Player Interviews – George Essuman

Name:  George Essuman
Club:  Margate
Position:  Centre Back
Age: 24
Twitter: 
@George_Ess5

Lockdown has been a difficult time for many, but has also presented opportunities.  With the pace of life slowing, and many activities – including football – grinding to a halt, it has offered a chance to take stock, to be introspective, and really redefine what is important.  For Margate centre back George Essuman, that meant one thing – a chance to reconnect with his faith, and to reinvigorate his relationship with God.  Currently recovering from an achilles tear, George has found himself going through the long, slow journey of rehabilitation, and had to lean on a faith that was initially instilled in him as a child.

I’ve been keen to talk to George for a while, as I was also raised in a very religious environment.  My parents were dedicated Christians, who placed God at the centre of their lives – so, naturally, it was a big part of mine too.  The other big part of my life was, of course, football.  My first footballing memory was the 1994 World Cup, and I was captivated by Romario, and his teammates for Brazil.  So, when I stumbled across a book on religion in sport, I was amazed to read about the Christian heart of that title winning team.  Claudio Taffarel, Jorginho, Mazinho and others – men who prayed before every match and dedicated their success to God.  These were iconic figures to me, Christians whose faith was a key element of their sporting success.

As I got older, I drifted away from the church, but remained intrigued by the nature of faith within sport.  So many high-profile players today place their beliefs front and centre – none more so than Kaka, who was an inspiration for a young George Essuman, growing up in east London, just as the 1994 team had been for me a decade earlier.  Born in Tema, Ghana in 1995, Essuman moved to London with his family aged four, settling in east London.  Like many families who migrated from west Africa, the church was a key focal point in adapting to life in the UK, and whilst it has remained an aspect of his life ever since, it wasn’t until lockdown that he really understood what it meant for him – and for his football.

For much of his childhood football was very much the second love for George, who showed promise as a basketball small forward.  However, as he got into his teenage years people started to take notice of his potential as a footballer.  When he was sixteen, he was asked to fill in for a Sunday League side at centre midfield, and over the next few months, his parents began fielding approaches from agents and scouts.  His first opportunity came in a trial at Leeds, where George remembers playing alongside Sam Byram, and contract offers followed from both Leeds and Bradford at the age of sixteen.  He signed for an agent who advised him against Leeds and Bradford, then did the same with West Ham and Wycombe (“I was playing with Jordon Ibe – he was brilliant”).  Young, and impressionable, Essuman was swayed by the agent, who then all of a sudden disappeared.  It was at this point that George decided to start pursuing a career in the non-league game.

His first club in senior football was Waltham Forest, where he forged a defensive partnership with Manny Parry, who would go on to acclaim at Dover amongst other clubs.  A number of sides in the Essex and Hertfordshire areas followed, including Ware and a happy period at Maldon & Tiptree.  Essuman was working in retail during the week, playing Ryman League football on a Saturday, then focusing on church on a Sunday.  Then, in 2017, he got his chance to turn professional.  Working at Nike, whilst playing for VCD Athletic, George piqued the interest of Chris Kinnear at Dover Athletic.

A tall defender, comfortable at right or centre back and excelling in one-on-ones, Essuman was a textbook Kinnear defender, and he stepped up to the National League in March of that year.  He finished the season on loan at Oxford City, and experienced another loan to Whitehawk the next season.  George acknowledges he had a lot to learn at this new level, describing the nuances of defensive play he was having to pick up as he went – positioning in the channels, distance from the attacker – things he could get away with at Step Four, but which were being punished at Step One.

It was after Dover that George got what he considered his big chance at Torquay United – but sadly it quickly turned sour.  Alerted to the move by Phil Antwi, now a scout for Wolves, the opportunity came out of the blue, and within a week of hearing about Torquay’s interest, he was signed and moving to Devon.  For a man who had lived the majority of his life in London, the English Riviera was quite a change of pace.  I ask him what it was like adjusting to life in Devon, and he is effusive in his praise of the city of Torquay – “The area was very quiet, honestly the area was somewhere that I’d love to live”.  Once again, his Christian background was a big part of settling in – he found a church, who took him to heart, with the pastor, Ian Williams, becoming a big influence on the young man away from home for the first time.

One of his first playing experiences for Torquay was in a friendly at Cardiff, and at this point George was flying.  “I remember being stood next to Sol Bamba in the tunnel, and just starstruck.  Junior Hoilett, Josh Murphy – these are Premier League players.”  All of a sudden George disappears from my Zoom screen, as he runs to the cupboard to get out Bamba’s match shirt – clearly a prized possession.  National League South Torquay against Cardiff City, he was expecting to get smashed, but Torquay played them off the park.  At this point, everything seemed promising, but it didn’t turn out that way – “looking back, that was probably the highlight at Torquay.”

Against Cardiff
In possession against Cardiff City

After relegation from the National League, the Gulls were expected to bounce straight back, but they started the season in difficult form.  Lots of draws, and a real lack of goals had manager Gary Owers under pressure from the off.  If there was one thing keeping him in the job, it was the defensive performances, of which Essuman was a key part.  Owers never won over the Torquay faithful, and after he was involved in an angry confrontation with the club’s fans, the writing was on the wall, as he was replaced by Gary Johnson.  Essuman retained his place under the new manager, and was performing well, until in November, a bad tackle against Weston-super-Mare ruptured the ligaments in his ankle putting him out of the team – and out of favour with Johnson.

