Michael Mancienne couldn’t have wished for a better football education than the one he received at Chelsea.
Roman Abramovich’s takeover revolutionised the club, raising standards to an unimaginably high level. Amid an influx of global stars, the young defender was one of the few local players who managed to keep up.
At youth level, Mancienne was always ahead of the curve, improving at a faster rate than his peers. He was still in school when he made his debut for the reserves, and his involvement with the first team started under Jose Mourinho. Over the next few years, he remained on the fringes, learning from some of the world’s best players but unsure what the future held.
“I just knew that it was going to be really, really hard to break into that team,” says Mancienne, now of Burton Albion. “The manager’s under pressure. The owner wants to win trophies. He wants players who have been there and done it, who know how to handle the pressure and play in big games. I always knew it was going to be tough, but I still had the dream that I could achieve it.”
Just holding his own in training was a huge task. “I felt like I was 20 steps behind everyone else there. Balls that you’d normally be winning, I wasn’t getting anywhere near. I’d think I was able to nick the ball off someone like Nicolas Anelka, but he’d just chop it. He was so good. To train with players of that calibre was amazing and really pushed me.”
Mancienne was made to feel welcome and part of the group, even when he tried to slip by unnoticed. “We used to do boxes in the morning, with six people on the outside and two in the middle. The standard was frightening. The ball was pinging around the English box, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t have the motivation to go in there today.’
“I was casually walking over to another box and all I heard was, ‘Where the fucking hell are you going?’ I’ve turned around and it was JT, Ashley Cole and Lamps. I was like, ‘I’m going to that box over there.’ They were like, ‘No, get your arse in over here now.’ I’ve walked straight into the middle, picked up the bib and I was stuck there for ages,” laughs Mancienne.
The hard work paid off. Having gained invaluable experience on loan to Queens Park Rangers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Mancienne made his long-awaited Chelsea debut in February 2009. After starting a 3-1 win over Watford in the FA Cup, he then came off the bench against Juventus in the Champions League.
Mancienne replaced Michael Ballack late on at Stamford Bridge as Guus Hiddink looked to close out the game. It was only a brief appearance, but sharing the pitch with legends like Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved, Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet was a powerful reminder of just how far he’d come.
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“It meant everything to me. It was a dream come true. From a young boy, being scouted by Chelsea, that’s all I dreamed about. My family were over the moon. I was still living on a council estate with my family. Even though I only came on for the last 10 minutes, I drove back feeling like a million dollars. I was so happy. It just didn’t feel real.”
Earlier that season, while still on loan at Wolves in the Championship, Mancienne was called up to the England squad by Fabio Capello for a friendly against Germany. A leading player at every age group, he made 30 appearances for the Under-21s without ever winning a full cap. That night on the bench at the Olympiastadion was the closest he ever came.
Captain John Terry scored the winner and still found time to look after his team-mate. “Honestly, he was brilliant with me. I was a young lad, nervous. After the game, he took my shirt and got it signed by all the players, which meant a lot. It was a great experience.”
Mancienne returned to Wolves, spending another two seasons with the club. He flourished under the straight-talking Mick McCarthy, who kept a tight-knit group in the Premier League. “Everyone wanted to play for him, and give 110%, just because of the person that he was. He was so transparent. He doesn’t bullshit you. He just tells you how it is.”
Although he had a couple of years left on his contract, Mancienne knew that, at 23, he had to leave Stamford Bridge permanently for the sake of his career. “I thought, ‘I can’t live in this bubble at Chelsea anymore. I need to be settled in a team, playing week in, week out, making a name for myself.’
“Funnily enough, I was in the gym and Frank Arnesen [the club’s sporting director] approached me and said, ‘I’m going to Hamburg if you want to come with me.’ I said yes within a heartbeat and never looked back really.
“I feel like I did everything that I could have to become a regular at Chelsea. Sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time. Maybe, if I was coming through now, it would be a little bit different. I don’t know. We were winning trophies and had a team of captains that were amazing. It would be hard for any youngster now to break into that team back then.”
Life as a Chelsea player was all Mancienne had ever known. Even during his many loan spells, the home comforts of Cobham were never far away. In contrast, everything about Hamburg was new and different, exciting and demanding in equal measure.
