There are few players who, aged 20 years old, have tasted success in a major international tournament as well as helping their side qualify for a World Cup in Brazil, but for Blues defender Kenneth Omeruo, that is precisely the position he currently finds himself in.
It’s been a memorable year for the Nigerian, who last weekend helped his home nation overcome Ethiopia in their World Cup play-off, with the Super Eagles, for whom John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses also played, securing their place at next summer’s finals courtesy of a 4-1 aggregate victory.
It capped a solid period for Omeruo, who, as well as playing every game for the Nigeria side which triumphed at the Africa Cup of Nations last January, started every match during their Confederations Cup campaign, before returning to Stamford Bridge ahead of the new season following a loan spell at ADO Den Haag.
‘It’s a great feeling to qualify for the World Cup,’ he tells the official Chelsea website. ‘The last time we didn’t qualify for the Nations Cup, even though I wasn’t involved, I know the supporters didn’t take it lightly, so we knew we had to make it to Brazil, and I’m happy to be part of the team.
‘There was quite a bit of pressure on us going into the second leg because we knew how good the Ethiopians were, despite the fact we won the away leg 2-1. We knew they could play and we knew what they were capable of, so all credit goes to our coach because he told us to pressurise them and not let them dictate the pace of the game and it worked perfectly for us.
‘Playing in a World Cup is something I always dreamed of as a kid and when I was injured I was just hoping and praying that I would be back in time to play a part. I want to say thank you to the Chelsea medical staff because they made it possible for me to be able to play, so I was very happy.’
Omeruo signed for the Blues in January 2012 and was immediately loaned out to Den Haag, where he stayed for the remainder of that campaign and the whole of the following one.
His displays at the Cup of Nations were made all the more impressive given the fact he had only made his debut for the senior side shortly before the beginning of the tournament in a game against Cape Verde.
Manager Stephen Keshi had seen enough, however, to convince him of the youngster’s abilities, and Omeruo produced a number of mature displays as Nigeria overcame the likes of Ivory Coast and Mali prior to beating Burkina Faso in the final.
‘It felt amazing to win the Africa Cup of Nations,’ he recalls. ‘Going to play in Holland was a good decision because it gave me a lot of experience in the Eredivisie. Because of that, I was ready when I got called up for the tournament and I felt I did well, but the fact I was playing regularly for Den Haag played a big part.
‘The reaction back home was unbelievable; it was a period in Nigeria when there were a lot of problems, but winning that trophy meant everybody was happy. All the people came out into the streets to welcome us back and it was a big celebration, so it’s something I’ll always remember.’
After 18 months plying his trade and gaining invaluable first team experience in the Netherlands, Omeruo returned to Chelsea and, having recovered from the shoulder injury which he sustained in the Confederations Cup, he made his first appearance for the Blues in last month’s Under-21 game against West Ham United.
Pressed on whether he now feels the benefits of his time in Holland, his response is emphatic.
‘Yes I do,’ he says. ‘Den Haag are a really great team for young players; they have a fantastic coach, it’s a very friendly club and they always offer a lot of advice to the youngsters. I would always encourage any player to go there because it helped me develop my game a great deal.
‘I didn’t finish the game against West Ham because I’d just come back from injury so I was short of fitness and I had a bit of cramp, but it felt really good to finally pull on a Chelsea shirt. The game ended 3-3 but I was pleased with my performance.’
While his Chelsea journey remains in its infancy, it comes as no surprise that a player whose career has begun in a promising manner is setting his sights high when looking ahead.
‘My biggest goal is to play for the Chelsea first team and establish myself as a regular in the side,’ he says.
‘For now, I just want to concentrate on playing my football for Chelsea but of course I want to make the Nigeria squad for the World Cup in the summer as well.’