Manchester City are firmly established as one of Europe’s elite these days, but the all-conquering team that won a domestic treble in 2018-19 is a very different beast to the one Nedum Onuoha remembers.
Onuoha came through the youth ranks at City, and the slick machine managed by Pep Guardiola is a world away from the ramshackle facilities and hard-earned reputation for failure and disappointment he was used to growing up.
And though Onuoha was around for the start of the Sheikh Mansour era, he still can’t quite believe just how far the club has come.
“To see the club now, compared to where it was 15 or 20 years previously, is crazy,” Onuoha says.
“I remember in the academy they’d tell you whether you were going to get the next deal. You’d go to a shared training facility with the public and then you had to walk up to the Portakabins at the top, where the manager would be waiting to tell you whether you were going to make it or not.
“That’s where they were then, and now they’re in a situation where they’re organising everything, everyone’s training in the same place with top-quality conditions. Every last detail has been worked on and they know their preparation is as good as anyone else in the world.”
Onuoha did not leave City permanently until January 2012, just a few months before they won their first Premier League title. But having made just one appearance for the Blues in the first half of that season, fate ensured he was still on the pitch for that memorable afternoon in May.
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Unsurprisingly, Onuoha has a vivid recollection of a surreal afternoon that featured five goals, a red card and perhaps the most dramatic finish to a title race there has ever been. And for QPR, the club Onuoha had recently joined, survival despite the loss.
“We were going into the City game with our destiny in our own hands, but they were trying to win the league at home for the first time,” the defender says.
“I spent the week overthinking the game completely, thinking about every possible scenario. What if this happens? What if that happens. Positive, negative, everything.
“It was probably the first time I’d been nervous going into a game since the second week of my career. I was so, so nervous, just because of the implications. Am I really going to be relegated in the stadium I called home? Is this actually going to happen? Am I going to be the laughing stock of the whole stadium? I was thinking ‘It’s going to hurt my pride. It’s going to kill me.’”
Trailing 1-0 at the break, the QPR players regrouped in the dressing room ahead of an unexpectedly thrilling second half. Despite the stress and uncertainty, they went ahead, Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie scoring either side of Joey Barton’s red card.
The pressure mounted, but Onouha and his team-mates stood firm until deep into injury time.
“Just before they scored their second goal, I’ll never forget Mancini was on the sideline and he’d completely lost the plot,” Onuoha says.
“He was cursing his players, he was insulting them, he was doing everything. The place was wild. The pressure in the stadium was as high as I’ve seen anywhere, in any game. It was chaotic.
“After they scored the third, I thought we were down. I realised we weren’t down when, five seconds after I had my hands on my head, I looked up at our fans and they were celebrating in the far stand.
“I took a breath in, I looked around and saw every single person in the stadium celebrating. I thought, ‘This is a moment which I don’t think will ever be replicated.’”
— ManCityzens (@ManCityzenscom) July 28, 2019
Onuoha had joined City as a nine-year-old in 1996 and made his debut eight years later, still only at the age of 17. The club had only recently been promoted back to the Premier League, and although he was making good progress, he never imagined his own promotion would come so soon.
“I played in a reserve game against Manchester United. I played well. We all played well. It was a big game – there were six or seven thousand people there watching it. We won that and then the next day I get a call from the kitman, Les Chapman, asking me what number I want.
“He gave me number 16 and said I was going to be on the bench that weekend against Chelsea. I was blown away.”
Onuoha didn’t make it onto the pitch as Nicolas Anelka’s penalty inflicted Jose Mourinho’s first defeat in English football, but later that month he made his debut against Arsenal in the League Cup. He was soon a regular under Kevin Keegan, and then Stuart Pearce.
Initially, he was still on an £80-a-week scholarship while playing alongside Steve McManaman, David James and Robbie Fowler.
The club continued to evolve, as did Onuoha’s contract terms and status within the team, before a strange year under the ownership of Thaksin Shinawatra that promised much but quickly petered out.
Then everything changed overnight with the Abu Dhabi takeover on September 1, 2008.
“It was a whirlwind, it really was,” Onuoha says. “This was really heavy investment. This was beyond normal investment, to the point where they would do whatever they wanted. If they wanted to buy £100million players they could have done that. That was a big, big change.
“The expectations changed, both inside and outside. Now, if you didn’t win something, then you were a club that was essentially failing. To be part of that the standards had to be raised. The expectations are so much higher. The investment into the club turned it into a place where the business is all about winning games.
“Nothing else really matters, like progressing players. Yeah, that’s great, but we’re here to win games and to win titles. The mentality completely flipped and they started to bring in players who had that mentality. Proven winners who would ultimately take the club to a point where they were consistently winning leagues and competing for all the trophies, in Europe not just in England.”
Billions were poured into the club and it was completely transformed. Expensive new signings came flooding in, and Onuoha was one of many players who found themselves displaced as Roberto Mancini decided he was no longer needed.
City had been a huge part of his life for so long but now they were moving on without him.
“It was really, really tough,” he says. “Through all the years that I’d been there, I’d had a lot of managers and been deemed good enough by all of them. Then, all of a sudden, one came in and said I wasn’t.
