This last week has been very difficult to digest for Chelsea fans. I, amongst many others, still pinch myself hoping it’s a nightmare I’ll wake up from. People say that the Mata deal has left them traumatised, but I’m very confident that I’ll get over that really soon. However, the departure that will leave a bitter taste for the ages to come, will be that of our beloved Bison: Michael Essien. Any fan of Chelsea who has seen him in his pomp would wager a bet that he was one of the most complete midfielders in the world at that time. I would go one up and say that the Michael Essien of 2005-08 was ‘arguably’ the best midfielder in the world, most certainly the best I have seen.
His departure will leave a forever unfilled hole in my heart, much like Drogba’s did. However, there was one difference between their departures – Didier went out on a high, winning Chelsea the Champions League with his last kick for the Blues, whereas Ess moves on a sad, steady decline since his numerous knee injuries, leaving as a pale shadow of his former mercurial self. The saddest match of his career for the Blues probably summed it up. Against Southampton, he played a misplaced back pass that was latched on by the eventual goalscorer Jay Rodriguez, followed by many sloppy passes, silly fouls, leading to a face-saving early substitution. A person like Essien clearly didn’t deserve such an end to his Chelsea career.
In 1999, after impressing for the Black Starlets in the FIFA U17 World Cup, he earned himself a trial with Manchester United. Despite impressing Sir Alex Ferguson, he wasn’t signed due to stringent work permit regulations. A blessing in disguise perhaps, as via Bastia and Lyon, Essien was brought to Chelsea in 2005 by the manager he dearly calls ‘Daddy’, Jose Mourinho, for a then club record GBP 24.4 M, after a long drawn out transfer saga. Been given his debut against Arsenal, coming on for Claude Makelele, he provided an assist in his first full start against West Brom. This was only a precedent of his performances to come. He duly established himself as an integral part of Mourinho’s 4-3-3 along with Lampard and Makelele. Here are his stats for his debut Premier League season, courtesy Transfrmarkt.
In the seasons that followed, his performance only took a turn for the better. He had a stellar season in 2006-07 and it was followed by his finest season in a Blue jersey, the 2007-08. He provided something really special and unique, drive, energy, tireless running, ferocious tackling, impeccable vision and technical ability, and a sledgehammer to take stunning long range shots. He went on to notch over 5,000 and 4,200 minutes in those seasons, which is a number enough to make even the most workaholic players balk.
Early in the 2008-09 season, lightning struck. He ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament when playing for Ghana. While it was feared that he might miss the entire season, he made a comeback in the later stages of the season to provide stellar displays against the likes of Juventus, scoring a crucial away goal, and against Manchester City, scoring the winner. But his best of that season was reserved for Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. The side with the finest midfield in the world, was run ragged by Essien. It could be argued that Chelsea held the upper hand in both the legs, going in tête-à-tête in midfield, primarily because of the impetus offered by Essien.
Ballack and Lampard were crucial, no doubt, but the way Ess hassled the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Messi and co., Barcelona had no answer. Chelsea should have qualified for the final thanks to Essien’s long range deathstrike volley, that luckily found the net before decapitating anybody en route. However, a late Iniesta goal and thoroughly incompetent refereeing conspired to send Chelsea home. What that tie served was to catapult Essien’s reputation to supernatural status even in the eyes of neutrals and opposition fans alike.
He had another injury-curtailed season in 2009-10, injuring his other knee on duty, again for Ghana, in the 2010 African Cup of Nations. Though the injury was a saddening setback, hope was still harbored for a healthy and prosperous return keeping in mind his superb recovery in the previous season. Even the men in the offices at Chelsea had similar hopes and offered him a contract extension. But that injury was most definitely the last of the supernatural Essien Chelsea fans had the pleasure to witness. After a below par 2010-11 season that mostly was about staying fit, hopes again were high for Essien’s return. However, another anterior cruciate ligament injury during pre-season of the 2011-12 season and all those hopes were dashed. It seemed cruel that a player – who had always worn a smile on his face never had any malice despite being a destroyer and has been a paramount professional – suffer so many career-destroying injuries. But such is life.
On deadline day in the summer transfer window of the 2012-13 season, Chelsea loaned him to Real Madrid to reunite him with Jose ‘Daddy’ Mourinho for the season. While he didn’t notch up several starts in his preferred central midfield, he was a more than useful option at right back, where his slow speed was overshadowed by his precise tackling and surging, energetic runs. That season, Essien proved that he was more than capable of holding his own against oppositions that were a tad bit slower than those he faced in the Premier League. He proved the same in his appearances for Ghana as well. One particular game against Zambia, where his introduction turned the game in Ghana’s favor. It prompted heavy praise from all sections, especially the Zambia Coach who, despite seeing Essien overturn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, comically put forth the Bison’s name for a knighthood !
“I don’t have a lot of experience, but I never coach or trained with a fantastic player like him [Essien],”
“During my time in Ghana I realised why some players are different. Essien was an amazing player and a great man.
“I think we have to call him ‘sir’.
– Herve Renard. Zambia Coach
The finest attribute of the Bison, though, never was his technical ability. It was always his attitude towards the game and the people involved that endeared him to everyone. He always carried a smile, be it while training, or while playing. He was one of a rare breed of players that are both respected and feared by opponents. He was always a player willing to mould himself to his manager’s needs. I vaguely remember him playing left-wing, as a box-to-box midfielder and center-back, all these diverse positions in the same month. Such was his commitment. His ever-smiling nature is something one can compare with another inimitable legend, Ronaldinho. Both are specially gifted players, but even more gifted as people. Both have provided fans several moments to cherish years down the line.
Chelsea fans have been bidding Essien farewell in their hearts for the past few years. Each injury has taken away a part of our beloved Bison away from us. Each fragment taken away sans a heartfelt goodbye. Many Chelsea fans share this belief that Essien should have departed during his heydays, so that he would have received a teary and emotional goodbye akin to the one Drogba, and to a lesser extent, Mata received. That Mata’s departure has clouded over the sadness of Essien’s departure is further testimony that his limp contributions of the past few seasons have overshadowed the dominant displays of his pomp.
Being released to move to AC Milan for free is a very kind display on Chelsea’s behalf. Now Essien can showcase his skills in a league that is not as physically demanding as the Premier League. I wish the Bison all the best in his new endeavor and hope sincerely that his ruggedness returns and he can play an important role in making Milan the Champions League caliber club they were a few years back. Thank you, Michael. Your ‘daddy’ and brothers will surely miss you. With tears, do I say this – Farewell Bison. Go destroy attacks!