Iké Ugbo: Making Noise
At 22 years old, Ike Ugbo has already been on loan at five different clubs in three different countries. Joe Donnohue speaks to the Chelsea academy product about living life on loan, his career-defining decision to move abroad, striking idols, and plans for the future.
BOUNCING AROUND EUROPE
As a young footballer at one of England’s premium academies, it is remarkably easy to fall by the wayside. Each year, scores of players are whittled down from clubs at every increment in the footballing pyramid, a process which is most accurately depicted in Michael Calvin’s bestseller No Hunger In Paradise.
Many who make it past these early stages are offered scholarship terms, but are released at the make-or-break moment when a first professional contract is not forthcoming.
Managing to earn that first pro deal is a source of pride for many players, their families and the clubs themselves. Earning a second is the real test of a youngster’s credentials.
Between the signing of a first contract, and that of a second, there are under-18 and under-23 appearances, a smattering of loans and on more infrequent occasions, first-team outings.
Going on loan is one of the toughest tasks for a young player, often still in their teenage years, sometimes uprooted from their family home. That task proved all the more difficult for Lewisham-born youngster and Chelsea player Ike Ugbo, who went on loan to Barnsley, Scunthorpe United and MK Dons in the EFL.
“They were tough loans, I think I was about 18 or 19 – but they taught me a lot, even though I didn’t get the goals I wanted,” Ike states in his exclusive interview with Scouted Football.
Ugbo spent time in Canada as a child, and was scouted by Chelsea at age nine upon his return to the UK, signing terms with the club and excelling at every age group – at first as a midfielder, before being moved to striker at under-15 level.
“When I was 13 or 14 I had Joe Edwards and Jody Morris [coaching me]. They were the first ones to push me to play striker, and at the time I was young, a bit immature, I didn’t really want to play striker. They decided to sit me down, show me what I could do in that position.”
Despite a thunderous record in front of goal for the likes of Morris, Edwards and Adi Viveash at Chelsea, he is the first to admit he did not deliver on the pitch at Oakwell, Glanford Park or Stadium:mk. It tested, but didn’t diminish his self-belief.
“It made me stronger in a way because after those loan spells, it was tough – I was in a tough place, especially not getting the goals. But you just have to keep working, and [have] self-belief, a lot of self-belief, to show that you can get goals.”
Ugbo was a star at under-23 level for Chelsea, as well as an England under-17 and under-20 international. He scored ten times in the 2016-17 iteration of the FA Youth Cup as Chelsea romped to another success, in a team comprised of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Conor Gallagher, Mason Mount and Reece James.
Having played alongside Tammy Abraham since the age of 14 – a player he still remains close to today – Ugbo knows a rapid ascent is always a possibility, but one reserved for a select few. No longer a regular at under-23 level, he certainly feels he has matured since making the permanent transition to men’s football, of which he has had plenty of exposure.
CUTTING HIS TEETH IN THE NETHERLANDS AND BELGIUM
Most recently, Ugbo signed a contract extension at Stamford Bridge, keeping him at the club until 2022. Last season though, he took the rather unconventional step to join Dutch side Roda JC Kerkrade on loan in the country’s second tier, which opened him up to the possibility of a career abroad.
“When I was 18 I wanted to stay in England, stay at home, but as I got older I started watching more football outside England and I think it suited me better. [Going abroad] I think was the best option in my career at that time,” he says, paying particular credit to his father, who had urged him to consider playing somewhere other than England.
Ugbo scored 13 times in the Eerste Divisie and registered one assist in 28 games – a healthy return, and one which restored faith in his own convictions that he would always be able to find goals, no matter where they came.
“I think when I was younger I doubted myself more, it affected me more not getting the goals. It’s a learning curve sometimes, you’re not always going to have a route straight to the top, but I learnt that. I always had self-belief, I always knew I could get goals, sometimes you have to be patient in the process, I think that’s what happened with me.”
At 22 years-old, Ugbo preaches patience because he has had to endure some difficult periods in his career to date. While he was scoring regularly in the Netherlands, close friend Abraham, schoolmate Fikayo Tomori and ex-youth teammate Mason Mount were making their mark on the first-team scene under Frank Lampard.
Perhaps surprisingly, he is unbothered but congratulatory, single-minded even, in his attitude towards his peers’ comparative success. He stresses on a number of occasions that the road less travelled is not necessarily any worse, and in his case he believes it to have been the correct one.
