COLUMBUS – One of the pioneers and therefore a pronounced antagonist of English football’s callous loan system is Chelsea. The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Gordon Taylor accused the London outfit of “warehousing” talent in 2015 when 33 young men were posted around the world on temporary deals. And other clubs were beginning to take interest, with the operation yielding significant profits on players like Patrick Bamford, even though the forward never played a minute for Chelsea.
“The loan programme is one that I can predict confidently that others will follow suit and start doing the same,” Michael Emenalo, then-technical director at Chelsea, coolly retorted amid criticism.
But maybe Chelsea was just the most rampant and brazen about stockpiling footballers. Back in 2010, Mohammed Abu was an early recruit from Ghana’s Right to Dream academy for Manchester City, and was soon sent on a stream of loan jaunts that ultimately hampered his progression as an extremely promising footballer.
Immediately loaned out
For a kid hailing from a village based six hours from the Ghanaian capital of Accra, the riches at Manchester City were incomprehensible. Years before, the club had survived on offcuts from more successful English clubs or gambles from the continent, but when Abu arrived, City was two years into the project bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi United Group’s petrodollars. Manchester City now struck deals with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
However, after appearing for the reserves while manager Roberto Mancini and his entourage looked on, it was decided that bargain-buy Abu possessed potential that could see him become a first-team regular one day. Manchester City circumvented work permit laws and ensured Abu played by mailing him to an affiliated club.
“‘First of all, because of your move from Africa, for your national team you have to play 75 percent (of its matches) before you can play (in the Premier League),'” Abu told theScore of what he heard in a meeting after that reserve match. “‘But what we can do is you sign and immediately we’ll loan you out.'”
Abu was hastily sent to Stromsgodset, a team based in southern Norway. Shifting from Ghana to Scandinavia would have been unsettling for many young players, but Abu felt support from both Manchester City – club staff would watch each of his games and then contact him to provide feedback – and his temporary employer.
“My first year there, everything was fantastic for me as a young player,” he said. “I got all the support from the people and I really helped the team too. It was a very, very good experience as a young professional player to get this kind of opportunity.”
‘You are alone’
Abu was an influential player for Stromsgodset, quickly establishing himself as a terrace icon and drawing rave reviews in the media. It appeared the realisation of his potential was well underway so, probably wanting to accelerate his progression, Manchester City began to explore other options in Europe. It was the beginning of a nomadic existence that proved detrimental to Abu’s career.
“I went to France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Norway, so I think five,” he said with a little uncertainty when asked how many times he was loaned out by Manchester City.
“It was very, very difficult. Wherever you go it’s like a new thing, you have to settle in quickly, try to embrace another place. Sometimes you go somewhere where you don’t get the support. You are alone.”
Many players would’ve been dizzied by the whirlwind of languages and cultures both on and off the pitch, but it was the poor decisions City made in the loan market that really made Abu’s early career splutter. From being a popular figure in Norway, the Ghanaian was left out in the cold, particularly during a spell with Rayo Vallecano.
“My development would’ve probably been better if I’d been in one team for a little bit longer. When I was in Norway my first year, I really got confidence,” he recalled.
“I was there and I’ve got all this confidence and then all of a sudden I went to Spain and I was not playing. My confidence,” he exhaled and gestured a steep decline. “It would’ve been better if I had the opportunity just to be in England, to play with the reserve league and then train with the first team.”
Abu appreciates that the high-pressure environment atop the English and European game makes playing largely untested fledglings a risk. Sometimes for the player it’s better to move on. Abu cites Rony Lopes as a former colleague who made the correct decision to leave the club when he did. Lopes was a standout for Monaco in Ligue 1 last season, flourishing when compensating for Adama Diakhaby’s drop in form, Stevan Jovetic’s injury issues, and bumbling backup Guido Carrillo’s sale to Southampton.
Just an employee
Abu was gone a year earlier than Lopes but, at 22, was three years older than the Portuguese attacker when he departed. If Manchester City had its way, Abu would have stayed in north-west England for longer. “They never say ‘okay, we have done some mistakes,’ they just told me they think they can still help me out,” he said.
In search of some stability after getting married, Abu returned to Stromsgodset, amassing 82 league appearances – all as starts – in three years, and then by sheer coincidence the club of his wife’s hometown, Columbus, Ohio, came calling. He had already visited on a number of occasions from Europe, so felt immediately at home in the city. Abu was finally settled.
Unfortunately, the lurking prospect of the franchise being uprooted and moved to Texas means yet another transfer could be in the cards for Abu. Given his past as a player shipped out numerous times by Manchester City, it’s something he’ll be extremely familiar with. He will be a pawn in another deal.
“I love to be in Columbus, but as a professional player I’m here as an employee,” he noted. “I don’t have a say.”
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)