When World Cup-bound former Chelsea youngster Ike Ugbo was a kid growing up in Canada mentions of anything to do with their national team and major tournaments were hard to find.
‘Football wasn’t so big in Canada then,’ remembered striker Ugbo, now at French Ligue 1 club Troyes. ‘And there wasn’t really any talk about Canada’s players.
‘Little things that we see in England – when there is a World Cup near you know there is a World Cup coming around – that didn’t happen’.
World Cup-bound Ike Ugbo played for Chelsea’s academy after moving to England aged nine
Canada’s profile and prominence has changed significantly now with Ugbo part of the squad under English coach John Herdman and that includes Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Lille’s Jonatan David who have put the country on the international football map again.
In March, Canada made history by qualifying for this year’s World Cup, their first since 1986, and Ugbo, 23, said: ‘When I went back over and we qualified, and even before the qualification, you could see little things like adverts in the newspapers, us being invited to events like basketball games.
‘It just shows that the country is really behind the team and supporting what we are doing.’
Ugbo, a former England youngster who briefly declared for Nigeria before deciding his international future lay with Canada, added: ‘Once we qualified against Jamaica, you could see the tears in players’ eyes. People were on the ground crying.
‘I could see this means so much to everyone and they put so much work in before I even came to get to this point. I made the choice to change over, to join the group and help the team do the best in the World Cup.
‘When you’re young, you’re always watching the World Cup, dreaming about going to the World Cup.
Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies (L) helped put Canada back on international football map
‘The closer it gets the more it starts to hit me, I’m actually going to a World Cup.’
London-born Ugbo moved to Canada with his family when he was three before returning to England aged nine.
While he was in North America and started out playing football Ugbo did so mainly for fun.
It was after he joined Chelsea’s academy having been spotted playing for Tooting & Mitcham that he began to truly grasp the size of what he was doing and opportunities ahead.
‘Seeing the players [around the training ground] and being ball boy for the games as you get older,’ he remembered.
‘At 12 you get to be a ball boy, see the stadium and you realise this is a big deal and what you’re trying to aim for.
The 23-year-old is now at French Ligue 1 club Troyes after turning down offers from England
‘I was ball boy for the Chelsea vs. Arsenal 5-3 game, when Robin Van Persie scored a hat-trick and Chelsea vs. Barcelona when Didier Drogba scored. It was the best game I’ve seen I think.’
Ugbo played alongside the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Reece James, Mason Mount, Trevoh Chalobah, Conor Gallagher, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori as he came through the Chelsea ranks though left permanently last year after 13 years before making a first-team appearance.
‘It’s been a roller coaster and it’s not always a straight line to your destination,’ Ugbo said.
‘Everyone’s path is different and you can see that, especially the players I played with, some of them, they’ve had a nice one into the first team at Chelsea.
‘But you came into Chelsea on your own. You have to focus on what you have to get done.
Ugbo will play for Canada in Qatar this winter after they made their first World Cup since 1986
‘Obviously it would have been nice to stay at Chelsea, but sometimes you go through certain things for certain reasons in life.
‘My case is just making me a stronger person, better footballer. I have to learn this way, but it’s going in the right direction that’s what I’m mostly concerned about.’
Indeed, Ugbo’s Chelsea years were far from in vain.
Looking back now, he can reflect on some valuable, career-shaping lessons learned and his time at Chelsea laying the foundations for all he is experiencing now, his career heading on an upward trajectory for club and country.
A prolific scorer and multiple trophy winner at youth level, Ugbo saw what he felt looked ‘like a boy’ playing men’s football in the Championship and League One when he re-watched clips of himself during his first loans away from the Chelsea ‘bubble’ at Barnsley, MK Dons and Scunthorpe.
‘After my third loan spell, the second year out on loan when I was at Scunthorpe, I went back to Chelsea mid-season in January and that’s when I had time to reflect on the loans,’ he said.
Players celebrated jubilantly with the Canadian flag after beating Jamaica in Toronto
‘Have proper conversations about why am I not scoring the same as when I was at Chelsea, why am I not doing the same, those kind of things.
‘After that I had four months, five months to prepare myself to just rebuild my career kind of because the direction it was going in then was not what was planned.
‘It was going lower down the leagues and I had to start back and go with a fresh mindset of “I’m just going to rebuild my name.”‘
Open-minded Ugbo enlisted the help of a psychologist, admitting that ‘going from such high confidence, winning cups to square one in two months, really hit me,’ to get to the bottom of ‘why the results are not coming anymore.’
It was also around that time that he began working on and adding the routine of extras – ‘the little things that you are not asked to do’ – on the training ground and in the gym that still serves him now and has become ‘second nature’.
Rather than try his luck with another Football League loan, Ugbo went abroad for a fresh start with a fresh approach and has thrived.
His final two loan spells while still a Chelsea player were prolific ones at Dutch side Roda and Cercle Bruge in Belgium. He scored 30 goals in 63 games.
Ugbo played alongside Reece James (L) and Mason Mount (R) as he came through Blues ranks
Ugbo then joined Genk permanently at the start of last season before a loan move to Troyes where he scored five times in 11 starts, his final three confidence-boosting goals coming against Monaco, Lille and Paris Saint-Germain.
‘I believe I can play at the highest level but when it comes off, scoring against the big teams, it’s that nice feeling,’ he said.
‘Now it is just maintaining it and performing it on a regular basis to achieve what I want in my career.’
Having adapted impressively to life abroad and all that encompasses among the many things Ugbo has discovered is a football world beyond England.
‘Before it was like Prem is the goal,’ he said. ‘Now it is still the goal, but I feel like it’s working abroad.
‘I wouldn’t mind staying and finishing my career abroad. I don’t want to just go [back to England] for the sake of going I want to go club that wants me and I can play.
‘Now every season I start the same way I started at Roda – just going to show what I can do. It doesn’t really matter about the surroundings as long as I do my job properly, I think my performances will show that.’
Ugbo speaks to Chelsea and England legend Frank Lampard during his spell at the London club
Just how at home Ugbo feels abroad was underlined again this summer when opportunities to return to England presented themselves but he instead preferred to join Troyes permanently.
And with the huge occasion for Canada looming in Qatar, continuity was key.
‘That was why I made that decision,’ he confirmed.
‘It was hard to say no to England but it was, I think, the right decision. When I came here [to Troyes] I was really starting to enjoy football, again. This was a top five league, which is what I always wanted, we did well towards the end of the season and I was performing well.
‘I need to have a rhythm of playing and getting goals to go into the World Cup being high on confidence and doing what I do best.
‘It’s very big for Canada after so many years to finally go again to a World Cup so that’s why I had to look at where I am to be in a position to go.
‘I personally think we will do well and shock a lot of teams with the qualities we have.
‘Even though we have got a young team we have still got experience playing in the big leagues in Europe.
‘Once we mould that all together I think we will surprise a lot of people and what they expect from Canada.’