Ola Aina has had something of a bittersweet first full season out on loan, at Hull City. It’s been a time of uncertainty and chaos for the club itself, following their relegation from the Premier League last season. Most of their best players were sold all too easily by the owners and the club were left ridiculously short on first-team players until the very end of the transfer window. Aina was one of three Chelsea players loaned to Hull, who had Roman Abramovich’s friend Leonid Slutsky in charge for the first half of the season.
It was always going to be a tough job for Slutsky to produce results with a team that hadn’t even had a proper pre-season together and was generally quite young, apart from some senior figures like Michael Dawson, Allan McGregor and David Meyler. Many youngsters, such as Aina, Fikayo Tomori and Hull City’s own academy graduates such as Max Clark and Jarrod Bowen were thrown into the deep end. Bowen took to the Championship like a duck to water but the transition for Aina wasn’t quite as easy in the circumstances.
Here’s Aina himself, reflecting on the months gone by that have helped improve him as a player.
“It’s been my first loan and it has been enjoyable, even though it has been a difficult season at times.
“I’ve certainly enjoyed playing regular first team football and being part of the squad here. I think I have developed as a player over the season and I feel as though I have matured both on and off the field.
“I’ve always been able to look after myself but being away from home, away from my parents and my siblings, has probably been good for me in terms of maturing and it has all been a part of this experience here. Having Fik (Fikayo Tomori) and Hec (Michael Hector) here has probably also been a help, but even if they weren’t here I think I would still have been okay because of the way things are set-up here.”
That’s as far as the mental and off-the-pitch aspects of it go.
On the pitch, especially in his early appearances, one could tell that the young full-back had a lot to work on to get up to speed with the level required of him. As he’d shown at Chelsea, he could prove to be an effective force going forward but there were holes all over the defensive part of his game, from positioning to decision-making. Aina was also guilty on multiple occasions of taking one touch too many in dangerous areas, where simply clearing the ball might’ve been the better option. He acknowledges the same.
“On the field I have learnt a lot as well – it’s certainly not U23s football anymore. You’re learning how to judge games and when and where to do things.
“In the early stages of the season I was probably doing things in the wrong areas of the pitch. As the season has gone on, I’ve realised that sometimes it’s not a bad thing to just put your foot through the ball and clear it.
“That’s not necessarily the way we’ve been coached coming up through the youth teams, you’re taught to play your way out, but sometimes putting your foot through it is the best thing in men’s football.”
However, perhaps most importantly, both Slutsky and Nigel Adkins, his successor, have shown faith in Aina even as he made mistakes. He has over 40 appearances to his name this season and no doubt, he’s become a better player with each one of them. Regular minutes at Hull City have also seen him regularly called up to the senior Nigeria team and even make his debut. He may well be going to the World Cup, too!
As far as his future at Chelsea is concerned, Ola realises that it’s not going to be easy to earn a regular first-team place at Stamford Bridge and is simply focusing on tackling what’s ahead of him right now, as he should.
“Chelsea is a big club and they have a lot more to focus on than just me.
“They have a lot of other players out on loan, as well as the players currently there. For me personally, I’m working hard towards the dream of playing for Chelsea because they are the club that I have always supported, long before I was scouted by them.
“We don’t know what the future holds, but Hull City has been my bread and butter this season and all I want is for us to finish strongly at the weekend.”
-Ola Aina; source: Hull City Tigers
It’s been a lengthy learning curve for Aina at the KCOM Stadium this season but ultimately, it’s made him a better player and will help him a great deal when it comes to overcoming whatever his challenge is, next season. Sometimes it’s a long road to the first-team, and one that may not even lead there but if nothing else, there is a lot of experience to gain along the way.