Playing badminton with the same infectious smile that has endeared him to the Southampton faithful, it’s hard not to love Nathan Tella...
What you see is what you get with Nathan Tella.
The ear-to-ear grin that has made the 22-year-old a firm fans’ favourite may now be a trademark, but it’s no show for the cameras. The wide smile is just as prevalent in an empty Lordshill badminton court, where shuttlecocks are in place of onlooking supporters.
Coming through the ranks at Arsenal before completing his footballing graduation as a Saint, Tella could be forgiven for only knowing the privilege that comes with being a footballer at the elite level.
However, his ever-present beaming expression acts as the best possible illustration of a down to earth and approachable character who still calls his childhood friends his closest allies, remaining tied to his roots despite his blossoming growth above the surface.
It’s with his lifelong friends that the emergence of badminton as a hobby began.
“It was just during the off-season that me and my friends went and played it and found out we were all quite good at it,” he says.
“It was fun and another way to release energy and it kept me fit as well, so I thought I might as well keep playing it. I’m the best by far – even if my friends were here, they’d know I was the best!
“I played it mainly during the off-season, but then a little bit at the start of pre-season when we did it as part of our recovery session.
“Jack [Stephens] and Ori [Romeu] were quite good, but I feel like I was still the best,” Tella claims, in a serious tone before revealing that familiar smile.
After using the interview with SAINTS as an opportunity to brush up on his serve, the Stevenage-born attacker opened up on the importance of his friends as more than just badminton buddies.
“Since about the age of five or six we’ve all been in the same friendship group, all went to the same schools and all followed each other,” he continues.
“They went off to University and I came here, but we’ve all stayed close and I think that’s probably brought us closer because the further we are apart, it’s made us want to keep in contact.
“We all wanted to be footballers and I was lucky enough that I was able to get picked up and get the opportunity to play, but they see me as the same boy that was running around school being disruptive or messing around.
“Credit to them, they’ve kept me grounded and never let me get too big headed, even when I score or have a good game – or even when I have a bad game – they treat me the same.
“I could be down or happy, they all keep me happy and I’m just glad to still be friends with them.”
nathan tellai'm with the first team at a very good club and i've got no reason not to smile. the fans might like the smile but for me it's just a thing i've always done.
There have been other big influences in helping Tella make the breakthrough into a recognised member of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s first team. Most notably, his family.
“They were massive; my mum and dad, even my sister as well, they all tried to motivate me when I was younger,” he says.
“If there was ever a day where I wasn’t in the mood to go to training or I was tired from school, they always said it would pay off in the long run and at the moment it is.
“That’s credit to them and I’m just happy they kept pushing me and motivating me to keep living my dream.
“My dad motivated me a lot and is probably my biggest influence for getting me to where I am today.”
While today sees Tella as a professional footballer with a side-interest in badminton, his sporting endeavours could’ve taken a different route in his teenage years.
“Obviously I wanted to be a footballer, but I was doing other sports as well. I was doing gymnastics and athletics for a bit, but mainly gymnastics,” he reveals.
“That’s where my focus was because I’d say I was quite good at it as well – I was good at vault and floor so they were my main pieces, but I had the opportunity to go to Arsenal and then come here, so I didn’t want to get too distracted by doing gymnastics and football at the same time, so I chose football.
“I was about the age of 12 or 13 when I had to make the choice whether I continued with gymnastics or continued with football. I felt like at that time I was better at football than gymnastics, but it was tough to leave gymnastics because I was doing that from the age of six to 12 or 13.
“I can still walk on my hands for a bit but I get headrush, so I try not to do that for too long! Before I got injured I could do backflips, but my knee doesn’t really allow me to do it anymore.”
Although the days of acrobatics may be over, a new wave of hobbies are entering the youngster’s repertoire, including a newfound love of Italian cuisine, albeit at a beginner’s level.
“I’ve just started reading. I read the Kobe Bryant Mamba Mentality book and recently have picked up James Clear’s Atomic Habits book, which is quite good,” he says.
“I’m also learning to cook. It’s going alright but I’ve eaten spaghetti like four times this week! I’m still learning and trying so it’s all good.
“There’s times when you want to switch off, like you can have a busy week where you might not have a day off and get home tired, so it gives me the opportunity to switch off and focus on other things.
“As much as I still want to focus on football, it gives me chance to unwind and not keep putting too much pressure on myself.”
Having made the transition from the Academy to the first team and grabbed a first Premier League goal, perhaps next on the agenda will be to nail down a starting position at St Mary’s.
Whatever it is, Tella will do it with a smile.
“I’m always quite happy. Even when I’m down or disheartened, again, my friends always manage to make me smile.
“I’m playing football now which is what I enjoy, I’m with the first team at a very good club and I’ve got no reason not to smile.
“I’m playing a sport I enjoy; I love playing football. As long as that continues, that’s the main thing.”