All Michael Mancienne has ever wanted to do is play football.
“It’s quite a sad story,” Mancienne said, recounting his first memory of football. “I remember this day like it was yesterday,” he said.
“I was playing up an age group or two at Kingstonian, and obviously you’re not as developed physically as the older ones. I was quite small, quite scrawny. It was the first game of the season, and the coach came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry you’re not going to be in the team today.’ I literally had to watch the game by the sides with my mum. I remember thinking I never want to be in this position again. I want to be playing. I need to be playing.”
The story does have a happy ending, however. After being moved down an age group, Mancienne said he developed a competitive edge and excelled before eventually being scouted and signed by Chelsea.
It was at Stamford Bridge that he developed a reputation as one of England’s most promising defenders and became a regular in the English youth-set-up, racking up 30 caps for the country’s U21s.
“I’m a very competitive person,” he said. “For me, It was a great place to learn my trade, especially watching world-class players and training with them. Seeing someone like John Terry, a proper captain, how he leads and goes about his day to day business and stuff like that was amazing, especially looking up to him as a role model. I couldn’t pick a better place to learn your trade.”
Despite those daily alongside Terry and co Mancienne struggled to make the final step with both Chelsea and England. He embarked on loan spells with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Queens Park Rangers, but neither was a precursor to a run in the Chelsea team.
By 2011, his childhood aversion to standing and watching kicked in, and he agreed on a deal to join German side, Hamburg.
While now the Bundesliga is home to Jadon Sancho and a host of other talented young Englishman, at the time of Mancienne’s move he was the only one.
“When I was younger people always told me football is a short career,” he said. “When I was at Chelsea I always saw foreigners coming over to England and thinking why don’t more English go abroad and experience something different? I’d like to look back at my career and be proud that I went to these countries and played in these countries. When else will I get the opportunity to do that?”
Perhaps understandably it begs the obvious question about timing. Gareth Southgate has shown a keenness to transition players from England’s U21s to the senior side, while Chelsea are now giving academy products a chance to shine.
“Of course I’m going to look back and think those things, but as you say it’s timing,” he said. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time, but it doesn’t always go that way. You’ve got to be strong mentally and know you might have to move on.”
Mancienne felt that need to move again last year. It should come as no surprise that after four years with Nottingham Forest the 31-year-old opted for a fresh start abroad in MLS with the New England Revolution. While Germany presented cultural and linguistic obstacles, his time in Massachusetts has given him a different set of challenges.
New England endured a tough first few months in MLS that ultimately saw coach Brad Friedel replaced by Bruce Arena in May.
“He’s a character,” Mancienne said of Arena. “His dry sense of humour is funny. I knew about the clubs he’d been at and how well he had done before he came. I think he’s done an amazing job, he’s given confidence back to the boys. He’s given belief to the players we should have had anyway, and things have been better since he got here. He’s approachable and easy to talk to.”
The Revolution have lost just two of their 15 league games under Arena, and it has pushed the team into the playoff places in the Eastern Conference. The last time the club reached MLS Cup was 2014, and there are certainly parallels with this campaign.
Back then, a mid-season turn around was sparked in part to a new signing (then it was Jermaine Jones now it is Gustavo Bou). Talk of history repeating itself is music to the ears of Mancienne as he gears up for the final stretch of the regular season, and another chance for him to satisfy his childlike need to play and win.
“It would mean a lot for me to win MLS Cup, to be honest,” he said. “One of the reasons I came over here was to win things. Every sportsman wants trophies and medals. I’d be really proud if we do go on and get into the playoffs and win it.”