“I always thought I’d love to play abroad. Football’s a short career and I wanted to get as much out of it as I could,” he says. “When the opportunity did arise, I jumped at it. I really wanted to have that life experience.”
The Bundesliga has since become a proving ground for young English players but, 10 years ago, very few were prepared to take that risk. Mancienne was a rare exception and he learned so much by stepping out of his comfort zone.
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“It wasn’t always plain sailing,” he says. “When you’re out of the team, or you haven’t played very well in a game, and you’re there by yourself – you haven’t got your friends and family around the corner – you’re thinking about it 24/7. It made me realise how strong I am mentally to get through those tough situations.”
In Germany, Mancienne encountered a different style of football, where even the smaller teams played out from the back, and some interesting team-mates. Hamburg finished seventh in his second season as Rafael van der Vaart created plenty of chances for the emerging Heung-min Son.
“He was amazing back then, even as a young kid. He was so sharp and so annoying to play against in training. All I wanted to do was smash him, but it was so hard to get close to him. He’d bounce the ball off and sprint in behind you.
“I’m really happy for him… He showed that kind of quality from a young age. Left foot, right foot. Shooting from anywhere and scoring. He’s a brilliant player.”
After three years in Germany, Mancienne wanted to move closer to home. He signed for Nottingham Forest, who were targeting promotion to the Premier League, and made 134 appearances for the club over the next four seasons as they churned through managers and players to no avail.
“It was hard because there was never really any stability. I really wish that they’d given Stuart Pearce more time. We got off to a flyer, but we got a few injuries, which killed our momentum. There was always a new manager coming in who you had to impress. It just made things tougher than they needed to be.”
The annual grind of keeping a turbulent Forest in the Championship eventually proved too much. Mancienne wanted a change of scenery and a fresh challenge, which arrived with Brad Friedel’s offer to join New England Revolution.
He admits that Major League Soccer took him by surprise. The quality was higher than he expected and the conditions so much harder to deal with. Unlike in Europe, teams routinely face long flights to away games played in a completely different climate and time zone.
“I underestimated it before I went there,” says Mancienne. “I was like, ‘This is going to be so easy.’ But it was tough. You’d go to some places and it would be so damn hot and muggy and humid. It was hard to play in. Then you’d go to Salt Lake where it’s so far above sea level and the air’s so thin and you’re struggling to catch your breath.”
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 10, 2019
America took its toll on Mancienne and his partner, especially during the pandemic, and they left New England when his contract expired at the end of last year.
“For me, personally, something was missing. You’re playing to get into the play-offs. You’re not getting relegated or anything like that. It doesn’t mean as much. Funnily enough, I missed that feeling of being in those dogfights, where you’re scrapping for points, and it means a lot.”
Mancienne recognises that football has changed since he started out. Where clubs used to prioritise experience, often to his detriment, they now favour potential. That change has caught Mancienne out at both ends of his career.
The desire for battle-hardened winners made it difficult to break through at Chelsea 15 years ago, while the current preference for young prospects with resale value, exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic, affected his opportunities upon returning to England.
Burton were bottom of League One when Mancienne joined in February. But, under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, they won 13 of their last 24 games to finish 10 points clear of the drop.
“I was going there to enjoy football again, play games and do the best I could to keep the team in the league. I think Jimmy brought in nine new players and we started winning games. After the third or fourth win, we were all looking around thinking, ‘Bloody hell, we might have a chance here.’
“It got to the point where we were flying. I really enjoyed last season, playing under Jimmy. It was a breath of fresh air, especially coming back to English football after being in America.”
Reinvigorated by his move to Burton, Mancienne recently signed a new one-year deal and aims to keep playing for as long as possible. His path from exciting young prospect to established senior professional wasn’t always smooth, but he’s relished every step of the journey, and it isn’t over yet.
“It feels like I’ve blinked, and I’ve reached this point,” says the 33-year-old. “At QPR, when I was the youngest in the team, I remember thinking, ‘Some of these players are coming to the end of their careers and I’m so far away from that.’ I’m at that point now and I’ve got young boys looking up to me.
“It’s strange. In my mind, I still feel like I’m 18, but I’m enjoying every moment of my career. The ups and downs that come with it have made me the person that I am today, which I’m proud of.”
By Sean Cole