Charlie Setford: The teenage goalkeeper aiming for success with Ajax – and England

Charlie Setford was born in the Netherlands, but is eligible for England because of his father

“I could play for Holland but I want to make my dad proud,” says Ajax’s teenage goalkeeper Charlie Setford.

“He is English and has been there all the time for me. One thing I always wanted to achieve was to play for England.”

An England Under-18 international, Setford is attempting to establish himself in the professional game with the four-time European champions.

He has been a regular in coach Erik ten Hag’s first-team squad this term as the club’s third keeper.

And while his involvement will be limited on Tuesday as Ajax take on Benfica in the Champions League, it promises to be another occasion to remember for the 17-year-old.

Setford was on the bench for both victories against Borussia Dortmund in the group stage and was there on Friday when Ajax won 3-2 at Cambuur to strengthen their position at the top of Eredivisie.

The experiences are priceless at such a formative stage of Setford’s career, as he outlined in an exclusive chat with BBC Sport.

Making dad proud

Setford was born in Haarlem in 2004, to a Dutch mother and English father, the golfer Chris Setford.

He was scouted by Ajax from his local club when he was seven and has been there ever since, signing a three-year professional contract in 2020.

In addition to his exposure at first-team level, Setford has made seven appearances this season in Eerste Divisie, the Dutch second division, for Jong Ajax, the club’s reserve side.

And he has progressed at international level too. Having played up to Under-16 level for the Netherlands, he switched his allegiance to England in the summer of 2019-wanting to make his father di lui proud of him.

“I have had a largely English upbringing,” Setford said. “Everything at home is practically English. We watch a bit of Dutch TV and some of the music is Dutch but it is mostly English at home. We tend to watch more English football than Dutch because it is more entertaining and interesting to follow.”

The Jong Ajax experience

Had Setford been at an English club, the chances are they would now be looking for a loan move to help him get more experience, given the wide acceptance that the Under-23 football played in Premier League 2 is not the standard required to allow a smooth transition to first team.

At Ajax, Setford doesn’t have that problem – with Ajax’s reserve side giving him professional experience in the Dutch second tier.

“The Eerste Divisie is great to play in if you are at Ajax and you are 17, 18 or 19,” he said. “You get to play against men at big clubs. It’s pressure. It’s high level. It is also about money. You are playing against people who are fighting for their money, who already have kids.

“In England, you don’t have the equivalent of Jong Ajax. The Under-23 league is not a proper league in the sense you are only playing against people your own age. It is a big step from that to the Premier League.

“With Jong Ajax, you play in a league where three points are important and where you can’t afford to make sloppy mistakes or switch off because you will be punished.”

Making the next step

Setford is enjoying mixing experiences with Jong Ajax and the first-team environment.

The senior side are attempting to reach the Champions League quarter-finals for the second time in four years – going into Tuesday’s last-16 second leg with Benfica level at 2-2.

Ten Hag has made a significant impact in just over four years as Ajax manager, and is on Manchester United’s radar to become their next permanent boss.

Setford feels he has benefited from the added intensity that he has faced when joining up with Ten Hag’s first team.

“First-team training sessions are at a very high level,” Setford said. “At Jong Ajax, there is more intensity because they can take more risks in their sessions than the first-team can. But the first team shoot with much more power and much more accuracy. It is a higher level, another step, Champions League level.

“It is difficult being a goalkeeper and saving those shots. You need to be alert, you need to be sharp. You can’t switch off. That’s when you realize there is another step above and you are not good enough yet to be the first-team goalkeeper. “

Setford is provided with a lot of feedback about his own abilities and the areas he needs to improve on.

“You need to be explosive, to get to shots that go to the far corner,” he said. “For myself, I feel I am lacking the best technique to reach and go to the corner. I save a lot of balls obviously but the balls that come into the far corner, I struggle with.

“Over the past few months, I have realized my left foot is more explosive than my right. Every day at training I work on my explosiveness, with the trainers putting the balls into the top corner, so I can jump and land correctly as well , with the right technique. “

The Premier League aim

Setford is not the only member of his family on Ajax’s books. Younger brother Tommy is also at the club-as a goalkeeper-with the stated aim on the family website “to be better than his brother di lui”.

Charlie says the family are “living the dream”, although with a sportsman for a dad as well, it has made for a pretty competitive Setford household, even if Charlie is adamant that “at ping-pong and football”, his dad “knows who’s boss “.

The immediate aim for Setford is to hope Ajax beat Benfica and that he gets more positive experiences as his career develops.

But he has long-term plans too – and that involves the Premier League, even though he has never actually played any club football in England.

“I am at Ajax at the moment and my focus is completely there,” he said. “But the Premier League is the biggest league in the world and eventually, I do want to make that step. That – and playing for England – are big dreams for me.”

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