MICHAEL EMENALO: How I struck up friendship with Roman Abramovich

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Nigeria’s former international, Michael Emenalo, arrived in Chelsea in 2007 as a scout and in four years he had become the second most influential person – answerable to only one man – Roman Abramovich, the owner of the current English Premier League champions.

Few, even in the EPL, know just how powerful the Nigerian has become. However, the reality is that the 51-year-old was arguably Abramovich’s most trusted employee and the Russian billionaire entrusted Chelsea’s resurgence into his hands.

Once, he fell out with Jose ‘the Special One’ Mourinho, and the loquacious coach had to bow to his superior argument. At other time, Abramovich declined to accept his resignation and when he eventually left after 10 years in the club, he left a gaping emptiness to be filled.

The Abia State-born football man, as a matter of fact, stated that two things worked for him at Chelsea: “One, making friends come very easy. When I played for Lleida in Spain, I also made friends with Juande Ramos, my coach there, and at a point he wanted to take me to Tottenham Hotspur. We are still friends today.

“I also made friendship with Avram Grant in Israel and it was Grant who encouraged me to come to Chelsea when I was working for some soccer academy and I started recruiting for Chelsea. I was involved with Mikel Obi transfer from Lyn in 2005, and Grant said I should come full time to restructure the youth programme, which is the kind of things I love to do.”

“Secondly, I take my job seriously, even as a player, I tried to be active even outside the field. That I am considered the second most powerful person in Chelsea is flattering. I wanted to build something good for myself and since I was given the opportunity in Chelsea I had to give it all I had. I guess that paid off nicely for me. (Roman) Abramovich loved what I was doing and he encouraged me. He wants to build a great team. He is a great boss and friend too.”

The graduate from Boston University, in this online interview with TAIWO ALIMI, speaks more on his closeness with his former boss at Chelsea, as well as the legacy he left as the club’s former technical director. Excerpts…

How was  growing up in Nigeria and picking up football along the way like?

I used to kick football around a lot while in Nigeria and that landed me in the school team. By 1985 I signed for Rangers International, one of the biggest teams in Nigeria. However, what I really wanted to do was further my education abroad. So when we (Nigeria) failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1986, I decided to move to pursue my dream of an education in the United States.

You played for your college in the U.S, what was the experience like?

I travelled to the U.S at a tender age and was focused on educating myself at Boston University, but I could not hide my football talent and soon became an integral part of the soccer team. I was one of the first African players to star in US College Soccer. Upon graduation, I would have gone ahead to becoming a lawyer because I got good grades, but after a lengthy talk with my mentor, I opted for a professional football career, especially with offers coming from Europe. I went to Molenbeek in Belgium and had a great time there playing through four seasons and that helped me to team up with Nigeria at our first World Cup in 1994.

After the World Cup, I moved around a lot. I was in Germany, England, moved back to the U.S when MLS kicked off, and Spain, before heading to Israel to Maccabi Tel Aviv. I guess that helped me to gain the experience that I needed to survive as an agent.

It is said that you were the second most powerful person in Chelsea and influenced the appointment of key coaches like Avram Grant, whom you met in Israel

Grant is not the only coach that I’ve worked with and have developed long-time friendship with. It is who I am. I take my job seriously, even as a player, and I tried to be active even outside the field. Of course I knew I would be going into scouting and coaching after my active days and I told myself why I needed to begin to learn the trip early. When I played for Lleida in Spain, I also made friends with Juande Ramos, my coach there, and we are still friends today. At a point, he wanted to take me to Tottenham Hotspurs. Making friends comes very easy.

Grant encouraged me to come to Chelsea when I was working for some soccer academy and I started recruiting for Chelsea. I was involved with Mikel Obi transfer from Lyn in 2005. I was recruiting, and Grant said I should come full time to restructure the youth programme, which is the kind of things I love to do.

That I am considered the second most powerful person in Chelsea is flattering. I wanted to build something good for myself and since I was given the opportunity in Chelsea I had to give it all I had. I guess that paid off nicely for me. (Roman) Abramovich loved what I was doing and he encouraged me. He wants to build a great team. He is a great boss and friend too.

You are now out of Chelsea, how difficult a decision was it for you to take?

After 10 years here, 10 wonderful, successful years, but very demanding years, it is a very tough decision to decide to step aside. It is entirely my decision and it has come about for very simple reasons. I need an opportunity to get to see my young kids grow and also to step back and reflect on the work that I have done here and the things that we have been able to accomplish together in this great club.

So a tough decision to come to, is it something that has been weighing on your mind for some time?

It is something I have been thinking about for quite some time now and it is something I have discussed with my family and they understand the reasons and the timing for wanting to step aside. But this is not a knee-jerk reaction or decision. It has been on my mind and it has been thoroughly discussed amongst friends and colleagues that this is what I wanted to do and I am very grateful that the club has given me ample time to reflect on that decision and to be sure; which is testament to the respect and the admiration that I have always enjoyed at this club.

It has been an incredible 10 years and of course you leave behind some very close friends and colleagues as well…

I think, professionally, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a good time for me to step aside and let the club continue to move forward. The club is in good hands, an outstanding board of directors, a very generous owner, one of the best coaches in world football who I know from personal day-to-day interaction who cares about his work and about the club, an Academy that is the best in the world bar none, a ladies team, and programme that is evolving at rapid and successful speed. There is so much to be proud of in this club. But the time has come for me to also take a step aside and consider some personal growth, which I think at my age and after 10 years of demanding, gruelling and all-encompassing work, is very necessary.

What were some of your achievements as technical director?

The first thing I would like to say is that I have been very, very lucky. When you work in this organisation, you are lucky because you are surrounded by very talented and very experienced and intelligent people. I have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that working from the top down. I have had incredible support staff. I’ve had a set-up in so many different areas that can only bring success. At the Academy, we have an Academy manager who is absolutely outstanding. We have a scouting network that was revolutionary; people are copying some of the things that we did. We have managed to improve our opposition scouting department and the recruitment of players. There are so many things outside of the technical area which I am aware of that have also grown and improved exponentially.

But the ultimate ambition and ultimate goal of this football club has always been to win, and the totality of the wins that we’ve had – whether it’s the Champions League, or the Premier League, or the Europa League, the Ladies’ Premier League and cups, the Academy, those young men winning back-to-back youth Champions Leagues – they have all been achievements that I am very proud of, and I’m proud of it because it’s not just an achievement by me or that has just my influence, it’s an achievement that is the totality of everybody’s work.

As you look forward, what were the legacies during your time at Chelsea?

I think I would like to be seen as someone who was very dedicated to the job, who loved the people he worked with and who loved the club. I was speaking to a friend earlier and alluding to the fact that to support Chelsea Football Club, work for this club and love this club, to share and revel in the dramas, especially the successful ones of winning trophies, is very addictive. My family and I have enjoyed that addiction, and I don’t know if that passes as a legacy but I would like to be remembered as someone who absolutely enjoyed supporting and working for Chelsea Football Club.

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