Ben Kitchen spent 13 years at Newcastle United before being released by his boyhood club this summer. But there was no time to feel sorry for himself. As a defender who has played against the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jack Wilshere, he was determined to continue improving as a player. That’s why he has taken his football abroad. That’s why he’s playing in Croatia.
“It’s always the dream growing up and making it to play first team football for the team you grew up playing for and supporting,” says Kitchen. “So in that sense obviously it [being released] was disappointing, but I’m happy to move on and gain experience to carry on improving as a player. I think it is what I need at this stage.”
Son of former Doncaster Rovers and Leyton Orient player Sam, Kitchen junior worked his way up through the ranks at Newcastle, making the under-23 side last season, featuring in Premier League 2, the Checkatrade Trophy and the Premier League International Cup. He still holds fond memories of his time at the north-east club.
“Obviously growing up as a Newcastle fan, I loved playing and growing as a player and person through the Newcastle academy. I was there from the age of six and I learned a lot from my time there on and off the pitch. I trained with the first team a handful of times last year too, which was a great experience to see what level you must try to get to.
“I also came up against some top players at under-18 and under-23 level. Marcus Rashford is one that would stick out in my mind most from under-18 level. One game I most remember is playing at the Emirates against Jack Wilshere, Tomàš Rosicky and Serge Gnabry all in the same game. I played right back against Gnabry and he’d have to be the best winger I’ve played against, I couldn’t get near him!”
Despite the fact the 19-year-old, who admires Sergio Ramos, had been a key part of the Magpies’s youth sides for a number of years, he found himself looking a for new club over the summer and that was when a contact of the family would offer him an entirely fresh start in Europe.
“I got a phone call from an agent who my dad knew through when he used to play football,” he says. “The agent asked if I’d be interested in coming abroad to play. I had a meeting with him and my dad and I were quite open minded about it and thought why not? And here I am!”
A simple phone call had taken the defender from the north-east of England to Croatia, specifically to the small town of Novigrad just south of the Slovenian border.
NK Novigrad were last season relegated from the second tier but were ambitious with their recruitment over the summer, targeting several more British players alongside Kitchen.
“Kurtis Russell, who I’m good friends with and played with at Newcastle, got asked if he’d be interested in coming over [to Croatia] as well and we talked between us and decided we’d have nothing to lose.
“That helped me obviously having someone to come out with. He unfortunately had to go home after a week or two of being here because of a knee injury but he’s coming back once he’s fit again so that will be good.”
The club also recruited Scottish midfielder Robbie Leitch, formerly of Motherwell and St. Mirren and who had spent the previous campaign on loan at Scottish League One side Queen’s Park. His arrival ensured Kitchen was helped to settle in his new surroundings despite his former teammate’s injury.
“I’ve settled in quite well, I think. The club got us an apartment in the city which is good. We train everyday, get the odd day off but I don’t do much in my spare time, to be honest, just watch movies, listen to music, go for a coffee now and then and just rest really.
“I share the apartment and am good friends with Robbie, who came over at the same time as me so it makes it easier having someone who speaks the same language to talk to!”
On the pitch it has been a difficult start for Novigrad as they sit second bottom in the table, still looking for their first win after six games but an upturn in fortunes is surely only around the corner as their new recruits continue to find their feet in Croatian football. Kitchen admits himself the style is a little different to back home.
“It’s hard to compare,” he says. “I would say it’s not as quick as English football but there are some good players and teams who all try to play. They hate the long ball!”
Kitchen has decided to test himself by moving abroad at a young age and he is ready to keep on improving which his bold career move will no doubt only help to do.
“My ambition in football is to play to the highest level I possibly can and prove myself, whether that’s in England or abroad, I don’t mind in all honesty as long as I’m playing football.”