Elliot Omozusi: From playing against Ronaldo & Rooney to a stint in prison
There is an inventible sadness in Elliot Omozusi’s voice as he discusses the way it ended for him at Fulham. Yet there is not an ounce of bitterness when it comes to talking about dropping out of league football when he was just 28.
What does anger the former defender, however, is the injustice he feels at being sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail nearly 10 years ago.
To understand why that happened, it is important to go back to Omozusi’s early years on the notorious London Fields estate in Hackney. The area was rife with crime and gangs, although he comes from a stable family.
It is one of the main reasons why the Londoner became a community champion and is now a safeguarding lead at a school in Essex.
“Compared to the people I grew up with, I was raised in a loving home, with a mum and dad who both worked,” Omozusi, the son of an English mother and Nigerian father, says.
“It was a tough area and we were not in the best position financially, but we never went without. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.”
A boyhood Arsenal supporter, he played for his district team and was taken on by Chelsea, but the journey to West London became too much for his mum financially. Instead, he signed for neighbouring Fulham in 2001.
Omozusi, now 32, recalls: “Fulham had just been promoted to the Premier League for the first time and a number of Chelsea’s staff went over to work there.
“One of them called my mum and said that the club would fund my travel, which lessened the burden on her. Fulham really looked after its young people – everything was done correctly and the staff encouraged parents and families to get involved. It was a real family club.”
Essex-based Omozusi rose through the ranks at Craven Cottage, with his biggest influences being coaches Ray Lewington and Billy McKinlay.
These were heady days at Fulham, as Harrods tycoon Mohamed Al-Fayed had bought the club four years earlier and France legend Jean Tigana was manager.
Omozusi, a right-back, came into the first-team picture when Chris Coleman succeeded Tigana in April 2003.
“I was called up to training a number of times under Chris, and I will always remember either Billy McKinlay or Ray Lewington leaving a reserve session to come and watch how I was doing,” he says. “They were both pretty hard on me.
“It was great to be in and around the first-team squad. Liam Rosenior was the regular right-back at the time and I had a great relationship with him. I cleaned his boots, and he gave me a lot of advice. He is a really good guy, but all the guys were amazing with me.”
He made his first-team debut in a League Cup defeat to Wycombe Wanderers in October 2006, having replaced Carlos Bocanegra near the hour mark.
— Samson McMuffin (@samsonmcmuffin) January 10, 2014
Omozusi – who had moved into digs in nearby Kingston upon Thames – had to wait a year for his next appearance, a 1-1 draw at Sunderland.
And his home Premier League debut, a week later, ended in a 3-1 win against Reading, where he was sent off four minutes into added time.
He had signed a three-year contract and envisaged a bright future with the Cottagers, who had replaced Coleman with Lawrie Sanchez.
Omozusi’s biggest test came at the beginning of December 2007, when he started at right-back against Manchester United at Old Trafford. United won 2-0, with Omozusi testing himself against a mouth-watering front line of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Ryan Giggs.
“They kept interchanging, so I was marking each of them at different points during the game,” Omozusi recalls. “I actually asked Ryan Giggs for his shirt when I was marking him for a corner and he said no problem.
“Afterwards, I was talking to someone and when I walked back to our changing room, he was stood outside waiting for me with his shirt.”
Sanchez’s short spell came to an end when he was sacked three weeks later, with Roy Hodgson stepping in. It seemed a positive move for Omozusi as Lewington was named as Hodgson’s assistant.
Omozusi had returned for pre-season in the summer of 2008 and, as the only recognised right-back at the club, thought he would start the new campaign as first choice.
• • • •
• • • •
But Hodgson told him he would be buying two new right-backs and asked him to go on loan to Norwich City. It was then that the relationship between him and the club started to deteriorate.
“You knew what you were going to get with Roy and I didn’t mind that, plus he had Ray as his assistant and he was my biggest fan,” Omozusi says. “It began to feel like I was being pushed out.
“Fulham had a defender called Dejan Stefanovic who was on big money and they were trying to get rid of him. Norwich said they’d take him, but only if they could take me on loan, too.
