In ‘My Debut’ we will look not only at the player’s first senior match for the Club, but the whole process from the moment they were told they would be in the team to the journey home afterwards.
Nedum Onuoha, who recently announced his retirement from playing, recalls his 2004 debut against Arsenal in the League Cup, aged 17.
He would stay with City until 2012, making 116 appearances before enjoying spells with Sunderland, QPR and Real Salt Lake City during a 16-year career.
Now, in Nedum’s own words, relive what it’s really like when you are handed your first team spurs…
The Team Sheet
There had been a game on the Saturday against Chelsea and I’d been included in the squad, but hadn’t been picked and the following Tuesday we had a League Cup game against Arsenal. So, on the Monday morning as we began to prepare for Arsenal, for the first time I was asked to go and stand somewhere else and wasn’t given a bib which was a crazy feeling.
Within football, you can always tell at a certain point what the team is going to be. There might be one or two tweaks, but when there are drills, set-pieces or whatever that are specific to the next game, the coach will use the starting eleven he has in mind for obvious reasons.
So, to be part of that was different. It was like, ‘wow – best buckle up because this is it.
Jonathan D’Laryea was also included and I think Bradley Wright-Phillips had only just made his debut, so there was a few of us getting an opportunity. It wasn’t the strongest side we could have put out, but I think that was partly because the Arsenal side of that time also used to blood younger players in the League Cup.
It was an interesting drive in and I got completely lost and didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. The feeling of going to the City of Manchester Stadium - as it was then – and the clock was ticking towards kick-off, was just incredible.
This was what I had wanted to do all my life and now it was really happening.
I didn’t have a clue what to do or know anything about pre-game prep, but there I was, surrounded by people who had been doing their rituals for years and years. I was at ground zero, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was 17 and the routines we had for Academy football were completely different because you got ready and just had a bit of fun, but this was a different space.
I walked out on to the pitch and just let it all soak in. I’d been at the Club for such a long time already through the different youth ranks.
I was a City fan and went to matches when I wasn’t playing – and here I was, ready to make my first team debut. I’d been a ball-boy at Maine Road, gone to the 1999 play-off final and so it was all a bit surreal.
Which team-mates inspired you?
Sylvain Distin and Richard Dunne – two of the best defenders I ever played alongside – were the ones I looked up to and watched closely and admired them. Vinnie and Joleon were the other two I really admired, but that came later on.
Shaun Wright-Phillips was basically taking every Academy player under his wing as they came through to the first team, trying to help them make the transition, so he was another player all the younger players looked up to.
Shaun was the pinnacle of the Academy – a player who had come through, been in the lower leagues with City and gone on to play for England. He’d made the PFA Team of the Year , too. It was the season before he moved to Chelsea so he was and inspiration to all of us hoping to follow that path.
In fact, I’d been a ball-boy at Maine Road when Shaun was playing and once been placed in front of the Millwall away section in one game – that was interesting!
I’d had a squad number for a week because I’d just started training with the first team. I had my Academy squad number and training kit, but I remember being at college when Les Chapman, the kit manager, called me a couple of days before we played Chelsea and he asked me which number I wanted? I didn’t know what he was talking about and then he just said, ‘OK, I’ll give you No.16 because you’re in the squad for the Chelsea game.’ That’s effectively how I found out. I’ve never asked for a squad number in my career, but it just so happened that it was a low number anyway.
It was great seeing my kit and my No.16 shirt in the dressing room for the first time against Arsenal. When Sergio signed, he wanted No.16 and when I had the No.4 shirt, Vincent Kompany took it, so I just look at it that I paved the way for them both! Just two of the most significant players in the Club’s history, then...
Who did you look for when you walked out to start?
My Mum and family – 100%. It’s what I did throughout my career. Before and after the game, I always acknowledged them first.
I was always nice to the ball-boys having been there and done that and just because of all the times I’d seen City play at Maine Road or been part of the crowd hurrying to get into the stadium…
I felt it all and had been on that journey to get to this point. I loved everything about matchday and now I was actually part of what the people in the stadium had come to see. I loved it then and I still loved it up to the end of my playing career a few weeks back.
Arsenal had Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas playing that night, so had a mixture of youth and experience. I think the crowd was around 21,000, but I appreciated each and every one of them because they’d come along to watch us play and cheer us on - and to someone used to playing in front of a few hundred at best, it was a lot of people.
They had a winger called Quincy Owusu-Abeyie who was rapid, but I matched him - being a sprinter in my athletics days. I don’t remember that much about the game, but people tell me I did all right.
We lost 2-1, but overall, we didn’t do badly and it started the careers of quite a few players. I can’t recall the smaller details because it was so many games ago, but yeah, I must have done OK because I was in the squad again for the weekend game at Newcastle.
In fact, Sky Sports claimed Jonathan and I were in line to retain our places which was good to hear. We actually ended sitting in the stands watching the game so it was an early lesson of not believing everything you see on TV!
I went to see my family in the players’ lounge and gave my Mum a hug. She’d always been there from school teams, Sunday League and all the junior ranks at City and now she’d seen me play for the first team.
It was all a bit surreal. I’d just played for Manchester City at the City of Manchester Stadium against Arsenal in front of fans in a game that had significance.
For every Academy player that came through, there’d be a Jim Cassell, Pete Lowe, Paul Power… people who had helped you get to that point and are just as happy for you as anyone. We’d lost, but I soon saw the bigger picture and that it was such a huge moment for me and anyone else who started their career that night.
It felt like the start of something special and I suppose 16 years on, that’s exacty what it was. It was an amazing moment for everyone in our family and I think anyone even slightly associated with our family felt the same. We had people back in Nigeria passing messages on via my dad, it was fantastic.
Driving back in my £7,000 VW Polo that I parked next to Nicolas Anelka’s Ferrari in the car park, I just tried to let it all sink in. I couldn’t really sleep and always found sleeping hard after a night game. I must have dropped off eventually, but I was just eternally grateful I hadn’t had a nightmare and though we’d lost, I had held my own.
It still feels incredible talking about my debut now...