Among a select group of players to be signed by José Mourinho not once but twice Michael Essien has a unique insight into what makes the Chelsea manager tick and he has backed him to succeed where Louis van Gaal failed in coaxing Radamel Falcao back to his best.
The former Chelsea and Real Madrid midfielder, whose muscular box-to-box style was synonymous with Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge, can sum up his genius in a single word: “Ego”. In the best possible sense of the word, you understand.
“We had a great group of players with a manager who was always behind us and kept pushing us,” recalls the softly spoken Ghanaian who spent eight seasons with Chelsea including loan spells at Real Madrid and Milan.
“We had players with big egos and big characters but at the same time they were good men as well. Mourinho has a big ego as well but in a good way. It was easy for him to manage those kind of players. He is still the same man. He’s still tough.”
The Portuguese, he says, has the rare knack of being able to zero in on the right motivation for each player. And, he predicts, Mourinho will do same for Falcao, the Colombian striker so deadly before his pre-World Cup injury, so disappointing since. “He knows how to get the best out of his players, how to say the right thing, how to motivate them. He will get him back to the Falcao everybody knows.”
When Mourinho took Essien on loan to Real Madrid, calling him on the team coach when he was on his way to play for Chelsea in the Super Cup, there was only one possible response. He was in Madrid the following day.
“If you have a manager who knows you and he is at one of the greatest clubs in the world, of course you say yes. I went on loan to the biggest club in the world.”
Essien, shy off the pitch despite his dominating presence among those big names at Stamford Bridge and the Bernabéu, retains a house near Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham but recently signed for Panathinaikos.
Despite the wider economic malaise facing Greece he was afforded a traditionally ebullient welcome, accompanied by celebrating crowds and firecrackers, when he pitched up to put pen to paper at 1am. “I’m not a difficult person. I just want to enjoy my football until I hang up my boots,” says the 32-year-old, who has found the latter part of his career punctuated by frustrating injuries.
“It was a good move for me to go to Greece. It’s one of the biggest clubs there and I’m really looking forward to it.” And after that? “I’ll take my kids to school. I miss them when I’m away.”
Like other big-name footballers from Africa to have become household names in Europe over the past decade, he is also determined to give something back to his homeland through his foundation. Driven by his wife Akosua it has embarked on a new campaign, United Against Ebola. It has teamed up with Penguin and Professor Peter Piot, the man who co-discovered the virus in 1976, to distribute Ladybird books featuring Essien and other footballers delivering educational messages about how to prevent the spread of the disease.
The memory of growing up in Accra, where he returns every summer for an extended holiday to see his mother and catch up with family and friends, burns bright. “I always spend my summer in Ghana. I don’t go anywhere else. My children have to know where they come from and the way of life in Africa. They can compare both and appreciate what they have.”
Essien, whose older brother drowned before he was born after falling down a well, says his foundation has also focused on educating children and providing basic amenities. “Their focus is on football but we try and educate them about other things. Chelsea became very popular in Ghana when I moved there,” he says with a laugh.
It is the extent to which the English top flight exerted an irresistible gravitational pull that shines through when he discusses his childhood. Essien hides behind his hands and collapses laughing when asked who he supported growing up (safe to assume it was not Chelsea).
His journey took him from Liberty Professionals in the Accra suburb of Dansoman to a trial at Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at 17. “I met Ferguson. It was a nice experience. I came with a friend, it was really nice for us to go there and see those big players. I just wanted to play in Europe.”
Years later, when Real Madrid met Manchester United in the Champions League, he recalls being in the dressing room with Ferguson and Mourinho. They talked about how things might have turned out had there not been work permit issues surrounding his proposed move to Old Trafford.
Instead of United his agent arranged a trial at Bastia and from there he progressed to Lyon and then to Chelsea in 2005 in what was then the biggest transfer involving an African player. Then, too, Mourinho would not take no for an answer. “When I was little my dream was to come and play in the Premier League. So when Chelsea came in I said yes straight away. At that time they were trying to build Chelsea back up again,” he says.
“We had a great time, I gave them everything I could and i played my best football at Chelsea. I’m happy I won a lot of trophies for them and proud now to be one of those players who brought Chelsea up again.”
He will return to England and London (“my second home”) when his career is over but for now he is focused on the task ahead in Athens. Fifa’s recent meltdown has reignited the debate around the relationship between the game in Africa and Europe, with the best players inevitably drawn to the game’s richest continent but the continent’s national sides failing to achieve the long-predicted breakthrough at the World Cup.
“Back home every kid wants to come to Europe to play as a professional. It’s good for Europe to have the best players coming here too,” says Essien. “You have to keep hoping that one day an African country can win the World Cup. You have to keep going, keep trying.”
International success is the one thing missing from Essien’s CV and he was denied the chance to try to make amends when Avram Grant left him out of the squad for this year’s African Nations Cup. “Playing for your country is an honour. I love my country and I always want to give back to them. It was a disappointment but that’s football,” he says. “I could have done with winning the African Nations Cup. You can’t win them all.”
Perhaps still thinking of that 17-year-old who came to Europe with big dreams and made it where so many of his compatriots fail, Essien frets over whether the motivation remains the same for some of those coming through the youth ranks.
“That’s a little bit of a problem. Now the kids get too much too young and they don’t work enough to play the game. They play the game for other reasons, not because they love it,” he says, echoing the thoughts of his former midfield partner Frank Lampard about the motivation of young players.
“Back in the day you played the game because you loved it. With some of the kids now it’s difficult to tell. It was never about money for me at all. I love the game more than what comes with the game.”
It is a desire that took him to some of the biggest clubs in Europe and delivered all the trappings that came with that. But at heart, and for all the injury niggles of recent years, he insists his motivation is the same as when he obsessively watched the Premier League as a child. “I just want to play football. For me it’s all about football.”