THE scrawny teenager with the bright eyes and the winning smile sat agog, scarcely believing what he had just seen.
On the flickering screen in front of him, delirious men in red cavorted on the green, green grass of Barcelona and a rosy-cheeked Glaswegian was summing up the vagaries of his profession with those immortal words, “Football. Bloody hell.”
Michael Essien was 16 and holed up with the Ghana U17 squad when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer pulled off Manchester United’s miracle of Camp Nou, plundering two goals in stoppage time to claim their first European Cup since 1968 and etch another legend into Old Trafford folklore.
And not even Essien, who famously sleeps 14 hours a day, could grab a wink that night.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “I supported United when I was a kid and used to really like Roy Keane — he was one of my heroes.
“It was bad when they were losing but then, bang, two goals in the last minute. Unbelievable.”
Essien is 25 now but all the familiar flutterings of excitement will still take hold tonight when United step out for their first European final since that heady evening in Catalonia. Only his role has changed: from passive spectator, he will now be the most active of participants in club football’s showpiece event at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, charged with denying United the trophy they believe to be theirs by right.
Essien’s destiny has long been entwined with that of United. Indeed, had fate played a different hand, he might even be stepping out in the Russian capital clad in red. After attracting the eye of United’s scouts with his performances for Ghana’s Liberty Professionals Club, he was invited to a trial and the 17-year-old spent a week with the youth team. There was no contract offer but at least he ticked off one lifelong ambition by meeting Keane.
Five years later, United went head-to-head with Chelsea to sign him from Rennes but a price-tag of £25m (€31m) proved beyond even Old Trafford’s resources. Essien duly became the newest star in the Stamford Bridge firmament but, for all the lingering affection for Ferguson’s side, this is one footballer who refuses to reflect on what might have been.
“I have no regrets at all,” he said. “My dream was to come here (to England) and play in the Premier League, so I was very happy when Chelsea came in for me. I’m really enjoying my football here. I love the club and the fans and hopefully I can stay longer.”
Essien is a refreshingly uncomplicated character at a club which could never be described as straightforward. While Didier Drogba pouts and preens and shadowy figures stalk the club’s corridors of power, hatching plots which would put Machiavelli to shame, Essien simply does what he does best: play football extraordinarily well.
Nobody has contributed more to Chelsea’s turbo-charged finish to the season than their tireless midfielder. His lung-bursting performances, which see him driving at the heart of furiously backpedalling opponents one moment and then crunching into a crucial interception in his own penalty area the next, have been one of the campaign’s minor miracles.
It is no coincidence that only two Chelsea outfield players — the two Coles — have started more games this season and his prowess and energy are such that even a switch to the more unfamiliar realm of right-back has proceeded smoothly. His success in recent weeks should see him start there again tonight.
“I don’t know where I get the energy from — it’s my little secret!” he said. “I do get tired but I don’t show it on the field. I just keep going until the game is finished. It’s a mental thing, I learnt that when I was a youngster, when I was coming up as a player. The coaches used to tell us that the tiredness is actually in your mind. But we all have energy left in us and we are going to show that in Moscow.”
Chelsea are likely to need all their famed stamina for a game which looks too close to call. The spectre of extra time and penalties is already hovering over the Luzhniki, a scenario which will spook not just the local authorities, charged with the task of returning 70,000 fans to central Moscow at 2am local time, but also Essien.
The last time the Ghanaian took a spot-kick, during his spell with Rennes, he missed and his mother ended up in hospital, overcome by the stress of it all. “I stopped taking penalties after that,” Essien said, with a nervous laugh.
Perhaps it is for the best that Mrs Essien will not be in Russia this evening.
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