When Nathan Ake left his native Netherlands for the glamour of London, it was not without controversy. Like many before him, bright young things attracted admiring glances from Europe’s elite and when Chelsea saw a 15-year-old Ake bamboozle their youth team in a Willem II junior tournament, the Blues swiftly moved to lure the talented teenager to England.
Understandably, Feyenoord were furious at letting one of their prospects leave to the point that they sought FIFA to introduce a rule preventing players signing professional contracts until their 16th birthday. Talk of his switch into London also prompted an inquiry from the Dutch Parliament, yet the teenager has set his heart on a move to London and in 2011, he got his wish.
Ake made a steady improvement in the youth ranks and in 2012, he made his first league start for Chelsea. Then caretaker manager Rafael Benitez clearly trusted the youngster, giving him further debuts in the FA Cup and the Europa League that saw Ake named Young Player of the Year at season’s end. His quick progress was evident and testament as to why the Blues were determined to nab the youngster.
The versatile defender, who can also play in a defensive midfield role, got promoted to the first-team in 2014 and shortly made his Champions League debut afterwards but while impressing on the training ground, he found minutes on the pitch hard to come by, as was the case with many of Chelsea’s young talents. As such, this led to one of his many temporary switches from the West London club.
After spending a month with Reading near the end of the 2014-2015 campaign, Ake returned to Stamford Bridge and while only making one appearance for Chelsea in May as the Blues won the league, then manager Jose Mourinho stated he would receive a winner’s medal. But while the youngster was fully integrated into the first-team and felt happy about the title win, the feeling of not being able to celebrate as much as the others due to a lack of involvement on the pitch lingered.
The Dutch defender, who felt he had more to give than just being a bit-part player at Chelsea, opted to make a season-long loan switch at Watford the next campaign. He made a great account of himself with the Hornets, primarily at leftback for Quique Sanchez Flores, and at the end of the season, he earned the Young Player of the Year Award at Vicarage Road.
Yet despite a fruitful stint at Watford, he was still deemed surplus to requirements upon his return to Chelsea in the summer of 2016 with Antonio Conte at the helm. Another loan move, this time to Bournemouth, saw Ake spend the first half of the 2016-2017 season at the southern coast of England.
Once more, Ake was impressing on loan, prompting Conte to recall the defender in January 2017. The club went on to win another title and while not playing the minimum of five games required to get a winner’s medal, Ake still was given a medal, although a different one, to commemorate the league triumph. However, having not played a majority of the games in the run-up to the title, the same feeling of restrained celebratory mood, like the one he had in the 2014-2015 title-winning campaign, took over the Dutchman.
“To go back and not play was a bit disappointing,” Ake said to the Daily Echo. “I would have wanted to play a little more. I didn’t but, overall, I still learned a lot from going back to play under Antonio Conte and being around the Premier League-winning team.
“I got a medal in the end. Not at the same time as the other players because I didn’t play the five games but they sent me one. It’s not the same as if you played every game, so I didn’t celebrate as loud as the others who had struggled the whole season to get the wins. I came for half a season and didn’t play a lot. I couldn’t be on the front row, I just stayed behind a bit. It was a bit different but I was still happy.”
But while insisting he was happy with the title triumph, Ake certainly was not contented in staying at the fringes of the Chelsea first-team. The teenage prodigy whom the Blues rated so highly had only made a handful of senior appearances since 2012 and it was at this point, in the summer of 2017, that Ake realised he needed to become a regular starter to continue his development and to do that, he had to move away from West London to pastures new.
“Sometimes, maybe it is easy to stay at Chelsea, be around the team and not play,” said Ake. “You can still say ‘I play for Chelsea’. But at some point, you have to go for yourself. You have to change your career and change your dreams.” Ake felt that Bournemouth, where he spent a successful loan stint, was the perfect place to kickstart his career and the defender immediately agreed to join the Dorset club on a permanent deal.
He quickly established himself as an indispensable player for Eddie Howe’s side, playing in every league fixture and helping the Cherries to a 12th place finish in the Premier League. His assured displays at leftback for Bournemouth also saw him make his debut with the Dutch senior squad in a match against Morocco in June 2017 and Ake believes he made the right decision to swap London for the England south coast.
“I knew this club, knew the manager, the players and knew what we could do. It was massive for my development. I was so happy with the step I made and I’m still happy now.”