The goals, the power, the engine; all done with that unmistakable beaming smile on his face for club and country. Few players are eulogised about fondly across supporter partisanships, but Michael Essien has for a long time been the secret love of many Premier League fans.
The Ghanaian midfielder was admired from afar by all but those in Chelsea blue during his Premier League career, as the archetypal ‘love to have him in my team’ player. This tag was not gained from a token ‘good team player’ or ‘solid pro’ perspective, but from the fact that he was the engine behind Chelsea’s domestic success between 2005 and 2010.
José Mourinho’s move for him in the summer of 2005 almost became the symbol of the Portuguese boss’s transfer style and constant quest for success.
Essien’s performances for Lyon in the 2004/05 Champions League had marked him out as the missing piece of the Mourinho jigsaw in West London. At Lyon, he had developed into one of Europe’s finest all-action midfielders: a powerful, energetic, tough-tackling all-rounder. Lyon had facilitated this progress by granting him greater freedom, with Brazilian veteran Edmílson able to sit as the midfield anchor and allow Essien to drive forward.
Despite winning the Premier League title in his debut season, Mourinho was never going to rest on his success – he wanted more, and Essien was ideally placed to deliver. The Blues broke their transfer record to bring him in, paying out £24 million to secure their prime summer target, as Mourinho plotted a course for dominance.
In 2004/05, Mourinho had uncovered a chink in Chelsea’s armour, despite their success. Claude Makélélé and Frank Lampard had both enjoyed fine seasons, dovetailing brilliantly between defensive and attacking midfield. However, something was missing, a ballplayer with the energy to get from box-to-box and make decisive contributions, Tiago had failed to consistently do this, so Essien was called in.
There was to be no real settling in period for Essien in 2005/06, providing the power and tenacity that gave Chelsea the edge they needed to secure a successive League title. That success was to be the springboard for Essien’s best years at Stamford Bridge and 2006-07 was to be an even better year for Essien personally.
He had moved alongside Lampard and skipper John Terry as guaranteed starters for Mourinho, and despite losing out on a third consecutive League title to Manchester United, Essien shone for the Blues. Named as Chelsea Player of the Year and picking up Goal of the Season award for that physics-defying strike against Arsenal, he had become the standout midfielder in England.
However, the Chelsea/Mourinho project was on shaky ground, and following an uninspiring start to the following season, he was fired. Essien continued to play his role as a foot soldier under Avram Grant, but some of the spark looked lost. Cruciate ligament damage then ruled him out for 2008/09, and despite returning to the first team, he looked a different player. He gave Chelsea fans a number of parting gifts, through wonder goals against Blackburn and Champions League semi-final winner against Barcelona in 2009.
He was reunited with Mourinho in 2012 at Real Madrid, as the Portuguese showed just how much he valued his trusted lieutenant, albeit one who was battle weary.
Essien’s glory days in blue were mirrored by his best performances for Ghana playing the 2006 and 2010 World Cup, with the former as part of the Black Stars’ first-ever appearance in the competition. Alongside fellow midfielders, Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari, Essien’s energy and combative nature pushed Ghana into the last 16, with the promise that more was to come in 2010.
Ghana’s first World Cup appearance had pushed their fans away from a defeated mentality – that they had become part of the African elite – thanks in no small part to Essien. Despite injury ruling him out of Chelsea’s 2008/09 campaign, he refused to let his country down and helped to seal their qualification.
It was to end in heartbreak for Essien, though, as injury kept him out of the tournament. However, his selflessness had not gone unnoticed by Ghanaians, who mourned his loss at the tournament with the reverence of a tragedy that befitted the absence of one of their favourite sons.