It has led him to Belgium, where he has five goals in nine Pro League appearances this season – a fast start to his first taste of top flight action. Ike is Cercle Brugge’s new No. 9, and his style has evidently paid dividends, as it did over the border in the Netherlands.
ADAPTING HIS SKILLSET TO PLAYING ABROAD
He has been forensic in his analysis of where previous moves did not quite pan out as he had hoped. Ike believes failing to adapt quickly enough meant he struggled. At both Roda and Cercle, he has hit the ground running.
“Obviously when you’re at Chelsea, you have most of the possession most of the time so they’re not really trying to play long balls all the time. When I was younger that’s what I found difficult, adapting my style of play.”
“It’s more technical and physical put together [in Europe] than when I was in the Championship, for sure,” he adds.
Translating steady goalscoring in Holland’s second tier to Belgium’s top flight is much easier said than done, but Ugbo has managed just that so far. He is a self-proclaimed one-touch finisher, often requiring just a single opportunity to find the net.
Being a striker is a ruthless business, particularly where managers can employ a single forward formation, but Ugbo has earned his shirt on both occasions.
“I think when you’ve played there so many times, it becomes like an instinct, you know where to be at the right time,” Ike digresses, suggesting his penalty box movement is innate rather than taught.
“Some finishes are just one-touch, and I don’t think it’s lucky that you’re just in the right place, it’s knowing where to be in certain situations.”
Growing in confidence appears to be a common theme with Ike – with confidence, comes goals. At Chelsea, he was a leading light of the under-18 and under-23 sides, he knew his role and was playing alongside the best players of that age. His loan spells could not have been more different; contrasting environments, at times rudimentary football, and an overbearing need to adapt quickly.
“Sometimes you have to take different routes to get to where you’re trying to get to. But you do need a lot of mental strength to go away for so long, sometimes not see your family for a while.”
PLOTTING THE PATH AHEAD
Sacrifices have been made, but now he is making noise – and plenty of it. That is Ike’s immediate goal, to keep scoring, and turning in high-level performances at the top level of domestic football wherever he plays.
Cercle have an option to purchase Ugbo at the end of the season when there will be 12 months remaining on his Chelsea deal. It will not be an expensive one, but that will be no reflection of his past two seasons in Europe, in which his stock has undoubtedly risen.
“I had to build a foundation of goals basically, to show I have goals in first team football. Even though it was the second division in Holland, it was one of my best seasons outside of Under-23 football. I think then it got people talking about me again.”
The prospect of one day playing in Europe’s top five leagues is one which seemed unlikely following his Scunthorpe loan, but now appears a real possibility.
Cercle’s relationship with Ligue 1 club AS Monaco is well-documented. Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev owns the Belgian club, and is Monaco’s club President.
Anthony Musaba was signed by the Monégasques this summer, and immediately loaned to Cercle Brugge, where he and Ike have linked up well in attack. The pair also featured together in the Dutch second division last season; Musaba with NEC Nijmegen and Ugbo with Roda JC.
During 2019/20, AS Monaco and former Chelsea academy graduate Jonathan Panzo spent the year at Cercle’s shared Jan Breydel Stadion. This year, he features for Ligue 1 outfit Dijon.
While the season is still young, and any prospective move out of the question at present, there does appear to be tangible pathway into Europe’s elite leagues if Ugbo continues to score at his current rate. Since joining Roda, he has averaged a goal once every other game, and it isn’t hard to see why with the 22-year-old’s poaching instincts.
Ike credits Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba as the reason he fell in love with the game as a child, both players with their own ties to France’s Mediterranean coast.
“I think just the swagger they played with. The way they played just caught my eye from [when I was] young. I always loved those two.”
He is now playing with a swagger, albeit in Belgium, but in the top flight, something which appeared unlikely more than anything, after that trio of loan spells to struggling EFL sides where chances in front of goal were few and far between.
Ike Ugbo is making noise on the continent, and is a prime example of how some players – regardless of their individual ability – are simply ready for certain levels of football at different stages in their career. In his position, the expectation is greater and more immediate, judgement of a striker’s acumen can often be more ruthless, but equally so, young strikers with two seasons of consistent goalscoring are a rare and extremely marketable commodity. Ike is closing in on becoming that.
Last year, Cercle managed seven victories in the Belgian top flight prior to the Championship and Relegation Rounds, flirting with the drop throughout the campaign. This season, they have already amassed five victories and have designs on the European play-off places.
With five goals already to his name this season, if Cercle continue in this vein of form, the din Ugbo is currently making could soon become an almighty racket, which clubs of AS Monaco’s stature will find difficult to ignore.