BY MATT WOOSNAM
Living up to expectations can be difficult for the most determined of players but for Mandela Egbo there is an added pressure – the pressure of a name.
The former Crystal Palace youngster came through the academy system in South London, but opted for a move to German side Borussia Monchengladbach in 2015 to sign his first professional contract aged 17.
“Someone once asked me: ‘Are you named after Nelson Mandela?’”, he recalls. “I thought that was pretty obvious.
“To see what the man has done for the world, for freedom whether you are black or white. He’s just a legend. He changed a country. He was a special type of man. Hopefully I can live up to it.”
Named after his father’s hero, Egbo’s admiration of the former South Africa president is clear to see, and it reflects a level of awareness which is also apparent in how he views his football career.
Young English talent has seldom been so sought-after, yet opportunities have seldom been so hard to come by. Many have looked abroad for a chance to shine with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Reece Oxford and former Charlton winger Ademola Lookman all leaving these shores in search of first-team football.
Egbo was one of the first of this new generation to up sticks and move.
Offered a professional contract by Palace, but with an offer from Gladbach on the table, their prestige and the Bundesliga’s reputation for developing young players made the decision an easy one. Just shy of three years later and he was making his professional debut as an 80th minute substitute in a 1-0 victory over Hannover.
Was there ever any doubt in his mind that he would reach this point?
“No. There were never any doubts. I often got asked: ‘Do you think things would have been different at Palace?’ Of course they would, but would they have been better or worse? I don’t look at it like that anyway. “I’ve taken this step and it’s done, whatever happens is not going to be at Palace anymore, it’s going to be at Borussia Monchengladbach. I’m enjoying myself, my life and my football. It’s the right decision that I have made.
“I didn’t feel many nerves as my shirt was put up and I knew I was coming on. It just felt like a normal game. As soon as I can on the ball fell to me. I had a rush of blood and was just thinking: ‘Kick it’. I took it and passed it and realised it was a normal game.
“It didn’t really hit until the next game. The whole day I was just smiling, buzzing with excitement.”
The day after Egbo’s first senior appearance, Aaron Wan-Bissaka stepped up to make his Premier League debut for Palace, before going on to give a man of the match performance against Manchester United. Born just three months apart, you would be forgiven for thinking Egbo saw it as a missed opportunity. But he views it differently.
“I watched the Man United game and everyone saw just what can happen if you put faith in someone who is ready. Now the world is his oyster.
“In turns of turning down a professional contract I was one of the first and now a few others have done it as well. It’s not bad or good, it’s just a different experience. Whether you get 100 games in the Premier League or 100 games in the Bundesliga it’s just a different experience.
“From an early age the club will be able to tell if you may have the talent to progress through. Play well and train well in the 18s and 23s, but a player might still make a mistake and the opposition may score. That doesn’t mean a player isn’t ready. The same thing happens to senior pros, they make mistakes every day. You’ve got to be ready when the chance comes. A lot of the time you have to wait for an injury.
“I had the utmost confidence in my ability. But being realistic it wasn’t necessarily the culture at Palace [to bring young players through].You can’t blame anyone – that’s just the culture of the Premier League.
“Managers need to have more trust in young players.”
On the bench several times before finally making it onto the pitch, the 20-year-old had either of his parents in attendance each time.
But for his debut, he was alone.
His younger sister Merechi ‘Shaka’ Egbo earned third place in the English National Championship under-17 high jump competition. There had been no indication he would debut.
“When my dad wasn’t at a game my mum would be. The support system has been crazy from the start. I owe everything to them really. He flew out to Frankfurt for the first time I was on the bench, then it was my mum and sister.”
It was not always plain sailing.
At under-15 level, his coach – former Palace and England winger John Salako – was unconvinced by his talent. But he and his father both reserve special praise for academy manager David Moss and coaches Jamie Waller and Ben Garner, who turned his career around.
“John Salako wasn’t having me,” said Egbo.
“David Moss didn’t want to get rid of me but had spoken to John and I wasn’t going to be a part of his team.
“Me being a younger age when I was playing for the under-15s gave me the opportunity to look for a new club or play under Jamie in the lower group until the end of the season.
“Jamie boosted my confidence. I went in there and scored a hat-trick away to Ipswich in my first game and kept scoring under him as a striker. The next season I was moved to right-back. I was told this is a position you can attack. I was never annoyed, I just took it on. It was a bit strange at the start but I got used to it.”
It is the coaches he had early in his career who Egbo believes had the most impact on his career.
He said: “Antonio Falanga in the under-12s, then Jamie, Ben and the coaches here. Those three at Palace were pretty special coaches and they know what they’re talking about. They’re people you can listen to and get better.
“Ben said to me ‘whatever happens don’t lose your hunger’. He said that he knows I’m proud but never satisfied with what I’ve done. After my debut I want even more games. That to this day is what sticks with me.”
Picture credit: Christian Verheyen/Borussia