the entire division (Karim Benzema, Cristhian Stuani and Robert Lewandowski) scored faster.

In the last few weeks of the season, Jackson was the best player in the league, striking nine times in the last eight games of the campaign and being named La Liga’s player of the month for May. In the top five European competitions, he finished the season with the best goals-per-minute ratio, excluding penalties, of any player aged 21 or under.

The calls from bigger clubs were therefore inevitable for Villarreal, who had actually agreed to sell Jackson to Bournemouth in January, before a hamstring injury prevented the move. After the failure of that transfer, Villarreal manager Quique Setién said: “He has extraordinary potential. We are going to boost him so that he is worth double in the summer.”

Amid competition from clubs in Germany and Italy, Chelsea have agreed to pay just over £30 million to make Jackson the first signing of the Pochettino era. The centre-forward has been an ongoing problem for the club and while Jackson is still far from his peak, Chelsea’s team of recruiting experts clearly believe he is capable of providing a long-term solution.

Jackson’s story is unique and his game is shaped by those streets in Ziguinchor. The challenge for him now is to continue his growth in arguably the toughest competition in the world. It may seem like a tough question, but Jackson has come so far in just a few short years. Why should his journey stop

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