“I don’t want to have to speak up, I want things to be better.”
Nedum Onuoha is talking about the ongoing fight for racial equality.
It is a subject in which he has been one of English football’s most prominent voices, having spoken powerfully for several years on the issues Black people continue to face.
For all he would prefer to live in a world where that was not necessary, Onuoha believes he must speak up in order to make change, but he is realistic about the size of his audience.
Now playing for Real Salt Lake, the former Manchester City defender is part of the MLS’ Black Players for Change coalition, but football does not dominate the US sporting landscape the way it does in the UK and it has been necessary for the group to align themselves with icons like LeBron James and Chris Paul in order to get their message across.
Onuoha says the impact of such superstars using their platform to address the need for racial justice cannot be underestimated, which is why he has watched on with huge admiration for the way Raheem Sterling has delivered his own powerful statements.
“Considering how young he is and the conversation he has chosen to take on and the messages he has tried to deliver, it is really impressive,” Onuoha tells mancity.com.
“As a young person, most people don’t have to go through those types of things on a day to day basis. He gets criticised, but he tries to speak about something that means something to him.
“People don’t have to listen, but he makes them listen in the way he delivers the message. That is huge. He could have shied away, he could have lived his own life, but he knows what matters.
“It is the same, but from a slightly different standpoint, with Marcus Rashford. These are young players who have had so much criticism from a football standpoint from people who don't know them as human beings, but they have both gone above and beyond.
“The stuff Raheem is doing will make a change down the line for so many people. I find him truly inspirational and that is crazy considering he is nearly 10-years younger than me.
“What he has done is incredible and I think there is even more to come.”
“He is one of the
reasons I play and think the way I do.”
Thoughtful and articulate, Onuoha has always preferred media obligations that allow him to talk about something other than football.
These days he often gets to select his own topic of conversation as the host of his own podcast series.
Kickback with Nedum first aired in August 2019 and 14 months and 53 episodes later, it is still going strong, with a back catalogue of guests including former City team-mates Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards, as well as Jordan Henderson, Fabrice Muamba and British Olympic sprinter, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey.
It is the dream scenario for a self-confessed chatterbox, whose aim is to delve a little deeper and unearth the ‘incredible’ human stories of his fellow athletes.
“I am absolutely loving it,” he says. “It basically came about, because I enjoy talking, probably to the point where conversations get too long.
“I did a couple of podcasts for Real Salt Lake and after I finished one with Scotland international Rachel Corsie, the producer asked if I had thought about doing my own.
“The answer was no, but when I was doing work for the BBC, the thing I enjoyed most was the Friday Night Social with Jermaine Jenas, where you could talk for two or three hours, so I thought why not give it a go and see what I can do.
“The people I was getting on initially were people who wouldn’t normally be asked to do media. As time has passed, people like Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart and Jordan Henderson have come on.
“These are big names and they are speaking in a way in which most people don’t get to hear because they are speaking to a fellow professional, so they let their guard down.
“I realised when I was working for the BBC that those conversations are exactly what people like to listen to because if you really get to know someone, and get insight into who they are, you can see them from a completely different perspective.
“It has been a lot of fun and I have heard some incredible stories and when I sit down and talk to someone I know if it is a good episode because I have enjoyed listening to them.
“I had Sylvain Distin on recently. To this day, he is one of the reasons I play and think the way I do. He is a hero of mine. This guy is a legend and he opened up to me about everything and about things which I never knew.
“I think when you can find out things about people both as a player and as a human being that’s only going be a bonus because the stories are incredible.”
Onuoha’s own story is particularly important to him.
Not the one about the A-grade student whose sprinting talent made athletics a viable career option and which piqued people’s interests when he started out in the professional game, but the story of his heritage.
Onuoha grew up in Miles Platting, minutes away from where the Etihad Stadium now stands, but he was born in Nigeria.
He arrived in Manchester in 1991 as a ‘very Nigerian’ five-year-old and the culture of his homeland remained a prominent part of his upbringing.
With his parents working multiple jobs to provide a better life for their children, education was the primary focus for their son and daughters and the centre-back remembers leading a different life to other youngsters in his neighbourhood.
He joined City’s Academy at the age of 10, but football remained a luxury, only to be enjoyed if he stayed on top of his studies.
However, his education wasn’t only taking place in school and on the football field.
Anthonia and Martin – the parents he cites as his biggest role models - were keen to ensure their children were informed about the country of their birth and Onuoha grew up with a deep understanding of his Nigerian heritage.
“My mum and dad would always be telling me stories about living in Nigeria, the Biafran War, Nigerian Independence and how all that stuff came about.
“For me, it was very significant, because even though I was raised in Manchester and I could have played for England, if I want to find someone who looks like me in real life, I have to go back to Nigeria.
“I was born to a Nigerian mum and a Nigerian dad and I was born in Nigeria. That is where my roots are.
“Their stories are my story because if their story doesn’t exist then I wouldn’t be where I am today. My three kids have been born in the UK, they have two histories, but mine is one very significant, very clear history.
“When I listened to my parents talk about what came before, those moments mean everything to me because they are what shaped and defined me. There is no 50/50. That is who I am.
“You have where you represent or where you call home because of where you live, but my parents are from a particular place, so it is very important to know what happened in that place.”
Onuoha is now a father himself and the conversations he had with his parents are ones he intends to have with his three young children when they are older.