“I wasn’t sure about it and Fulham’s chief executive was going mad, asking why a 19-year-old kid was holding up the deal. I decided to go to Norwich and I loved it there under Glenn Roeder, but the writing was on the wall for me at Fulham.
“It was originally supposed to be a season-long loan, but there was a clause in the contract whereby Fulham had a week-long window in January where they could terminate my loan.
“Fulham offered me a new contract, but the terms were ridiculous and I wasn’t going to sign it, so they told me they would cut short my loan at Norwich and stick me in the Under-23s, which they did.”
It wasn’t until October 2009, that he made another temporary switch, this time to Charlton Athletic. And Omozusi ended up taking his parent club to court.
“They offered me reduced terms just so they could ensure that they got a fee for me,” he adds. “I think Coventry came in for me, as did Wolves, who had just been promoted to the Premier League. Sheffield United and Watford were interested, but none of them wanted to pay such a high fee and Fulham were knocking back every bid that came in.
“They also told me not to return to the training ground, cleaned my locker out and said that they could hold on to my registration until I was 24. Fulham eventually released me when I was 21. I had been there for going on 10 years and it does leave a sour taste in my mouth.
“All of it could have been avoided, but there is no ill will on my part. Looking back now, I can only imagine how many young players go through this kind of thing.”
The father-of-two signed for Leyton Orient in ahead of the 2010-2011 season and established himself at Brisbane Road.
But his world came crashing down in November 2011, when he was sent to prison. Members of the London Fields gang were convicted for the shooting of 16-year-old Agnes Sina-Inakoju at a chicken shop in April 2010.
Omozusi was convicted of attempted revenge after he had a chance meeting in Liverpool with a witness in the trial of his friends for Sina-Inakoju’s murder.
• • • •
• • • •
“I was never a gang member,” he says. “I had never even been arrested and I had no convictions – that would not have been the case had I been a member of a well-known gang.
“The first time I ever saw the inside of a police cell was when I was arrested. They sent me to prison because I was in the limelight and wanted the sentence to act as a deterrent.”
He served 16 months in Pentonville, Wellingborough and Oakwood prisons, where he coped well as he knew a few inmates and was made a gym orderly.
What kept him going, though, was Orient standing by him, with then-manager Russell Slade a regular visitor while he was locked up.
“My partner had also just had our first child and she was also super supportive,” Omozusi says. “Orient basically said, ‘We know what you did and what you didn’t do, and there will be a place for you here when you come out’.
“The fact that they stood by me was priceless, mentally. The hardest thing for me was feeling like I had let my parents down and the thought of upsetting them.”
He returned to Orient in 2013 and, a year later, was nominated for the PFA Player in the Community Award for his work with the Leyton Orient Community Sports Programme.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK so far – Elliot Omozusi's Soccer School selfie! pic.twitter.com/jCGUGkaaks
— Cambridge United Kids (@CU_Kids) February 16, 2016
“It felt like I was being given a second chance,” Omozusi says. “I went into youth clubs and schools, and when I talked to the kids, they could really relate to my experiences because I was coming from the same place as them. It was a really productive thing for me to do and was one of the reasons that I became a safeguarding lead.”
Having turned things around, Omozusi stayed at Orient until 2015, when he signed for Cambridge United. He left the U’s in early January 2017, took in a short spell at Whitehawk and moved to Chelmsford City, where he enjoyed a four-year spell which came to an end in the summer.
Now plying his trade at Isthmian League North Division club Barking, Omozusi has no regrets the way his football career turned out.
“I am friends with a lot of footballers who are older than me and I watched their transition from being a full-time professional to life afterwards,” Omozusi says.
“I’d always said to myself that I wanted it to go the way I wanted and for the matter to be in my hands. If a career came along which suited me, I would make the transition before I was forced to, which I have done.”
He has few regrets, too, about the way his football career turned out.
“In terms of ability, I didn’t reach the heights that I should have, but I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of the opportunities which were given to me,” Omozusi adds.
“I am grateful for what I’ve had and what I’ve got now.”
By Simon Yaffe