Nathan Tella, a rising yet humble star for Bayer Leverkusen. - © DFL/GettyImages/Christian Kaspar-Bartke
Nathan Tella, a rising yet humble star for Bayer Leverkusen. - © DFL/GettyImages/Christian Kaspar-Bartke

Bayer Leverkusen's Nathan Tella: "I didn't tell my dad I was starting against Bayern!"


Bayer Leverkusen star Nathan Tella sat down for an exclusive interview with, talking about his heroics against Bayern Munich, how he got started in the game, and much more…

Tella joined Leverkusen from Southampton in August, having spent the previous season on loan at Vincent Kompany's Burnley. 

Initially a squad player, the Arsenal academy graduate has grown in influence at the BayArena, and now has four goals and an assist from his 14 Bundesliga outings.

That assist came as Xabi Alonso's side beat Bayern 3-0 on Matchday 21, and Die Werkself are beginning to look like favourites for a first ever Bundesliga title - not that Tella's getting carried away… It's your year this year, isn't it?

Nathan Tella: "I wouldn't say that but it's going well at the moment. I'm happy." Why's it going so well?

Tella: "I feel like now, after having maybe had six months to get used to how the team is, how I want to play and what's expected of me while I'm playing, it took me a bit of time to adjust and adapt and once we got into the new year, 2024, I felt like I was finally able to start showing myself be more comfortable and confident on the pitch and also off the pitch. It's going well so far. I feel more confident in myself as a person compared to when I first arrived but that's because of the team and the manager. They've given me a lot of confidence in myself and I'm doing the right thing so I want to continue to do that."

Watch: Alonso's Leverkusen, an unstoppable force Does it help to be playing from the start?

Tella: "Yes, I mean, obviously for my myself, it was difficult mentally because I wasn't starting a lot of games in the league. I was just coming on and obviously I understood that because the team is winning and there's no point changing it if it's working so I just had to be patient and learn the position as well but also just wait for my time. Then, I was able to get quite a few minutes against Leipzig in January and I felt like I did well. I was able to score and win. Then, playing against Darmstadt as well, I was able to get my first start and two goals and then, going onto the Bayern Munich game, I felt a lot of confidence going into that game. As a team, we all did so it was good to start that game, as well."    Is it true that you didn't tell your family that you were starting against Bayern?

Tella: "Yes, I usually tell them everything but obviously, because I haven't played a lot from the start here, since I've been here, I kind of wanted to let them think that I was on the bench again and maybe I would come on but when I found out I was starting on the Friday, I just told one of my friends that I was starting but I wasn't sure. Then, he asked whether I would tell my parents and I said no, I want to surprise them. My dad, he watched the game to see if I was on the bench and then he saw that I was in the starting XI so he called my mum to sit and watch the game as well." What did he say to you?

Tella: "The first thing he said was 'why didn't you tell me? Why did you not tell me you were starting?' He's like another manager for me. He always tells me what I could do better or what I've done well so it's always nice to hear from his perspective but then, also, he was also saying how proud he is of me that I've come a long way over the past year. I was playing second division in England to playing against Bayern Munich and starting in the Bundesliga. He said I could be really proud of myself but don't get too carried away because you haven't done anything yet. He's still being hard on me but motivating me as well so he's been really good for me." 

Watch: Highlights of Leverkusen's 3-0 win over Bayern You have been versatile in your roles this year. Is that the key to success?

Tella: "As a team, everyone wants to play. Everyone that's in the squad wants to play. As players and as individuals, we try hard, even harder, in training because if the starting XI looks like it's going to be the same starting XI, we want to be the first ones to come on and play well and if there's an injury or a player drops in form, the standard for the player that comes in doesn't change and we're able to keep the same habits that the team was winning with. Keep it when we come into the team. That was evident for me, especially against Darmstadt. I see Jeremie [Frimpong] playing really, really well. He's had a really good season. He didn't start that game. They gave me the opportunity to start and I said I didn't want there to be a noticeable difference when Jeremie isn't playing so I felt like I had to push myself in training so that when I got my opportunity to start that game, I would be able to give 100 per cent and luckily, I was able to." What does that say about the quality of the team?

Tella: "Yes, it's a very, very talented squad. I feel like no matter what the game is, no matter what opportunity, whether it's the first or the 90th minute, every player who comes in, we're all confident that they can be a game-changer. A match-winner. Also, to have the confidence to do something and not to look like they're out of place. We're all comfortable to come into the team. That's why I think this is a very good team."

Tella (l.) and Frimpong (r.) are firm friends despite being rivals for Leverkusen's right wing-back position. - IMAGO/Moritz Mueller How was it to make your debut for Nigeria?