Racism is another subject he will need to address, with his six-year-old daughter already having questioned why people are displaying Black Lives Matter signs.
The depressing reality is, Onuoha already knows what lies in wait for his kids.
He was in primary school when he first heard the N-word, whilst racist chanting blighted his England under-21 career on several occasions and he has been followed by security guards in shops for much of his life.
“Stuff like that happens all the time,” he says. “You get targeted. It is sad for me because you get used to it. You almost turn it into a bit of a joke.”
But whilst Onuoha has grown accustomed to dealing with people’s prejudices, he was stung the first-time hateful rhetoric was directed at him in front of his children.
“In the USA I have been out somewhere with my kids and someone shouted, ‘Hitler was right’,” he explains.
“I took it personally, but then I remembered he was talking to my kids as well. That hits differently.
“I am used to receiving it, but it is not just me. The person is obviously an idiot, but he was talking to all of us. That is the harsh reality of the world.”
Terrible incidents like that are why Onuoha has never shied away from publicly discussing racism.
He believes there are enough people who will listen to his realities as a Black man and realise that change needs to be happen.
The support the Black Lives Matter movement received from people from various cultures is proof of that, he says.
“In 2020, there are so many people who have had their eyes opened to issues which have existed throughout most people’s lifetimes.
“That has come about due to people being able to use their platform to speak their truths.
“Lots of people get it. Lots of people still don’t. They don’t care and they completely miss the point. Those people will always exist.
“If we can help certain people see what the truth actually is then in the end, they will make changes in the right direction, which is something we haven’t been able to do for years.”
But for all Onuoha is an advocate for speaking out, it is not without its challenges.
“The thing that gets me the most, which is probably why I am so happy to speak up on behalf of other people, is even though things that have happened in the past have been so outrageous, we still have to deliver the message in a way that doesn’t alienate people.
“Some people don’t want to feel attacked, to feel like they are being criticised, even though some of the issues involved are drawing criticism from others.
“To deliver a message that people will want to listen to is very difficult. That kind of accentuates the problem.
“Sometimes you see something which is truly outrageous, and you can’t call it that because some people will tune out straight away and you need to try and keep them on board.
“That is one of the things I find most difficult, even harder than telling my own stories, is trying to find the right messaging for something that means so much.
“It is so hard because there are so many people that don’t care and don’t want to listen. You can tell them the saddest story they have ever heard, and they will act like it doesn’t matter.
“Speaking to people like that is the hard bit because you feel like you are treading on eggshells when you are making one of the most important points of your life.”
Sixteen years on from his debut and the 33-year-old admits retirement might not be too far away.
He has plenty to be proud of; playing for the Club he supported as a boy, captaining Queens Park Rangers where he won promotion to the Premier League and playing more than 400 games as a professional.
But there is no record of a senior international appearance and speaking to this proud son of Nigeria, you sense he would have loved to have represented the Super Eagles.
Nigeria is home, is the only country he supports over England and, unlike the Three Lions, did offer him a route into international football, only to have their early advances rejected.
But it was never meant to be a definitive no and a decade later it remains a source of disappointment for Onuoha, though he does not regret his resistance to the initial call up.
“I don’t have any regrets on resisting them in that moment because the reason wasn’t because I didn’t want to play for them.
“They tried to call me up to play in the African Cup of Nations and that was going to be from February through to April.
“I wasn’t in City’s team and I wasn’t regularly making the 18-man squad and I thought to myself, if I go to the tournament, I’ll come back and I’ll have even less than I had before.
“We had a new manager at the time in Roberto Mancini and I was trying to establish myself within the side so I wanted to try and give myself the best chance to do so.
“Obviously it was at the expense of a tournament, but that’s what was needed in my opinion because it is great having an international career, but if you don’t have a club career, neither can exist moving forward.
“That is what I said then, but I think unfortunately they took it as me never wanting to play for the country ever, which was never the case.
“I am disappointed I never got called up again and I think that was probably miscommunication on their part, but in the same breath, I have still managed to play for 16-years and I still have my heritage.
“Even though I didn’t represent the national team, it doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t deserve to.”
“I played for my
I’ll never grumble.”
Onuoha is equally philosophical with how his City career ended.
It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Academy graduate, who spent 2010/11 on loan at Sunderland as City lifted the FA Cup and 12 months later he was a QPR player, relieved to be staying in the Premier League as his old club celebrated a first championship in 44-years.
You could forgive him for feeling a pang of frustration at missing out on two of the most significant moments in City’s history and whilst he admits he found it difficult at the time, he is satisfied with his contribution.
“It was a tough thing to take. I think that somewhere along the line, as with many other players, I helped get the club where it is now.
“If we hadn’t stayed up in 2006/07, when we scored 10 goals at home all season, then City wouldn’t necessarily have been in the Premier League to be where they are now.
“If we didn’t go on the UEFA Cup run in 2008/09 then maybe City wouldn’t have brought in certain players.
“It was disappointing not to be considered good enough to be part of that, but that’s the way football works.
"Regardless of that, I think 99% of the people I have played with have always thought I was good enough to be alongside them and that was the same at City.
“The players that were there in the years before and played with me gave me credit for the player I was.
“It went in another direction and it was disappointing not to be part of it, but I played for my hometown team. I’ll never grumble.”