It no shock for anyone who watched Michael Essien patrolling the pitch in his pomp that his boyhood hero was Roy Keane. What is a surprise, though, is that the man who grew up a Manchester United fan declined the chance to replace his idol in Alex Ferguson’s midfield.
In the summer of 2005 – as headlines were dominated by Jose Mourinho’s attempted wooing of Steven Gerrard – Ferguson was looking for someone to take the baton from his captain, who would leave the club that winter. Unlike Gerrard, Essien elected to join Mourinho’s Chelsea.
If he didn’t follow in Keane’s footsteps in that sense, Essien did in another: he quickly became the best all-round midfielder in the country. But his time at the top was short and sweet: three seasons into his Chelsea career he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament playing for Ghana, the first of a gruelling series of knee injuries that cleaved chunks out of his career and set him on the path to early decline. But he soldiered on at Chelsea – for five more years altogether – and after spells in Madrid, Milan, Greece and Indonesia, is currently without a club, unretired.
In the grand sweep of Chelsea’s modern history, it’s easy to cast Essien as a fondly remembered footnote. The truth, though, is that only a ruinous injury deprived him of the longevity that would have seen him go down in history as the equal of Keane and Gerrard.
Essien’s flame may have burned briefly but it was dazzlingly bright, his gloriously unshackled approach seeing him voted the best player in France the season before crossing the Channel. And in the era just before the role of midfielder became split into the deep-lying and attacking, Essien was a wonderful throwback to the one-man-band model, a last hurrah for the box-to-box general. The most striking aspect of his game was his inexhaustible stamina (he once admitted to taking to the treadmill after some games to run off excess energy), but he could shoot, tackle and pass with no little skill and could galvanise the stadium with an explosive stampede upfield.
Subtlety was not Essien’s speciality, but that’s not to say that he was lacking in terms of technique. His last-gasp heat-seeker against Arsenal in 2006 – a mirror-image replica of Roberto Carlos’s Le Tournoi masterwork – was a moment of rarefied skill, and his left-foot volley against Barcelona three years later was a similarly impressive mix of style and savagery.
If Claude Makelele was the midfield shield and Frank Lampard the sword, Essien was something akin to a one-man army: both a rampant attacking midfielder and a brutal destructive one, and all the while doing the unglamorous stuff in between that imbued the side with an indefatigable drive.
In that sense he had much in common with the man who Chelsea failed to buy that same summer. Like Gerrard, Essien was intensely reserved off the field but a bloodthirsty force of nature on it. With the Gerrard-Lampard Conundrum already established as one of football’s great confounders, quite how Mourinho intended to play all three of them together is anyone’s guess. Less ambiguous is that from the moment Gerrard decided against joining, Chelsea fans never lost a wink of sleep over it – and the reason, in large part, was the magnificence of Essien.
He was also perhaps the purest incarnation of Mourinho’s first Chelsea side, despite only joining the project in its second year. If Ricardo Carvalho was the guile, John Terry the grit and Drogba the clout, Essien was a fearsome amalgam of all four, a ferocious footsoldier just as likely to administer a sneaky studs-up challenge (just ask Dietmar Hamann) as belt a big-game wondergoal into the top corner.
There was not much finesse to Essien’s game, but that particular F-word has never been especially dear to Mourinho. Instead the Ghanaian encapsulated the high-grade blend of brains, brawn and crafty violence which defined that seminal side. It’s no coincidence that Mourinho saw it fit to bring a past-his-peak Essien to Real Madrid on loan in 2012 (at the unveiling, the pair referred to themselves as father and son).
In Essien’s second season at Stamford Bridge, in which Drogba scored 33 goals and the defence was once again the division’s best, he was voted the club’s Player of the Year. His performance against Manchester United that November was described in the Guardian as “playing virtually everywhere, with energy and skill to spare. This figure epitomised that mixture of ability and resolve that has set Chelsea apart.”
As it turned out, Essien’s decision to join Chelsea over United wasn’t the only what-if moment regarding him and those two clubs. In the 2008 Champions League final – having created the goal that brought Chelsea level – the Ghanaian turned down the chance to take a penalty in the shoot-out, because his mum had fainted watching him take one for Lyon and was rushed to hospital, after which he told her he wouldn’t take one again. United won the trophy that night thanks to misses from Terry and Nicolas Anelka.
It’s a period when circumstance kept conspiring against Essien: with the arrival of Michael Ballack and the fading of Makelele, he was deployed more and more frequently in the latter’s role, a stringently disciplined position which required him to suppress his baser instincts. Then, a month into the 2008/09 season, with Deco’s arrival having amped up competition for places another notch, came the first knee injury.
Nothing was quite the same after that, and in the end the most complete midfielder Chelsea has ever had was left without the legacy his talents deserved.