Michael Essien is in my opinion, one of the most underrated footballers of the English Premier League era. When people think of Jose Mourinho’s and Roman Abramovich’s all-conquering Chelsea side of 2005-2008, names that are likely to spring to mind are Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole.
Yet, in the heart of this Chelsea side, playing in what is surely the most physically intimidating English Premier League midfield side of the last ten years, next to Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, was the Ghanaian Michael Essien “the Bison.” He was the all-action midfielder before N’Golo Kante, an heir to Patrick Vieira’s midfield throne, and easily the best African central midfielder of the noughties.
Born in Ghana in 3rd December 1982, Michael Essien turned out for Liberty Professionals in Ghana and made his big career move to France when he signed for Bastia. But it was for the dominant Olympique Lyonnais side of the early 2000s, long before Qatar Sports Investment, when Real Madrid used to struggle to make the quarters of the UEFA Champions League, that Essien made his name. playing in an engine room alongside Mahamadou Diarra and behind Juninho, his were the legs that knitted it all together.
Michael Essien joined Olympique Lyon in 2003 from Bastia and quickly established a reputation for being a fierce tackler. Indeed, in both his seasons at the club, he picked up 12 and 11 yellow cards in the league. However, accolades such as the National Union of Professional Footballers 2005 Player of the Year and the Ligue 1 Player of the Year 2005 are what persuaded Chelsea to fork out 24.4 Million pounds and make him at the time, Africa’s most expensive footballer of all time.
Essien would go on to make 256 appearances for Chelsea, with two spells sandwiching a loan move to Real Madrid, where his coach and mentor Jose Mourinho signed him on loan. So tight was the friendship between the two that Essien was willing to play anywhere Mourinho asked him to, something the Portuguese coach would love to say presently. A haul of 2 English Premier League titles, one UEFA Champions League, four FA Cups and a Carling Cup is not too shabby to show for his Chelsea career.
Essien was not a goal machine in the mould of Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard as his modest return of 25 goals in 256 appearances for Chelsea shows, but he had a knack of scoring absolute screamers. Two of his most memorable goals came against Arsenal and Barcelona.
The goal against Arsenal, in a game where Chelsea was at risk of losing its home unbeaten record, Essien received a pass from Frank Lampard outside the box. He struck the ball with such venom, with it spinning in a beautiful curve beyond the bending Didier Drogba and the despairing Jens Lehman, to level the score. The goal went ahead to win Chelsea’s goal of the season, a first for a Ghanaian and an African at the London club.
Yet, possibly because of his all-action style of play, Michael Essien suffered from long-term injuries that curtailed his career. He missed half of the 2008/2009 season with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury for Chelsea. he recovered to score a stunning volley reminiscent of Zidane versus Leverkusen for Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League (voted again, Chelsea’s goal of the season), in a game that many remember for the contentious decisions made by the referee in a contest that ended 1-1 and Chelsea being eliminated on away goals rule.
Michael Essien also had a superb international career for Ghana, and although he never managed to win the African Cup of Nations with them, he won a bronze medal at 1999 under 17 FIFA World Championship. He was a stalwart of the impressive Ghana side that made the last 16 of the Germany 2006 FIFA World Cup, beating the Czech Republic and the USA on the way. However, he was suspended for the last 16 tie against Brazil, a game I remember Ghana dominating possession but being completely bamboozled by Ronaldo en route to a 3-0 defeat.
Essien would go on to play for AC Milan, Panathinaikos and finally Indonesia’s Persib Bandung in a career swansong. A true African great, he should be remembered alongside the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure as one of the greatest Africans to ever grace the English Premier League.