Moving more than 500 miles away from home, in the middle of a global pandemic, was a daunting prospect for Regan Charles-Cook, but it has been the making of him.
The Ross County star is the Scottish Premiership’s top scorer this season with 13 goals, two ahead of nearest rival Alfredo Morelos.
The 24-year-old is a product of the much-vaunted Arsenal academy, cutting his teeth in first-team football at Charlton and Gillingham, before agreeing a two-year deal north of the border in 2020.
There was a leap of faith needed to move away from home for the first time and Charles-Cook admitted to talkSPORT.com that it has made him mature as a man as well as a footballer.
“I would be lying if I said I had no hesitation about moving to Scotland,” the winger said. “I’ve always lived at home no matter what club I’ve been at. I’ve always been a homebody and a family man, with my parents in the background.
“To move to Inverness, not even knowing where it was, and how quiet it is was, was actually quite scary.
“In the first year I think I only got to go back home once. So going for such a long time without seeing my brothers or family was tough, but at the same time I can’t thank the club enough because it has made me the man that I am today, the independent man I am today.
“I don’t have my mum and dad around the corner anymore to cook me food. I have to do everything by myself.
“I’m so grateful for the maturity that this club has put into me. The skills I’ve learnt to be independent with certain things, it has taken my life to a whole new level.”
It took a while to find his feet in Scotland and manager Malky Mackay has found a way to get the best out of him.
He did not get on the scoresheet at all in the 2020/21 season, but Mackay’s appointment last summer changed things and now he can’t stop scoring.
Four goals in just three games in January saw him scoop the player of the month prize, and has seven goals in his last 10 games.
Charles-Cook has eight games to hold off his rivals as he bids to join names like Henrik Larsson, Mark Viduka, Kris Boyd, Odsonne Edouard and Morelos in winning the Golden Boot.
“On a personal level it feels really good [to be leading the Golden Boot race] as I’ve worked really hard, especially this season, to get where I think I should get to.
“To me, it’s just the start as everyone still believes, and I believe, I can get a good 20 or 30 more per cent out of me.
“It’s been a good season so far and I just hope to push on and carry it on in the last eight games.”
The @cinchuk SPFL Player of the Month Award for January goes to… Regan Charles-Cook🏆
— Ross County FC (@RossCounty) February 7, 2022
“It would be nice [to finish top scorer], but my main priority is to get the club where I think the club should be.
“I would take that over any top goalscorer if we get to where we want to be.”
Ross County shook off a disappointing start to the season, going 10 straight games without a win, to climb up to sixth and looking ahead, rather than over their shoulders.
Charles-Cook has helped the club become competitive, and that competitive streak runs through his veins.
The sporting family genes are strong with two of his brothers also in professional football, while his uncle, James Cook, was a former British super-middleweight champion.
“My mum had to put up with five boys. It was a competitive household. I think about all the days in the garden and ‘was I really slide tackling on concrete?’ Everyone was a winner in that house.”
Arsenal scouted the south Londoner when he was 10, playing in the same age group sides as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, despite growing up a Chelsea fan and idolising the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben.
But he took the tough decision at 16 to walk away from the Gunners. The club wanted to take a longer look at him, but Charlton were offering him a contract and a clearer pathway to first-team football.
“It was definitely tough as in my head I was thinking ‘you’ve seen me for six years’ and I was playing consistently at that stage,” he said.
“It was tough. Then Charlton came in and they had a better pathway of players coming through.
“I had to think about where I was most likely to break through. That’s not to say I didn’t have the belief in myself, but Charlton made the pathway look clearer for me to break through.”
That Charlton youth team he walked into was littered with star prospects who have gone on to win league titles and even Champions Leagues.
The Addicks’ talent factory has helped nurture some talented players over the years, and Charles-Cook is flourishing into another one on that list.
“When I look at the Charlton team I played with, over six players are playing in the Premier League, Scottish Premiership, Championship.
“Joe Gomez, Joe Aribo, Ademola Lookman, Ezri Konsa, Anthony Dyke, Karlan Grant. The names you can just read off.
“Of course you want to get to the top and it’s so nice when your peers you’ve worked with are doing well because you saw that in that and you think ‘I was playing in that team too, I can get there as well’. I can achieve certain things as well.
“It is inspirational.”
Charles-Cook is out of contract in the summer at Ross County and there will likely be no shortage of admirers if he wanted to move back to English football.
Ross County boss Mackay has already admitted that the 24-year-old is a Premier League quality player.
When asked about Premier League aspirations, Charles-Cook added: “Of course, everyone dreams of that when they are young to play in the Premier League or around Europe.
“You get to play with the best of the best. It is a dream right now and I’ll take it step by step to get there.
“I’m just taking everything step by step.”
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