Callum Hudson-Odoi is talking peacocks and crocodiles, key features of his south London childhood, though not always in a good way.
To start with, the peacocks. Hudson-Odoi was brought up in Colliers Wood, a typical south London suburb.
He went to Whitgift School, an independent school in south Croydon with a touch of Hogwarts about it, whose alumni include Chelsea title winner Victor Moses and Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala.
Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi opens up on childhood football, his relationship with Thomas Tuchel and England duty
Street-smart from his time playing football in caged pitches in his local park, Hudson-Odoi was not quite ready for exotic birds that roam freely in Whitgift’s grounds.
‘We had a couple of peacocks that were at my school,’ he says. ‘They are very beautiful animals. You look at them, they are very calm and relaxed. But if you start getting too close, they start spreading their wings and going absolutely crazy!’
Enough to freak out an 11-year-old. Hudson-Odoi might be able to take on an 18-year-old in the cages of south London but a fully enraged peacock spreading its wings was enough to turn him on his heels.
The London native has gone from playing football in caged pitches to the Club World Cup
He says: ‘There was a lot of them at my school. It was amazing. It was a private school where they want to make sure you are academically focused but sporting wise were helping as much as possible. It was a different experience than going to a regular school.’
Then there were the crocodiles. At least they were plastic, an ornament at a paddling pool at the Colliers Wood rec, a non-descript park, which had a caged football pitch a few minutes’ walk from his home.
Locally it is known as Crocodile Park and it is there that Hudson-Odoi honed the kind of skills that saw him break down the left wing in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago and provide the cross that opened the scoring as Chelsea won the World Club Cup.
On Sunday, he will feature in the League Cup final against Liverpool and in August he helped Chelsea win the UEFA Super Cup final in Belfast. But it was the cages that made him the player he is today.
On Sunday, the 21-year-old will feature in the League Cup final against Liverpool
‘Crocodile Park, that place is just full of memories,’ he says. ‘Literally when I was two years old I would go to the park and start playing football with my dad and brother.
‘Every player who has been to the cages just wants to be confident and to show their best ability, to play with the ball and be confident. It’s a different side of you. When I was at Crocodile Park I used to play against people way older, players who were 16, 17 years old.
‘It was good for me. They might not be as good as players but at the same time you are still getting experience because they have played a bit longer than you and you’re going to know the physicality as they are and it brings out the best of you.
‘I had no strength at that age, so I couldn’t use my body against them, so it was literally skill, speed and just running, so it was nice.’
His dad was Bismark Odoi, a Ghanian international who played for Hearts of Oak, Accra’s biggest team and who starred in one of the most infamous games in Ghanian football history in 1978, beating Asante Kotoko.
He came to London soon after on a football coaching course, being mentored by former England No2 Don Howe.
Hudson-Odoi’s brother is Bradley, who played for Hereford United in League Two before pursuing a non-League career.
Hudson-Odoi visited Ghana last summer and again this month during the one-week winter break.
He said: ‘The craziest experience I’ve ever been to is watching a match there. I went to the stadium, Hearts of Oak. I literally couldn’t get in it was so packed with fans trying to get inside any way possible.
‘Because it was my first time coming back in a while, everyone was looking for me and crazy for me. My dad used to play there and it’s nice to see and experience where he used to play. But at the same with me I’m just dying, everyone was just crowding me!’
Since making his England debut in March 2019 and being impressive in a 5–1 win against Montenegro, where he suffered racist abuse, his career might seem to have stalled to casual observers.
Hudson-Odoi impressed in a 5–1 win against Montenegro, where he suffered racist abuse
Few though appreciate the severity of the achilles tendon injury he sustained a month after those England games, which left him having to rebuild his sprinting style.
‘People don’t always understand how it is to get an injury like that, come back and start playing again. My whole running style changed, the way I used to sprint on my toes. I had to change that.’
He worked his way back under Frank Lampard and then manager Thomas Tuchel took over, presenting a fresh challenge.
Within two months of the German’s arrival, their relationship was in the spotlight when Tuchel brought him on at Southampton at half-time before hauling him off 31 minutes later.
‘That situation was very strange to me,’ says Hudson-Odoi. ‘I’ve never been in a situation like that, so when it happened in my head I was just like, there was no need for me to sulk or go into a strop or give attitude because that’s not the person I am. Everything was be calm, be happy, be relaxed.’
Hudson-Odoi said Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel (pictured) is tactically amazing
It is an open secret that Tuchel wants more from Hudson-Odoi. You only have to watch his histrionics from the bench to know that. It is also increasingly apparent that Tuchel is slowly being won round by the 21-year-old.
‘The manager is a very good guy, tactically he’s amazing,’ said Hudson-Odoi. ‘He knows how to get the best out of each player, sometimes it might be in a way that you don’t want to hear it or he might be shouting in a way that you think: “Why are you shouting so much on the touchline”?’
As he asks the question, he is smiling broadly, stifling a laugh. ‘At the same time he wants what is best for the team.
‘Sometimes it’s hard to understand and you think to yourself: “Can you calm down a little bit and stop shouting as much”?!
‘But he’s trying to get a message across and make it clear to you that: “Listen, I want this from you because I want to win the game. I’m not just going to shout at you, I’ll shout at everybody to make sure we get the best out of everybody. And we win the game. Or get the 100 per cent out of everybody”.
Hudson-Odoi admitted the German manager knows how to get the best out of each player
‘It’s definitely a different sort of manager compared to the others ones I’ve been under. He’s always on his toes, always up and ready to make a gesture or talk. Just very vocal.
‘It’s good on the pitch but sometimes it’s like: “Can you quieten down a little bit, not shout as much”? But it’s OK.’
He also attracted attention last autumn when he preferred to train with Chelsea rather than play for England Under 21s. He was accused of picking and choosing his games for his country and he could yet opt to play for Ghana, as all his senior caps have come before the age of 21.
He insists that is not the plan, that missing the Under 21s was all about getting back into Tuchel’s good books, the Chelsea first XI and proving himself ready for Gareth Southgate’s senior squad.
‘I didn’t not go to England because I thought I was bigger than them or I was being big time or anything like that,’ he says.
‘It was just me trying to get back into the team in Chelsea and focusing on club football as much as possible: to be a regular player, an option to always play and be involved.
‘People thought: “Oh, he’s being big time or arrogant”. Or he’s being somebody he shouldn’t be. I’m not that person at all.
The Chelsea winger has been accused of picking and choosing his games for his country
I’m not big time. I’m not cocky. I’m very humble. I’m very relaxed. I was always thinking to myself: “What’s best for me in this moment”?
‘For me, it was more of a fact that I wanted to stay back and try to get into the team and work as much as possible and show the manager what I’m capable of.
‘I was like: “Sit back, don’t make a scene, don’t make any problems with England”. I’m good with all the coaches there. I have no problems with any of them. If it [an Under 21 call-up] came again, who knows?’
An England squad will be announced next month. The League Cup final is on Sunday. He already has a couple of medals this season. Hudson-Odoi is on the cusp of something. It might not have been a linear progression but maybe the crocodiles and peacocks served the young man well.