Nathan Tella is determined to repay Southampton’s faith in him with more goals and assists in the years to come.
The bright young forward recently committed his future to the club until 2025, and intends to use the time wisely to keep developing his game.
Tella, 22, has progressed at a rapid rate since his lowest ebb, back in April 2019, when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament whilst playing for Saints Under-23s.
Sidelined for 10 months, no sooner was he back on the pitch the country was in lockdown, as his first-team ambitions took another hit.
But his dedication through that mentally-taxing period caught the eye of Ralph Hasenhüttl, who handed Tella his debut in the first game of Project Restart, in June 2020.
The injury had changed his perspective indefinitely, and the youngster’s desire to make the most of his talent remains as strong as ever now that he is a regular in Hasenhüttl’s squad.
“That’s something that I always think about and say I’m so thankful to the club for,” he says of Saints’ support during his time on the sidelines.
"There was a period of time where I was quite unfortunate to pick up that injury, especially because I felt like I was in such a good vein of confidence as well.
"The club showed faith in me by giving me the chance to sign a one-year extension, and from then on I felt like I had a point to prove.
“Luckily the manager gave me a chance just after lockdown, and I've just been trying to repay him and make him think I’m one of the better players in the team.”
Whilst already a fans’ favourite for his infectious enthusiasm and eye-catching, direct style of play, the attacker wants substance over style, and is not shy in demanding more from himself.
“It’s something I spoke about with my family – I wanted to be offered a new contract, I really like the club, I'm really enjoying my time here,” he continues.
"It shows that the club have faith in me and that's something that I'm happy with. It shows that they believe in me, and now I've got to believe in myself.
"Moving forward I want to repay the faith they have in me. I want to play more games, be involved in more goals, get my stats up and help the team progress.”
Numbers are important to Tella. Whilst his productivity has been consistent in cup competitions, scoring at Newport and assisting at Sheffield United and Swansea, his last goal contributions in the Premier League came last season – the day of his first top-flight goal, against Fulham, which he followed up with an assist 22 minutes later, for Theo Walcott.
His game time this term has been compromised, not making his first league start until October, and not registering back-to-back starts until December.
“I already know,” he nods, when asked why, as the trademark smile temporarily makes way for a sterner look.
“It’s better end product. I’m an attacker, so I’m always going to be judged on my goal contributions, whether it’s goals or assists.
“I think they’re important to all attackers – you want to score, you want to assist, you want the team to win.
“You’ve got to look at yourself as an attacking player and start adding goals and assists to your game.
“Now I’ve got the three years here, it’s a chance for me to show it, repay the trust they have in me and show that I can do it.
“These are definitely conversations I have with teammates. We look at ourselves quite critically, thinking where we can get goal involvements and where we can get chances, especially me as an attacking player.
“Obviously when I first came into the team I was just thinking about doing everything I can to stay in the team, but the players have told me you’re not going to come in and do anything amazing – it’s more about easing into the game, growing into the game.
“Kyle Walker-Peters has definitely helped me a lot with that. I always used to think I had to go 100 miles an hour into the game, but he told me how to control myself and manage myself into the game.
"Fraser Forster, Jack Stephens, Prowsey (James Ward-Prowse), Redders (Nathan Redmond); they all tell me when I'm doing good, they praise me.
“When I’m not doing so well they're also hard on me, telling me what I need to do to improve. That’s something the boys have helped me a lot with.
“Obviously I’ve still not scored or assisted yet (in this season’s Premier League), but I feel like it’s coming – I know it’s going to come. It’s something I’m looking forward to, and celebrating in front of the fans as well.”
That unique, indescribable buzz is something that still eludes Tella at St Mary’s. The Fulham goal, not to take anything away from the achievement, was at an empty stadium, as were his debut and first start.
Only now, he says, does playing in the Premier League feel
“This season it does start to feel like I’m playing in the Premier League, especially now playing in front of the home fans,” he grins.
“The atmosphere is great and they motivate me to push on and keep going – make runs that perhaps I don’t feel like I want to do myself. Hearing the fans just gives you that extra spurt of energy.
“I really do enjoy my relationship with the fans. Of course, it’s nice that they support me and want me to do well, but the team as well.
“They give me that confidence. The fact that I’ve been able to go out and express myself, give the fans something to be happy about, it goes part and part together, so it’s great.
“I’m just thankful that they’re here, they’re supporting me and I want to continue to help them. I’m just really looking forward to playing more in front of them.”
This rapport with the supporters is helped by his journey through the Academy, at least from the age of 17, when he joined from Arsenal.
Raised in Stevenage, Tella has called Hampshire home for the last five years. Part of the appeal for joining Saints in the first place was the club’s track record of producing players, and now he is conscious of setting the right example to those following in his footsteps.
“You know from Under-9s that you’ve got a chance to get into the first team if you’re good enough,” he explains.
“The philosophy of the club is to bring young players through, and that’s evident with some of the matchday squads we’ve had.
“Even Liverpool last season, when we had a handful of Academy players on the bench and in the starting XI, it’s just a great feeling for the Academy.
“For me, it motivated me as well to push on – I wanted to be one of the Academy players to break through. Luckily I have been, and I just want them to keep coming.”
“A handful” is actually an understatement on Tella’s part, who was one of 11 Staplewood graduates named in the squad for the 1-0 victory over the Reds last January.
Defeating the reigning champions is something Saints have achieved on home soil in each of the last two Premier League seasons, and on Saturday Hasenhüttl's charges were only 25 minutes away from completing a hat-trick to savour.
But it is against a club much closer to home that Tella dreams of scoring a last-minute winner.
“I’d say FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth,” he declares, after a moment’s thought. “I’d love to do it against them and shush their fans!”
It’s this cheeky side that so endears him to the home crowd. Whilst silencing our south-coast rivals will have to wait at least another year, Tella’s ambitions stretch way beyond the next 12 months.
“I’m just looking forward to having the rest of the season to progress, and the next few years to really grow into the player I believe I can be,” he says, signing off with a statement of intent.
If you’re ever wondering whether he’s reached his goals, just check his tally.