Manny Oyeleke's story: From Universal Credit to Chelsea in the FA Cup

Manny Oyeleke was released by Chelsea for being too small and had to sign on for Universal Credit to afford rehab after damaging his ACL… now he returns to his boyhood club looking to cause a huge FA Cup upset with in-form Chesterfield

  • Chesterfield’s Manny Oyeleke is set to face boyhood club Chelsea in the FA Cup
  • The midfielder was on the Blues’ books but they released him for being too small
  • Six years ago, Oyeleke was unemployed with an injured ACL and no income
  • Oyeleke has come a long way since asking for Universal Credit during his injury
  • Chesterfield are top of the National League and have lost just once all season
  • Their current 14-game unbeaten run is the longest in England’s top five tiers

It’s 2016 and Manny Oyeleke is sitting in a London job centre applying for Universal Credit. With no money, no job and no income in sight, this was his last chance to get rehab after a serious ACL injury.

‘That walk into the centre was really rock bottom,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘The year before I scored a good goal away at Premier League Sunderland for Exeter in the Carabao Cup. Suddenly, I’m asking for Universal Credit.’

Now, Oyeleke is preparing for the biggest test of his career, as the midfielder’s Chesterfield side travel to his boyhood club – European champions Chelsea – in the FA Cup third round on Saturday.

Manny Oyeleke was asking for Universal Credit in 2016 – he’s now facing Chelsea in the FA Cup

The 29-year-old (left) will travel with non-league Chesterfield to Stamford Bridge on Saturday

That trip for Universal Credit was one of several moments in the 29-year-old’s career that nearly saw him walk away from the game entirely. After all, very few in football will have suffered more hard knocks in their careers than Oyeleke.  

Let go by Chelsea’s youth set-up aged 14 for being too small; released by Brentford, QPR and Exeter as a youngster; turned away by the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke, Peterborough and Burnley after trials. Nothing, though, compared to begging for money from the government. 

That episode came amid harsh circumstances for Oyeleke. After leaving Exeter on a free transfer in 2016, the midfielder had signed with an unnamed club later that summer but injured his ACL in a five-a-side match with friends on the same day.

‘That club didn’t go through with the signing,’ he remembers. ‘After that, I couldn’t watch football. Not even Chelsea, not even playing FIFA or Football Manager.

Oyeleke (right) had no job, no income, no money and an ACL injury after leaving Exeter in 2016

‘I couldn’t have anything to do with football for a month and a half because it reminded me of what I was missing out on so much.’

Eventually, the midfielder found his way back into the game. A kind gesture from one of his former doctors at Brentford, Matthew Stride, saw Oyeleke get his rehab at a very discounted rate – on the basis he pay the rest back upon getting a new club. 

He found his feet again at non-league Aldershot Town after recovering from his ACL injury after six months and is now at Chesterfield, who top the fifth tier, via a spell at Port Vale in League Two. 

But his career was never meant to go down that painful route. Not watching Chelsea would never have been an option as a kid, as Oyeleke grew up in west London as a die-hard Blues fan, with a large picture of Gianfranco Zola on his bedroom wall.

Oyeleke found his feet in football again after his ‘rock bottom’ and is back in love with the game

Oyeleke’s mega-rich opponents on Saturday were the first club to give him a shot in the football world back in 2002, a move that was just ‘pure joy’ for the die-hard fan.

A few years into his time at Chelsea, the likes of Jose Mourinho, Frank Lampard and John Terry would watch his youth games from the touchline, but his experience of the top didn’t go any further than that and he was let go in 2008.

‘It was really sad,’ he remembers. ‘My mum was probably more emotional than me. When I got to Under-10s, Roman Abramovich took over and it became quite different as players came from trial all over the world now. The competition was really stiff.’

‘I developed quite late height-wise and in muscle,’ the now-5ft 9in midfielder adds. ‘I was quite small until around 15 or 16. If Chelsea waited one more year, then I would have been alright.

Midfielder Oyeleke was released by Chelsea in 2008 at Under-14 level for being too small 

‘They were concerned about me dealing with the physical challenges so I wouldn’t be getting a new contract. I remember I told my mum to go to Argos and get some weights that were 100kg but there were only 12kg ones available. 

‘I just started battering whatever I could. Press-ups, core workouts, dumbbells. Fortunately, I haven’t been told I’m not physical anymore.’ 

Now Chelsea’s megastars will be watching him trying to inflict a ‘cupset’ on them at Stamford Bridge. But despite there being 90 places between champions of Europe and Chesterfield in the English football pyramid, there’s a case that the non-League side should be feared as well.

The Spireites are top of England’s fifth tier having lost just once in all competitions this season. The Derbyshire club also currently hold the longest unbeaten run out of anyone in England’s top five leagues. It’s been 14 games since they last lost any tie.

Oyeleke’s Chesterfield are top of the National League and have just lost once all season

Chesterfield also have the hottest striker in English football among their ranks in Kabongo Tshimanga, who is Oyeleke’s gym partner and chauffeur to training every day. 

The 24-year-old striker has 18 goals in 20 league games this season and 80 strikes since the start of the 2018-19 campaign – more than any player in England’s top six tiers, including Liverpool’s Mo Salah.

‘We have to implement what we’ve been doing in the league, we’re top of it so it’s been working so far,’ says Oyeleke about the challenge of Thomas Tuchel’s side. ‘We’re just going to focus on our game as much as we can.

‘We haven’t come up against opponents like Chelsea but there’s definitely no fear, no pressure. There’s just excitement to see how good, quick, strong and smart these guys are.

Chesterfield have the top scorer in English football since 2018 in Kabongo Tshimanga (left)

‘The mood in camp has been laughter. Not in terms of disrespect, but how funny it is that we’re going to play Chelsea, the champions of Europe! These are players we play on FIFA and watch in the World Cup. It’s just surreal. Who are we going to say is their weak link?’

As a central midfielder, Oyeleke could be tasked with facing one of N’Golo Kante or Jorginho in the Chelsea midfield – or possibly both. ‘Not a bad midfield that, innit?’ he laughs.

‘Half of me wants to play against them, half of me doesn’t because I don’t want it to be 10-0! Is Kante really that good? Of course he is, but I want to see it in person. 

‘Whoever we play, it’s going to be amazing and an honour to play against them. The player’s who aren’t playing, like Ross Barkley, they’re going to be class. They’ve also got the best youth team in the country, so even if the kids play, they are going to be top.’

Oyeleke is not sure whether he wants to line up against Jorginho (left) and N’Golo Kante (right)

And Oyeleke could well be a useful resource to those young players, who may hit similar hurdles that he has faced in their careers.

‘Setbacks don’t seem to knock far from me,’ he says. ‘I’ve had more rejections than successful periods but that’s just something that I’ve taken in my stride and used as positives. 

‘That’s what younger players need to understand about the game as that’s why they fall out of love it.’

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