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Essien makes hero's return

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A moving piece.


Essien makes hero's return

By Oliver Brown

Last Updated: 3:20pm BST 04/06/2007

"As the small turboprop plane touches down in open savannah outside Tamale, the centre of Ghana's forgotten north, there is little outward warning of the mayhem about to unfold for Michael Essien. Chelsea's player of the year glances about warily from the front of the cabin and sees the tiny terminal building all but deserted. Most of the 52 members of Tamale's Chelsea fan club are either unaware of the visit, or unable to make the journey out of town. But the moment Essien disembarks, and his presentation to the people begins, the significance of his appearance becomes stark.

Star of Africa: national hero Michael Essien ® arrives in Accra with other members of Chelsea FC

The city's mayor, Mohammed Amin Anta, is already in the executive lounge for the greeting speech, in which he stresses the pride of all Ghanaians in Essien's accomplishments and his hope that Chelsea can help create an academy here. "Essien, we want to hear you," he concludes - at which point this famously reticent player shuffles awkwardly in his chair and shakes his head. "He does his talking on the pitch," a club spokesman interjects, and we beat a hasty retreat to the next appointment.

Chelsea have brought Essien to these scorched plains in the hope that their humanitarian work in Ghana can produce a ripple effect far beyond the capital, Accra. Tamale has long been the neglected outpost, lying beyond the limits of Lake Volta and a 12-hour drive from the coast, but that imbalance is finally being addressed with the award of several group games in next January's African Nations Cup. Viewed from the air, its implausibly modern stadium looks, on the barren earth, like a construction dropped from outer space.

At ground level, the landscape evokes the region strikingly. Mud huts, mango groves, the odd emaciated goat slumbering by the roadside - the contrast with Chelsea's gilded compound in Cobham, Surrey, could scarcely be more jarring. The Daily Telegraph is the only newspaper to accompany Essien, and as scores of bemused observers on Tamale's streets salute his arrival, it is clear that he relishes the adventure. "I'm happy to be involved in this project," he says. "There is a lot of football talent here and we have to develop it."

Even the northern minister, who hosts a ceremonial lunch of rice and yams, is faintly overwhelmed by the sight of Essien in his residence. "This is a very rare gesture," he declares. "Usually teams just stay down south, they don't come here. But you have chosen the right moment to visit. This marks the fulfilment of my career as a politician."

Essien plays the obliging guest, giving the superstar smile to all who approach but otherwise keeping his counsel. His is truly a curious character to analyse - an amalgam of total confidence and painful shyness. In the Premiership you perceive his ferocity, his endless adaptability, but on off-duty moments during this trip he carries a somnolent, inscrutable air. He is not shy of the fact that he likes to sleep for 14 hours a day. Or that he calls his mother every day.

In many ways, Essien's mother holds the key to a deeper understanding of Chelsea's midfield "bison". While the young Michael practised his skills barefoot on the fields of Awutu Senya, a ragged town west of Accra, Aba Gyanode baked and sold bread to raise her five children. Her only son has never renounced those beginnings - indeed, he cherishes them. "My mother has done everything for me," he explains. "She gives me support and I'm happy that she's there for me, any time."

To reciprocate, Essien has bought her a house in the capital's Mallam suburb, a reaction to the intolerable demands for money that his fame imposed upon the family. The instant he carved out a place in the European game, with Corsican side Bastia, he assured Aba she did not have to bake any longer, and ever since he has also provided money for his four sisters. That generous spirit is in evidence on this latest return to Ghana, in his supply of a box of single-edition boots emblazoned with the national colours.

In supporting Chelsea's expedition with charity Right to Play, Essien's main priority is to galvanise children into trying to emulate his extraordinary story. In Tamale, he achieves this merely by turning up, as we discover at a training session for 90 members of the nearby Stand Fast club.

Local radio has been spreading word about his visit all morning, and by the time the Chelsea party pitch up for coaching, a crowd of at least 1,000 have gathered, pressing against the convoy and screaming his name. It is both disconcerting and moving. "I don't really like attention," Essien admits. "I'm the shy one, and I keep myself like that. But the attention is there, it's something natural. I just have to accept it." On this open wasteland, his acceptance was tested to the limit, as thousands more spectators poured into the city on scooters and in the backs of vans. From a security perspective, it was a serious headache, with the crowds finally breaching the cordon in a frantic appeal for autographs and addresses.

But in terms of Essien's cult of personality, it was a memorable triumph. To Tamale's children, his celebrity may represent an impossible ideal, but his connection to them endures."

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