“That was very hard to take because I didn’t understand it. The same players that he was happy with were the ones who I was playing with a month earlier.
“Now I get it because I’m older and I’ve experienced it and I’ve seen it so many more times. But when you’re in the situation yourself it’s a tough pill to take.
“This is your home. I was playing for my hometown team, the team I’d supported from when I was a kid. I’d been there since I was 10. I’d been ball boy and I knew the history of the club. My family and friends were there. That was my base. Then, all of a sudden, I get told, ‘No, you’re not going to play. You need to go elsewhere.’”
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 16, 2018
Having survived by a single point, in the strangest of circumstances, the QPR squad underwent a major overhaul that summer, with Tony Fernandes agreeing deals for a host of high-profile players.
Three Champions League winners – Park Ji-sung, Jose Bosingwa and Julio Cesar – suddenly pitched up at Loftus Road, while seasoned but unglamorous professionals like Shaun Derry and Clint Hill remained in place.
It made for a curious blend, and one which wasn’t conducive to success. There was a divided dressing room as QPR plummeted to the bottom of the table, failing to win any of their first 16 league games.
The appointment of Harry Redknapp brought a brief stirring of hope, and some more signings in the January transfer window, but relegation was soon confirmed.
“Our identity wasn’t really set,” Onuoha says. “We had such a mix of personnel. We had people who had been with the club in the Championship, and had been there for years, and also people who had been in the Champions League, coming from Real Madrid and clubs like that. I’ll be honest, that mix didn’t work because everyone’s view of how to find success was so different.
“One of the things about football, and you could argue life in general, is that when everything’s going great, no one says anything. Everyone’s happy. Everything’s perfect. But when things go wrong, everyone’s got the answer.
“Unfortunately, in that moment, you might have had 10 different answers, whereas if the club had a certain identity there’s only ever going to be one.”
QPR made an immediate return to the Premier League and put up a better fight to stay but once more succumbed to some of the same issues. Many of the big earners were subsequently moved on, and Onuoha was installed as captain of a club that churned through managers without making much progress. Budgets were cut and a new approach taken.
🎥 R's captain Nedum Onuoha is set for his 2️⃣0️⃣0️⃣th #QPR appearance today.
So what have been his Top 5️⃣ moments? pic.twitter.com/uM4u4lTWVl
— QPR FC (@QPR) September 9, 2017
After six and a half years in West London, during which he made more than 200 appearances for QPR, Onouha left at the end of his contract in 2018. He then made the bold decision to move to America and sign for Real Salt Lake, where he has enjoyed a completely different challenge and way of life.
“I’ve played in the majority of games, bar a little spell where I was injured,” he says. “I’ve travelled to a lot of cities and a lot of States, and had to learn about dealing with different time zones on a week-to-week basis. You’re literally flying everywhere. At QPR we were on the bus!
“I think one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed it is because I’ve had to learn about a whole bunch of new players and new teams, which means that you’re on your toes more, rather than just falling into a comfort zone and doing the same things over and over. You’re learning about yourself and how you adapt. You’re trying to find the best way to be successful over here.”
Onuoha’s first full season saw Real Salt Lake reach the MLS play-offs. It was also notable for an altercation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic during a 2-1 defeat to LA Galaxy.
Onuoha says: “He basically dragged me down to the floor by my neck. I was asking him what he was doing and then he started telling me to shut up and get up.
“That got my back up a little bit, so I started having a little go. He started running his mouth, so I stepped up to him because I’m not there for me or my team-mates to be disrespected.
“He’s a guy who’s so good that if you don’t make it difficult for him, or challenge him, he’ll just walk all over you. He’s not going to think that MLS is the hardest league he’s ever played in, but this is where he probably gets the most respect from players. They won’t step to him at all. They treat him like a god even when he’s playing against them sometimes.
“We were going back and forth for the next half hour of the game. He scored the winner and shouted in my face.
“But then we went into the locker room and I was annoyed because we’d just lost so late in the game. We played well and we deserved something from it. He walked in asking if I’d calmed down yet, but it was like he was trying to mug me off with the way he was saying it in front of all my peers.
“So again, I stepped up and told him where he can go basically. This isn’t your space and I’m not going to be disrespected by you. The funny thing was that it was so different for people to see someone react like that to someone like him.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic went into the locker room apparently to apologize to Nedum Onuoha for fouling and taunting him during the game. Nedum wanted no part of his apology. #mls #RSL #rsltid pic.twitter.com/F2zcmPTbC2
— Jeremiah Jensen (@JJSportsBeat) April 29, 2019
Onuoha feels comfortable in America and is finding fulfilment away from football with his young family, but he plans to return to England once he retires. He admits the end of an eventful career isn’t too far away.
“As the years have passed, I’ve loved being a professional, but I’ve never let it define who I am,” he says.
“I train hard and I go to games and play. But my life is just a normal life outside of that. Having three kids, I love my actual, real life as much, if not more, than the work that I do.
“I don’t find it daunting that my career will end. I actually find it quite exciting.”
By Sean Cole