JThey hadn’t planned it but Villarreal waited for Nicolas Jackson with open arms when he landed in Spain on the same plane he left on. It was the end of January and the trip, supposed to be a one-way trip, had not gone as planned. He had flown to England to join Bournemouth for 25 million euros, their saviour, but medical failure forced him to return, his big opportunity gone. The 21-year-old, still under contract with the B team six months since playing in the Third Division, and with just eight Premier League starts and a hamstring injury that would limit him to a single minute until April, he didn’t know if anyone else would. come.
The answer, to their surprise, was: Soon. “We will try to cheer him up, to encourage him because it was a great opportunity. We will support him, help him overcome this disappointment and strengthen him so that in the summer he is worth twice as much” , Villarreal coach Quique Setién said. And although few people imagined it would happen like this, it was not that far away. Despite what happened in January, five months later, Jackson flew to England again and this time there was no turning back.On Sunday he joined Chelsea for £32million on an eight-year deal.
Actually, despite? Or due to? Those close to the striker admit the failed deal did him good – and not just because it went well, with England’s second call-up looking even more appealing than their first. Instead, something has changed. Few players could have reacted so quickly, so decisively to a setback, as if pushed by it. When at last Jackson started a game again, his first since Bournemouth fell back, he started a run of nine goals in nine games. A transformed man, from April onwards, a player few considered a prolific goalscorer and who scored more than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues. He also scored more than Chelsea, the crew.
At Villarreal they were surprised too – in nine games he had gotten as many as in his entire career up to that point – although there was always something about Jackson. No less a stubborn streak, determined to perform despite what his parents said. Not a product of the academy, he had only been playing on the streets and on dirt courts for four years. Born in Banjul, Gambia, he grew up in Ziguinchor, in the rural Casamance region of southern Senegal, and had only been in organized football for a few months, playing for local team Casa Sport, when he joined Villarreal at the age of 17. in 2019.
Having been turned down after a trial at Benfica, Jackson didn’t tell his mother until everything was signed off. Back home, he was called the “Senegalese Neymar” and, it is said, the day he played a training match with the juvenile (Under 19), Villarreal president Fernando Roig was there. He had only been watching for a few minutes when the order came: sign it.
“I vividly remember the first time I saw him with the juvenile you could see right away that he was a level above, “says Miguel Álvarez, the coach soon in charge of Jackson’s development in the B team. “He was superior to the others, like a man who plays against boys .”
That summer, Jackson spent six weeks working with the B team before joining Mirandés on loan in the Second Division for 2020-21. “He was quiet, a bit shy and he didn’t speak much Spanish although some of us spoke to him in English. If it helped him, I’m glad: he’s a good boy. But it was absolutely clear: he was going to play in will take precedence and earn a lot of money to help his family,” says Carlos Julio Martínez, a teammate there.
“He is very special, different. When he takes off, he’s very hard to stop and you can’t knock him off the ball. He had this audacity: he didn’t care who was in front of him, he would always face them. He didn’t have the goalscoring instinct he has now, but he created a lot of chances.
At just 19, isolated by the pandemic and struggling to recover from his injuries, in a freezing city far from the home he had just left, Jackson scored a single goal at Mirandés. Limited to 17 games, this year may not have always been fun, but it helped shape it. What happened next also helped, a more natural role found – and, with it, a solution to the muscle issues that had threatened to halt his development.
“When he came back from Miranda, he was different: the Jackson who left and the Jackson who came back are not the same person. He understood the language better, found it easier to identify himself,” says a staff member. .
“Development is not just football, it is all sorts of things. Injuries have decimated this season at Mirandés and the emotional side is also vital,” says Álvarez. “But I think the turning point was when we changed his position. He had almost always played on the wing.
“Physically he’s a machine but this position requires stamina, constant ups and downs. But most importantly, it takes him away from the areas where he can do real damage: the last 30 meters. We have him played as a second striker and he was superb.We went up and within months he was in the first team.
Jackson has combined 10 first-team appearances with playing for Villarreal B in the Primera RFEF, Spain’s third tier consisting of 40 teams and two groups. There were no first-team goals but there were seven goals and eight assists with the B team, including the two which earned them promotion to the second division, before moving on permanently. Unai Emery gave him eight starts in the first nine games of 2022-23, as a central striker. Without the freedom of movement or the space in which it thrives, the room to be able to fall and turn or sprint past, it was not a simple adjustment and, as winter approached, it would not He wasn’t a guaranteed starter, but there were four goals and four assists before the World Cup and interest from abroad.