Chesterfield midfielder Manny Oyeleke on joining boyhood club Chelsea, idolising Gianfranco Zola and why he was released at 14

Watching Manny Oyeleke is a joy.

By Liam Norcliffe
Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 4:56 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 4:56 pm
Manny Oyeleke was released by Chelsea at 14.

If you head down to the Technique Stadium on a Saturday afternoon you will find him snapping into tackles, winning possession, bossing the game with his physicality and skill.

All of that makes it hard to believe that he was released by his boyhood club, Chelsea, when he was 14 for being too small.

Although he is not the tallest, lacking strength he does not.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Being let go by the club you loved would have hit anyone hard. But he took it in his stride and made sure nobody ever rejected him for that reason again.

Manny’s football journey started when he was aged seven. He was about to sign for Charlton Athletic. But then along came Chelsea.

He told the DT: “Where I went to school in Wandsworth, in south London, they had a training day type-thing in the half-term holidays in Battersea Park. I went there just because a lot of my mates were going there and to have fun. It was not a trial or anything like that. One of the coaches there was really impressed with how good I was and spoke to my mum. He said he was sure I was good enough for Chelsea. I was a massive Chelsea fan back then. As soon as I heard Chelsea were interested, unfortunately for Charlton, there was no chance I was going back. Chelsea signed me basically the next week.

"At the time I was very young, I did not really understand the magnitude of it. I was very much a naive, young boy who loved football. I just saw it as a fun thing. Obviously looking back now you realise how amazing it was and not something many people do in life so it was a very good experience for me. When I got released I think that is when reality hit and you realise there is another side to football, a harder side to it.”

During his time at Chelsea his coaches were Eddie Newton and Jason Cundy.

Players like John Terry, Joe Cole and manager Jose Mourinho would attend games.

Oyeleke saw the club evolve following the takeover by Roman Abramovich, becoming the European giant that they are today.

"I saw the big changes in terms of the training ground, the whole philosophy of the club changed and it became more of a worldwide club in terms of trialists coming from everywhere around the world,” he explained. “Everyone from everywhere wanted to play there. The coaching staff came from other countries as well which was amazing. I guess it was just a natural revolution of what was always going to happen.”

Nowadays, Oyeleke, 29, is a hard-man midfielder who brings control and calmness to the centre of the park. But as a youngster he was a striker and then a winger.

Pocket-rocket Italian, Gianfranco Zola, was his hero and he had a big poster of the Stamford Bridge legend on his wall.

"I was small and an attacking player,” Oyeleke said. “Zola was definitely the player that I tried to base my game around. He was an absolute magician. I fell in love with football watching him. As I grew older and became a midfielder Frank Lampard was a player who I really admired and loved. But Zola was my first idol and the first poster I had in my bedroom was Zola.

"I was a striker from under-9s to under-12s. I was quite good as well to be fair! I scored a lot of goals and enjoyed it a lot. But then Mourinho came in and the older you get you start to play 11-a-side and one of the philosophies was that all the younger ages play the same formation as the first-team which was 4-3-3. I was quite small so I could not really play up top by myself. I was then a winger from under-12s until under-14s so very different to where I play now.”

Chelsea released Oyeleke as a teenager over concerns about his physicality. But that only made him more determined.

He laughed:“ I remember a couple of days after I got released I got my mum to go to Argos to get me some dumbbells which I thought at the time were like 100kg but I went to my old house a year ago and I saw them in the storage and they were only like 12.5kg! I had a growth spurt in year 10 at school so maybe if Chelsea had waited another year things could have been different but everything happens for a reason. I have got no complaints at all. There are no sour grapes. I guess that spurred me on to never let that happen to me again.

"It (being released) was probably harder for my mum. I remember taking it quite well at the time. I took what they said into consideration and used it to fuel me to get in the gym and get bigger and make sure nobody releases me for that reason again.”

After Chelsea came a trial at QPR, which is where a bit of luck, combined with his enthusiasm, led him to find a new position on the pitch.

He said: “In the first game at QPR, the centre-midfielder there was late, he probably got stuck in traffic, so the manager asked the guys on the bench who wanted to play centre-midfield and for some random reason I put my hand up. I had never played there in my life! To this day if you ask me why I put my hand up I would not have an answer for you. I just wanted to play I guess. I played really well and never looked back and that is where I have played ever since.”

*Read part two of our interview tomorrow where Manny discusses returning to Chelsea on Saturday, his reaction to the draw and the possibility of pulling off a big shock.