(Picture: Andy Fitzsimons/Refuel Performance Management)
Last year, Chelsea goalkeeper Nathan Baxter made an important and bold decision to influence his future in football.
Having just won the UEFA Youth League and FA Youth Cup, the pinnacle, and often start, of any young football player’s career, it would have been easy for the 18-year-old to stay in the luxury of the Premier League club’s stunning Cobham training ground.
It was on the first team’s summer pre-season tour to Los Angeles where Baxter, who is now on loan at National League Woking, realised what he should do next.
“I spoke to lots of the players on that trip,” recalls the 6ft 3’ shot stopper, who was wowed as an eight-year-old walking through the same door as Petr Cech.
“They said how playing men’s football at a young age helped them and that I shouldn’t be worried what level I was playing at to get experience.
“It’s difficult to go straight into playing for Chelsea without having any experience. The logical step was a Football League loan but managers want an experienced goalkeeper they can trust and the only way to become that is by playing games.
“I had lots of conversations with Neil Bath, the academy manager, about what to do before we decided upon a loan move in Non-League.
“I ended up playing over 40 games last season, experiencing Saturday-Tuesday football, playing for three points where the manager’s job is on the line, playing in relegation battles and playing long ball. I loved it.”
While Brazil centre-back David Luiz was returning to Chelsea from Paris Saint-Germain for £30 million on August’s 2016 Deadline Day, Baxter was on his way to Isthmian Premier Division side Met Police.
“They’d had about seven games before I came and they hadn’t won,” he said. “I went from going to a team winning every week to one that wasn’t. That was a great experience.
“When I was at Met, I trained with the Chelsea first team quite a lot. I was training with world class players, day in, day out and then getting the match day experience of playing Non-League football which was a really nice contrast.”
After a successful period at Met, Baxter caught the eye of National League Solihull Moors in January.
“The environment was different there – bigger crowds, bigger clubs, it’s such a challenging division,” said Baxter. “I remember playing against Lincoln in my third game and learning more than I had done in lots of academy games.
“At Chelsea, we would dominate games and I didn’t get much to do. Going to Met and Solihull, where they were down the bottom, I was a lot busier.”
Baxter’s season-long loan move to Woking this year was largely written in the stars. His first Chelsea training session, aged 8, was taken by Cards legend Lawrence Batty while one of his goalkeeping idols, former England international Rob Green, is a self-confessed fan.
Baxter’s performances last month earned him back-to-back entries into The NLP’s Team of the Day as Woking charged up the table into third.
“Part of the great thing about working under the gaffer (Anthony Limbrick) and Jason Goodliffe is that I’m not left to my own devices, as a goalkeeper.
“Every Monday they have a conversation with me about how I thought I played. The manager is so knowledgeable on tactics. The way he deals with me is great. You can see how much he wants to develop the players even though the main priority is to win.
“He’s come from the academy background and working under top managers at Southampton like Mauricio Pochettino.
“We’re in a great run of form although there’s still a long way to go. The league is so tough, we’re aiming for a top half finish but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.
“I’m happy with how I’ve been playing but you always want more. At 18, I’ve now played 50 men’s games, 30 in the National League, I’m not sure how many people my age have done that.”
Baxter may have left the Chelsea life behind, but you can find tickets for the Blues and many more teams at www.footballticketpad.com.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.