Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sent Tahith Chong on loan to Birmingham City in the summer with the message “I’ll be watching,” and so far, the Manchester United manager will be pleased with what he’s seen. Chong has been so impressive during the first few weeks of his spell in the Championship that when Derby County were preparing to visit St Andrew’s in September, Wayne Rooney highlighted the danger of the 21-year-old Dutch winger to his players before kickoff.
The extra attention didn’t faze Chong, and he was named man of the match after helping Birmingham to a 2-0 win — his second award in his first five starts for his new club. New city and a new league? No problem.
“The staff, the players, everyone at Birmingham has done a wonderful job making me feel welcome, and that makes it easier to perform on the pitch,” Chong tells ESPN. “After the first conversation I had with the manager [former Leeds and Newcastle midfielder Lee Bowyer], it attracted me a lot. He explained what his plans are for me and the team. That conversation stuck with me, and then we had a second one, and I felt that it was the right place for me to keep developing and keep improving as a player.
“If I’ve had questions, anything I’ve wanted to know, the door has always been open. It makes it easier for me as a player.”
Chong has made 16 appearances for United’s first team since making his debut in January 2019 and has been capped six times for Netherlands under-21s, but after conversations with Solskjaer and his family over the summer, the decision was made to seek a loan away from Old Trafford. Having struggled for games on loan at Wolfsburg and Club Brugge last season, he has settled quickly at Birmingham. Solskjaer has already been in touch to congratulate him on his fine start, including a text message after Chong set up two goals in a 5-0 win over Luton Town in August.
“At the end of last season, I sat down with my family and the club and discussed what was best for me as a player and for my development,” Chong said. “I’m very happy to be at Birmingham. They’ve been very welcoming and hopefully we can have a good season.
“Before I left I spoke to the manager [Solskjaer], and he told me to go there and express myself and that he would be watching. He’s texted me a couple of times to say well done and that’s appreciated. It means he’s watching. Both parties — me and the club — wanted me to play regular minutes. Hopefully I can continue to do that.
“When you’re learning, you need to play games. There’s only a certain amount you can get from training. You want games, you want to play regularly, because you have to keep improving and keep learning. The aim is to be a better player after this season.”
He’s already made an impression. Rooney branded Chong a “very talented player who can really hurt you,” while Bowyer told reporters after one display that “the way he glides past people is beautiful to watch.” Bowyer has already reported back to Carrington about Chong’s progress, telling coaches that he’s been most impressed with his work rate and application in training.
“To come from Manchester United and to have the attitude he has, and work the way he works, he is a credit to their football club,” Bowyer said.
It’s not always been so easy. Chong admits that his loans in Germany and Belgium last season didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped, while he has already battled back from a serious knee ligament injury suffered not long after he moved to England from Feyenoord as a teenager. Still relatively early in his career as a professional footballer, he has been through a lot.
“It’s part of football and it’s a roller-coaster ride,” he says. “You have ups and downs, and you’ve got to deal with the downs and much as you have to appreciate the ups. You’ve got to take it on the chin and try to learn from it and keep moving forward. No one is going to wait for you to move on from it, so you have to have that motivation yourself.
“I was out for 10 months, and injuries like that make you appreciate the small things. It’s really tough because you’re coming in and everyone else is talking about training or games and you know you’re months away [from fitness]. The support I have from my family came in very handy in that moment — being able to go home and have your mum and dad there to console you when it’s tough. I wouldn’t be here without them.
“It’s always tough when you know you can’t play because of injuries. For me, I was in a new country — I think I’d only played for six months or so — so it’s tough. I was very lucky because at that time, my parents had moved to England as well. It still felt like I was at home, which made the process much easier. I don’t know what I’d have done if my parents weren’t there at that time.
“Last season I went to Germany and didn’t play as much as I wanted. In Belgium, a tiny bit more. Even though I wasn’t playing, I felt that I was still learning. I learned a lot in Germany and in Belgium, as well. You pick up different experiences that you take with you. The aim is to play as much as I can and hopefully for Birmingham, we can push on and see where we’re at. I’m here at Birmingham and I want the team to do well.”
The learning curve is steep in the Championship. The relentlessness of the fixture list, combined with veteran defenders around every corner ready to do anything necessary to stop tricky wingers, makes it a tough environment for young players to thrive. Chong, though, insists it’s the perfect place to get better.
“I know that sometimes if you want to dribble and go past players, you might get a few kicks here and there,” he says. “You’ve just got to get up and go again, that’s my mindset. When you get kicked, you get up.”
For the first time in his career, he’s playing regular senior football. He has made 10 appearances for Birmingham so far and started each of the past seven games.
“I’m coping well, I think,” he says. “Playing three games in a week is good experience and you have to recover well, eat well and sleep well. It’s a different experience because I’ve not done that before.
“It’s nice because it’s different, and you need those experiences. Everywhere you go, you take a backpack with you and everything you learn, you put it into the backpack and maybe in two or three years I might need something I’ve learned and I can go into the backpack and grab it. That’s how I look at it.”
After a couple of months at Birmingham, the backpack is filling up nicely.
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