The summer of 2018 proved to be a pivotal one at Chelsea Football Club in many respects, including with regards to the goalkeeper position that had been a bastion of stability and excellence for as long as most could remember.
But as Thibaut Courtois showed his true colors and slithered his way out, and Alisson Becker chose Liverpool, Chelsea scrambled to find an available replacement, eventually spending a world record amount on Kepa Arrizabalaga’s buyout and giving him a seven(!)-year contract to help offset that fee in FFP accounting. Then-manager Maurizio Sarri called Kepa “one of the most important young goalkeepers in the world” — contrary to popular belief, the team knew we weren’t buying the finished article — while Kepa set himself the goal of becoming a Chelsea legend.
And we all lived happily ever after, right? Wrong!
Or at least not yet.
It’s a different kind of goal that concerns so many these days, the one that’s behind Kepa and far too often rippling with ... well, goals. Not all of that is Kepa’s fault, but not all of that isn’t either. Some significant portion surely is, especially after Lampard dropped the 25-year-old in favor of wheeling out an ancient Willy Caballero in Chelsea’s last game.
That certainly doesn’t fit the age-theme of the season! But Kepa’s arrival and the club’s investment in him sent a strong message to many others younger than him. Some, like Marcin Bułka, saw it more as a broken promise. He’s since left for PSG, where he continues to play not much, if at all. (Maybe should’ve stayed, ey, Marcin?)
Others, like Nathan Baxter (there’s the lede!), saw it as just another challenge. Baxter, after all, had plied his trade in the Academy since age 8, watching the likes of Carlo Cudicini, Petr Čech, and Thibaut Courtois in action for the first-team. He already knew it wouldn’t be easy to break in; Kepa’s arrival did not change that. And he had a plan.
Still just a teenager at the time, Baxter was already two years into his long-term gambit of building himself up to the challenge of the Chelsea first-team in an entirely novel way. He had spent the previous two seasons out on loan in NON-league(!) football, impressing at Met Police, Solihull Moors, and Woking. He upgraded to fourth division Yeovil Town in 2018, where he would go on to win all five (5!) of the team’s Player of the Season awards (they give out five, don’t ask questions), and set a club record with six consecutive clean sheets in all competitions (eleven total). That he did so on a team that finished DEAD LAST in League Two is even more impressive.
Last summer, he chose recently promoted Ross County in the Scottish Premiership, but suffered a minor setback by injuring his shoulder in preseason. He returned in late November and has been starting ever since. Unfortunately, County are terrible, even by Scottish league standards, but so far they’re managing to keep themselves just above the relegation zone.
But in a way, that is precisely the point. Baxter went out early on loan to gain “real world” experience, rather than keep living the sheltered life of a Chelsea Academy goalkeeper who rarely gets tested at that level since Chelsea are so dominant usually — and certainly does not get tested physically by his fellow youngsters.
Still just 21, Baxter already has 134 professional appearances under his belt, generally against the stereotypically big burly men of the English football pyramid’s lower leagues. As much as he gained footballing skills in the Academy, he has now gained footballing nous in the Loan Army.
And yes, it’s all with a view of eventually playing for Chelsea.
“It’s ultimately my dream to play for Chelsea but the only way I’ll be able to do that and impress the club is if I perform well here.
“While I’d love to play for the first team one day, I’m a County player now and first and foremost my job is to perform well and help us stay in the division and push for the top six.”
Success there goes hand-in-hand with opportunities back home, right?
In years past, that may not have been the case. But these days, we’ve got a youth revolution going on, and the central characters are all familiar faces, among both the players and the coaches. After all, Baxter was the starting goalkeeper for Joe Edwards and Jody Morris’ FA Youth Cup winners in 2016.
“I’ve had lots of chats with senior players at the club and they all advised me to go out on loan. The first team is made up of lads I was with since the age of eight, so it’s a great time to be a young player at Chelsea.
“In the Youth Cup-winning Chelsea side Fikayo Tomori was the centre-back, with Mason Mount in the middle and Tammy Abraham up front, so it was a pretty good youth team. I’m proud of what they’re doing now and makes me think if these guys have done it then it gives inspiration.”
-Nathan Baxter; source: The Press and Journal
Baxter’s story is already quite inspiring. And it’s only getting started.
As Chelsea get linked to uninspiring options like Nick Pope and Vicente Guaita as potential replacements for Kepa and/or Caballero, maybe giving Baxter a look-in wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Even if it would put him three years ahead of schedule that he related to Chelsea TV after signing a contract through 2023.
“I can now focus on my loans and climbing up the ladder. I think it takes me to I’m 24, which is Kepa’s age, doesn’t it? So hopefully when I’m 24 they won’t have to go out and spend a lot of money and I’ll be ready, you never know.”
-Nathan Baxter, December 2018
You never indeed.