Whenever Nedum Onuoha plays five-a-side, he still hears Roberto Mancini’s words. It’s been more than a decade since the former England under-21 international was shown the door at boyhood club Manchester City by Mancini, but it seems the Italian has left an indelible mark.
Although while the wounds left by Mancini giving Onuoha the cold shoulder have mostly healed, it’s the lessons from the training ground that have remained – even in retirement.
“He coached us in a certain way, we did it every single day to a fault. No other manager I’ve had did it that intensively,” recalls the 36-year-old defender. “To this day, I’ll be playing five-a-side and there will be things I’m be doing that I know I picked up from him.
“For example, if someone is in trouble, I’ll instinctively go and stand in this exact position – not a yard to the side because that’s what Mancini insisted – because it gives him the option. Most of the time I don’t understand why I’m doing it, but that’s where I end up.
“I think that’s the legacy factor for a manager. Does he make a player better? Did he change the way you played? Did he add something to your game? I think he did that for everyone, but he did it so much it’s ingrained in you.”
There can be little questioning the impact of Mancini’s well-drilled approach at Manchester City. An FA Cup victory in 2011 represented the Blues’ first major trophy for 35 years, with 2012’s Premier League success the club’s first top-flight crown since the 60s.
Yet Onuoha’s memories of Mancini aren’t all positive. The City youth graduate had been part of the first team for five years when Mancini was brought in to replace Mark Hughes as manager in 2009 and while success followed, there was collateral damage along the way.
“Mancini was significant because he changed the mentality of the football club,” Onuoha says. “He changed it at a point when Hughes was setting a team up to be successful, but Mancini came in and expected the club to be successful.
“You saw that that in his eyes. Whichever team we played against, there was no ‘well, we’ll set up and try to do our best’, it was set up in a way that you had to win this game.
“But from a personality standpoint, I didn’t get along with him and lots of people didn’t, but you know what he wanted and you could argue ‘isn’t that what a coach is supposed to do, get the players playing exactly how you want them to?’.
“I just wish he’d done it in a different way because he’d have enjoyed some of the success more because that success was just part of this tough process you had to go through because if you didn’t, you were on your way.”
Onuoha’s ambivalence towards Mancini is understandable. When fit, the defender had been a fixture in the City side since making his debut under Kevin Keegan in 2004 when the former England manager’s boundless energy gave the then-teenager the belief he could make it at the top.
Yet despite featuring regularly under Keegan’s successors, Stuart Pearce, Sven Goran Eriksson and Hughes, Onuoha’s game time evaporated under Mancini.
Some players may have accepted the snub as a fact of the team’s evolution, but Onuoha wanted to earn his place back in a club he considered his own. That meant spells in the reserves, being shipped out on loan and even being described by Mancini as only staying with City “because he is homegrown”.
There was little explanation why and Onuoha felt he was never given a fair chance to show Mancini what he could do on the pitch. Although, looking back, he feels their relationship didn’t get off to the best start.
“It was a shame because I got injured in Hughes’ last game, but I finished it because I wanted to be reliable and show that ‘if you start me, I want to try to finish’,” Onuoha remembers.
“I was out for like four weeks, and two days into that, Mancini comes in and I can’t play. Worse still, he hated when people were injured – if someone was out for four or six weeks, he’d say it should be a week. He never trusted the medical staff, he thought people were avoiding playing, and that was my opening bit with a new manager.”
Onuoha threw himself into Mancini’s strict training sessions, showing a willingness to learn the methods that would eventually make City Premier League champions.
As Onuoha’s instinctive mimicking of Mancini’s positioning while playing five-a-side now shows, the understanding was there. But it didn’t change his fortunes.
“There was nothing you could say back to him about anything,” Onuoha says. “He could say your name wrong, but if you tried to correct him, that’s you in the doghouse. He created in my mind a true sense of hierarchy in that ‘this is him, he is omnipotent, there’s nothing you can do about it’. If he said ‘tomorrow we’re just going to hop our legs for 90 minutes’, don’t question it, just hop for 90 minutes and know this is what it’s going to be.
“He didn’t like confrontation either, so the knock on the manager’s door that you speak about wasn’t an option because he didn’t want to speak to you.
“There was a point when I’d played in three reserve games in a row across three weeks, even though I was still playing in the League Cup and there were players who didn’t play in the League Cup game or in the league, but weren’t in the reserves. I was 24 or 25 at the time and it was just me from the first team [that was in the reserves] which I thought was weird so I went to talk to him.
“He said to me ‘what’s the matter, do you not want to play football?’. If there was a real-life check mate, that was it. What do I say? I said ‘of course I do’ and he said ‘there’s no problem them, keep playing in the games’ and off I went, tail between my legs and walked out.”
After trying and failing to get Mancini’s attention for more than two years, Onuoha eventually left Man City on a permanent deal in January 2012, re-joining previous boss Hughes at QPR.
The move to Loftus Road had been sounded out at the beginning of the season, but Onuoha wasn’t keen. Although after Hughes took charge of the Rs mid-campaign, it was a no brainer.
“I really enjoyed playing for him [Hughes] because he made it about more than just training sessions and games, he instilled this mentality of being a professional,” Onuoha says.
“He was somebody who invested in sports science – hydration tests, blood tests, body fats, this and that. There was pre-activation before a session, a warm down afterwards, ice baths, massages, the whole concept that exists today. He changed my career because I was playing more games under him and I bought into everything.
“He leaves a legacy at clubs and changes the training ground to the point when he says ‘you should want to be here, you should feel happy here’, and creates an environment that cultivates that mentality and gives you the best chance to be successful. Fans and people on the outside don’t see that, but every player he’s had does and it’s why he’s respected by a lot of them.”
While Onuoha laments poor recruitment for the reason Hughes’s time at QPR didn’t work out, there’s more regret about how the Welshman’s time at City ended – and not just because Mancini’s arrival meant Onuoha’s days at the Etihad were numbered too.
“When Hughes first came in, the takeover [by the Abu Dhabi United Group] hadn’t happened, then it did and the expectations changed,” Onuoha explains.
“That first year, we played in the UEFA Cup and did well, so the next year we went in with an added sense of expectation, but we weren’t playing as well as we could have been in that moment.
“As was the case with a lot of the players, as soon as the takeover happened, people looked at you in a different way. We had a team before the takeover that might have been top eight, but then the takeover happens and people are looking at us as though we’re a side going for the top four.
“We still had the same players and previously we could slide under the radar when we were doing badly and before you know it, everything is an overreaction so when we’re not doing well it’s because he [Hughes] isn’t good enough. If the takeover hadn’t happened, we’d have had the same players, less Robinho, and we would have been fine and people would have accepted it.”
Hughes was relieved of his duties in December shortly after City beat Sunderland 4-3 to leave them sixth in the Premier League with Mancini’s arrival shortly afterwards.
“He [Hughes] ended up losing his job and it was a weird day because everyone knew before the game that he’d been sacked,” Onuoha adds. “The players knew it, the fans kind of knew it, Hughes was hinting at it before, he knew his time was done. There was a sense of frustration within him because he would have thought he could continue to do a good job.”
It was a moment that had a big impact on Onuoha and City’s future, and can still be witnessed on five-a-side pitches in the area too. For better or worse.