Former Chelsea defender Aziz Deen-Conteh spent his teenage years learning at the feet of Carlo Ancelotti and Ashley Cole. It is still the happiest spell of his career. The left-back won the FA Youth Cup during his time at Stamford Bridge, coming up through the ranks with Jeffrey Bruma and Josh McEachran – but now he just wants to enjoy playing again.
Ancelotti awarded him a two-year deal at Chelsea, but Deen-Conteh failed to make a single first-team appearance for the club before embarking on an eclectic career that has included spells in Greece, Moldova, Georgia and even Stoke-on-Trent.
“I had a lot of opportunities to train with the first team, especially when Carlo Ancelotti was at the club. He really loved the young players and he’s a manager that believes in the youth so he gave a lot of players the opportunities to join in with the first team,” says Deen-Conteh.
“I was with him a lot when he was there as he really liked me, so I had a chance. It was a good experience, as you learn from the best players. At the time Ashley Cole was there and he was a player I looked up to. It was a real good experience training with top players and learning from the best.”
When the time came for him to leave Chelsea, Deen-Conteh had a crucial decision to make – one that could shape his future career. He was presented a number of options and, as he reflects on turning down the chance to join Notts County, there is a hint of regret in his voice.
“I still had a year option on my contract, but both Chelsea and I decided not to renew it,” he says. “After such a long time at the club, where they were really good to me, it was really hard leaving the place. I just had to leave to try and make my name out there.
“When I left I had some offers in the Championship and League One, so I went to Notts County. My agent and the club agreed a deal. I was in the office about to sign, we’d negotiated everything, but what my agent had agreed with the club wasn’t in the contract and then things broke down. Then my agent called me and told me to leave.”
After the move to Notts County fell through at the last minute, the Sierra Leone international made the surprise decision to join Greek side Ergotelis.
It was the chance for a fresh start, but Deen-Conteh soon found he was vying with the team captain to be the starting left-back. With the Greek financial crisis casting further doubt over his situation, it was time for the former Chelsea youngster to move on again.
“It was a shock move. I was in bed and an agent called me saying he’d got my number from a player and he said he had a move for me in Greece. It was in a really good city, a good club playing in a big stadium, so I made up my mind straight away.
“A lot of people see Greece as a holiday destination. But I wasn’t there for a holiday, I was there to do my job and enjoy my football. It was a team of good players and they made sure I was welcomed when I got to the airport. I didn’t make my debut straight away as the captain was the left-back, which was unfortunate. It took me three or four months to make my debut, then I started playing.
“When I went there there was no crisis in Greece. I got my first month’s wages, but then they stopped paying everyone. I hadn’t experienced such things before – I was only 20. I’d signed a two-year contract but I had to terminate it and come home to the UK.”
Deen-Conteh, who has three caps for Sierra Leone, returned to England to play for Port Vale, but he struggled for playing time under manager Rob Page. It was a frustrating spell for the youngster at a crucial time in his career, as he looked to develop in League One and establish himself as a professional.
“I’d signed a three-year contract, but I didn’t get my chance at Port Vale. At the time the left-back was the captain, so it was a hard situation for me. I had to cut my stay there short as things didn’t work out for me and I didn’t really get along with the gaffer.”
Eventually Deen-Conteh’s agent, Dimitri Seluk, arranged a move to Moldovan side Zaria Balti in January 2016 in a bid to get the defender more time on the pitch.
Moldova is an alien country to many but, despite the cultural differences, Deen-Conteh enjoyed his time there. The former England Under-19 international won his only professional medal during his stay in Moldova as Zaria lifted the domestic cup.
“I’ve got the same agent as Yaya Toure, Dimitri Seluk, and he called me to say there was club in Moldova who would give me games until the end of the season, so I thought ‘why not?’,” Deen-Conteh continues.
“It was decent money and I went there for four months. Moldova is a small country and not a lot of people know it; the culture, the style. It was very different for me. I didn’t do much there, I just went to training, back to the hotel but I was happy there as I was playing games and we won the cup, my first professional medal.”
Deen-Conteh was offered the chance to remain in Moldova with Zaria’s rivals Milsami Orhei but, due to their president being in prison, he decided it wasn’t the safest option. Against his better judgment, he accepted an offer to join Georgian top-flight team FC Zugdidi.
It wasn’t long before he was faced with another problem, however, as the club failed to pay his wages on time, eventually leading to his agent to step in and help find a solution.
“It was a really strange move to go to Georgia. I’ve made mistakes in life, which this one was,” admits Deen-Conteh. “I wouldn’t say I regret it, but it has cost me, leaving me in the position I am in now. Everything I’ve gone through now, I wouldn’t have called it as a failure, I just see it as an experience.
“I had to leave there early as it wasn’t right for me, but sometimes it’s not all about the money, it’s about the person. I wanted to come back and play in the UK and I left there in October and I’ve just been training back in the UK.”
Deen-Conteh is a more rounded person owing to his experiences abroad and now, aged 24, he is hoping to move his career forward.
“I’m stronger, I can cope with any situation now. I don’t think a lot of English players would be willing to do that, to leave their comfort zone, especially to where I’ve been.”
Happiness is the key for the London-based player now, who has an offer from Russia waiting for him as he keeps fit and plots his next move. It won’t be easy for him to climb back up the leagues in England, but regular playing time is Deen Conteh’s main aim as he searches for a club he can finally call home.
“I really want to stay in the UK. I don’t want to go back to Eastern Europe, I’m done with that side. I want find somewhere to call home and enjoy my football, so I can show my ability and what I’m capable of. I’ve not had that feeling of being able to call somewhere home since I left Chelsea.”
He acknowledges that he is starting again in England, but he’s up for the fight, whatever level he ends up playing at.
“I’ve just got to start again from the bottom and try to battle for recognition, so people will know me again. For me to get to the top now, I need to start from the bottom.”