Tella: "It was good. I've always wanted to play international football. I never played international football when I was younger. So, for me, it was my first experience to be part of a national team and it was good! It was a good opportunity to play and see what international football was like. In my head, I wanted to play in the African Cup of Nations and I wasn't called up. I was quite disappointed but then, at the same time, I looked at it as an opportunity to play here. We had four players - obviously Victor Boniface got injured - but if there are four players out, I'd have more opportunity and I believe I did. I was able to play more and able to score. Obviously, I was disappointed Nigeria didn't win it but for my teammate Odilon [Kossounou], I'm really happy for him as well." What did Xabi Alonso say about your record of 33 games unbeaten?

Tella: "We've not spoken about it. It's a long season. We have 11 Bundesliga games, the Europa League and the DFB Cup to play. We just looking at approaching the next game. We don't look at the records. Obviously, it's nice to be a part of history. We'll always remember that and the history of this season. We broke the record but at the same time, we don't want to break the record if it doesn't mean anything. We want to keep focusing and keep doing as well as we can for the duration of the season." Can you elaborate on Alonso's coaching style?

Tella: "Yes, I think he doesn't get too carried away. He doesn't think about the future. He doesn't think too far in the future. He only thinks about the next game and the next training session and how to improve. If we won a game 3-0, he'll look at why we didn't win 4-0. We always wants to be the best and a perfectionist. That is why we strive to be the best, as a team, because he brings it out of us as well."

Xabi Alonso (l.) is pushing Tella (r.) hard at Leverkusen. - IMAGO/osnapix / Hirnschal How old were you when you started playing football?

Tella: "My best friend, he's still my friend now, I joined them - it was my first school. He was the first person I became friends with. When you're four, you follow him everywhere. He started to play for a local team - Bedwell Rangers. I said to him I wanted to play. I spoke to him. My dad spoke to his dad and they arranged for me to join the team. That's how it started. I was at Bedwell Rangers from the age of four or five right until the age of eight. I had a bunch of trials at Arsenal, Watford, Luton, Tottenham. Quite a few clubs. Chelsea as well. Ultimately, I wanted to play for Arsenal. I'm an Arsenal fan. When I had the opportunity to sign there at the age of eight, I said I wanted to do it straight away. Then, I was at Arsenal from the age of eight until 17. I ended up going to Southampton. Then going on loan to Burnley and here I am." And your friend, did he stay at the club?

Tella: "I think he retired. He retired at seven years old! When you're young, it's all for fun but I think his passion was somewhere else. He just did the job to get me to play football and he can take credit for that. He was the first person to get me to play football." Do you still have contact?

Tella: "Yes, he was here for the Bayern Munich game. He's been my friend for the majority of my life. He was my first and longest friend. It's good to have someone I can also share the journey with as well."

Tella (front) helped Burnley to Premier League promotion last season hitting 17 goals in the Championship. - Nathan Stirk Is there a coach that has helped you the most in your career?

Tella: "I've had a lot of coaches who have done a lot for me. Who've helped me to get to where I am now but the one coach I specifically remember bringing the best out of me and giving me the most confidence in myself, I was in the U14s at Arsenal. He helped me so much because I was quite a quiet kid. I just wanted to come in and play football. I didn't want to make a mistake. I kind of let people walk all over me at that age. He gave me the confidence to say 'You're at Arsenal for a reason. You're a really good player. You have to believe in yourself. You're talented. Show it. Have a voice.' Then, that gave me a lot of confidence that if managers see that, obviously I should believe it myself. From then, the U14s, I started to progress and become a better player. Obviously, now, here I am and I'll always remember him being one of the first coaches to take a liking to me and help me." How important is confidence? 

Tella: "Of course. Everyone wants to be told they're doing the right things and have someone believe in you. It was nice to have that from my coach." What is the key to make this season so special? 

Tella: "Just approaching the games the way we have approached every game. We want to play the best football we can and get the best results we can. As a team, we don't look to the future but to the next game. The next game is Cologne. We look at that and after Cologne, we look at who's next. We look at the next game and not too far into the future."

Watch: A tactical analysis of how Leverkusen beat Bayern It'll be special against Cologne… 

Tella: "Yes, a very special game. As a team, we're all looking forward to playing against our rivals. It's going to be a good game. A good opportunity for us. We always want to make our supporters happy. It means a lot for us but also for them. We've given them a lot of good memories this season and we want to continue to do that." So you still don't feel any pressure?

Tella: "No. I don't really look at it like it's pressure. We are all just here to play football. Everyone wants to win and that is what's motivating us. No one wants to be a loser. We all want to be winners so we look at it like that."