“The first thing that happened was a ball got kicked in the air at me and I got an elbow in the face,” Richard Nartey says as he recalls his gritty introduction to League One after going on loan to Burton Albion. The centre-back, who has been at Chelsea since he was nine, knew it was time to sink or swim. He was making his professional debut after coming off the bench against Bristol Rovers in August and it was a rude awakening.
“I was a bit dazed,” Nartey says. “It was my wake-up call. I was telling myself: ‘You’ve got to give it back. You can’t act like this young person from Chelsea, otherwise people will pick on you.’ I had to show I could do all the physical stuff and let my technical side show as well.”
He knuckled down, helping Burton to a 2-0 victory. He enjoyed his time at the Pirelli Stadium and is disappointed that the League One season is over prematurely. He has been back at his family home in Wimbledon during lockdown and, with Chelsea deciding not to renew his contract when it expires on 30 June, he is focusing on finding a new club.
The 21-year-old is used to being challenged. Nartey placed a high value on his education, even though it slowed his development at Chelsea. He attended St Paul’s, a private school in south-west London, until he finished his GCSEs when he was 16. “I stayed longer than most at Chelsea before going on loan because I started full-time a couple of years later,” he says. “Usually you do day release at 13. You still go to school and take a day off to train. At 14, 15, 16 you do full-time football. I didn’t train for two and a bit years full-time.
“Even if you were good enough you can never tell what’s going to happen at that age. With my parents giving me all the help I needed I thought it better to do my GCSEs. Once you go full-time it switches to being more focused on football. It ended up with me going to school for the five days and then I’d have to just turn up on the day of the game. Then I’d go back to school while everyone else went back to training for the week.”
There was more to come for Nartey, who spent three years studying for maths and French A-levels after joining Chelsea full-time at 16. He is grateful to the club for paying for his lessons and finding him quiet spaces to work, but he also had to catch up on his teammates. Nartey had fallen behind at an academy that produced Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James.
“The goalkeeper Nathan Baxter did a similar thing to me,” he says. “But you do feel on your own. I didn’t know many in my situation. I was surrounded by players who were not only the best but had been doing it for two years, every day. I came in as a skinny schoolkid.
“That was my first ever pre-season. I’d never trained every day before. The first time I tried it I cramped up within 40 minutes. I took that session as a break and trained every other day. I told myself I had to be patient. I did two training sessions in a row for the first time and in my mind that was a great achievement. Everyone else was celebrating in a jokey way. But it was big for me.”
Nartey is not surprised that Abraham, Mount, Tomori, Hudson-Odoi and James have broken into the first team. The academy coaches improved their technique but also instilled a strong work ethic. Nartey had a solid grounding thanks to Joe Edwards, who joined the first-team coaching staff at the start of the season, and Jody Morris, Frank Lampard’s No 2.
“Joe has been there since I was very young,” Nartey says. “He’s been extremely helpful, especially as you’re getting into the 23s. He was crucial in reminding us you’re going to lose games when you go out, you’re going to find yourself not playing sometimes.
“Jody was my youth-team coach. His success speaks for itself. He would join in the training session sometimes and would usually be the best player technically. You would see what the top level looks like, even though he had retired.”
Nartey had more to learn. He had featured against lower-league sides when Chelsea reached the semi-finals of the Checkatrade Trophy in 2018, but he needed a tougher environment than academy football. Burton beckoned. “You learn how fortunate you are growing up at Chelsea,” he says. “You go on loan and see there are bonuses for winning games and how much that means to someone.”
Nigel Clough, who quit as Burton’s manager to help the club cope with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, gave Nartey 28 appearances. Jake Buxton, the experienced centre-back who has stepped in as player-manager, has been another big influence.
Tore André Flo, who looks after Chelsea’s loan players, has also helped mentor him. “He’s been extremely helpful,” Nartey says. “I’d play a game and the first message I’d have when I’d get back was: ‘I saw you played the whole game, how did you find it?’ He’s come up to Burton a few times.
“He played up front and he was saying what he didn’t like. Strikers like time on the ball and he said the toughest ones were when people got tight and didn’t give you the chance to turn.”
The next step is approaching. “I always wanted to be involved in financial things,” Nartey says. “My dad works at Barclays so I’ve been getting advice from him. I’ve started a financial trading course during lockdown. Hopefully it stays as a back-up plan, but even when I retire I’ll need to do something. It will never hurt to have the two A-levels.”