It was at this point that George had to rely on his strength of character, and a maxim he has taken with him throughout his career.  “I firmly believe that football is 5% physical and 95% mental”.  Once again, laying himself bare, George talks about how all his negative emotions came together in an almost perfect storm.  It wasn’t until he was alone in Torquay that he really started to process the loss of his grandfather two years earlier, and then with his injury, and the subsequent exclusion by his management, he found himself suffering with depression.  “At the start he couldn’t stop singing my praises…  I was always in the team, then as soon as I was injured, it was like everything changed.  He literally wouldn’t even look at me”.  It was made clear to Essuman that there was no place for him at the club.  George explains there was a breakdown in communications, leading to him feeling completely isolated.  Speak to Torquay fans, and it is apparent he was a well-liked character around the club, and popular with the supporters, so it hurt George to have fallen out of favour so dramatically.  Despite a determination to stay and fight for his place in the team, eventually it was brutally obvious this was not a fight he could win, and he accepted a loan at Dulwich Hamlet.

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George Essuman’s shinpads, a tribute to his late grandfather

Essuman presents as a tranquil, peaceful character, but don’t mistake that gentle nature for weakness.  At six foot four, and with an athletic build, he is not an easily intimidated person, nor does he shirk a challenge.  “With Gary Owers, he was always in players faces, shouting, screaming, but I could deal with that.  With Gary Johnson, I couldn’t cope with just being cut off, I just couldn’t understand what was happening – I later found out he just hated players getting injured.”  Essuman doesn’t feel he was the only person who suffered from this, and gives the example of Jean-Yves Koue-Niate who had a similar experience following injury, and now plays for Aldershot Town.  Dulwich was a happier home, but George’s head still wasn’t in the right place – “leaving Torquay hit me hard”, and depression dogged him throughout 2019.

Dulwich
On loan at Dulwich Hamlet

George is in a very different place today, and it was his faith, and absolute conviction in his personal relationship with God, that pulled him through.  “I came to realise that I had to just let go of being angry.  God calls us to love our neighbour – that doesn’t mean I have to have them round my house, but it means that I have to find an acceptance with them.”  Did this period of his life teach him anything else?  Essuman tells me he came to terms with the fact that a lot of the hurt in his life came from football – listening to his story you can see why.  Let down by agents, managers and taking chances on moves that have turned bad.  Football was such a big part of his life, but it was the only part where God wasn’t involved.  “I resolved to take my footballing decisions to God moving forward.  Where I was going to play, how to conduct myself – I needed to give that over to God”.  For those readers who are not religious, it must seem strange to read someone talking that way, but whatever your stance on faith, it is easy to respect the confidence and sense of conviction that it instils in George, and others who have it.

Essuman started the next season at Braintree Town, but again he was left frustrated.  After signing for the club, he was released “for financial reasons” two days before the season started.  With squads finalised, it meant waiting until October to sign for Concord Rangers, and then another move two months later, to Margate, in the Isthmian Premier League.  Finally, getting his season started late, he went straight into the team, was performing well, and enjoying his football in a strong Margate side, before a ruptured achilles tendon ended his season abruptly.  After undergoing surgery in early February, George was watching from the physio’s office as his teammates had their campaign curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.  Which brings us back to the lockdown, and George’s re-discovery of his faith.

When I’ve asked George about how his faith has impacted his football, whether he’s ever felt out of place in a dressing room, he’s very honest and self-aware in his response – “no, I haven’t, because I haven’t lived how I should.  I’ve been a Christian my whole life, but it’s only during quarantine that I’ve realised I have to live my faith as a personal thing, in every part of my life – like I had been hearing the words, but I wasn’t applying them.”  There is definitely an understanding that being a Christian will set him apart, but it’s not as unusual as many may think.  A quick check on Twitter shows a great many players in the nonleague game who demonstrate their faith, whether Christian, Muslim, or other religions.   George is part of a WhatsApp group, fittingly called Daniel FC, with other Christian players, including a number of well-known names across the National Leagues.

A common criticism of people who hold religious beliefs is that they “push” them on other people.  I ask George where he stands on that – is this something he feels he should do in the changing room?  Again, his response is very considered – “Well the bible speaks about making disciples of nations, but also about having wisdom.  I think a lot of it is about conduct – if people can see it in how you act, you don’t have to bible bash people”.    It’s refreshing to hear, and it’s equally interesting to hear George’s views on partaking in dressing room life.  It’s no secret that changing rooms – like any exclusive environment – have a culture of their own, namely, a culture that is often robust, with swearing and drinking, and of course the ubiquitous WhatsApp group chats.  I’m interested in how George thinks he will reconcile these things with his faith moving forwards?  “That’s down to my mental strength – which comes from God.  I can still go out on the nights out, I just don’t have to stay all night.  If people are swearing around me, or drinking, I can still be there – I’m still part of the team, I just have to stay true to how I need to live.”

Now coaching primary school children in the Barnet area, whilst also studying a cyber security course, George – like many non-league footballers – is looking for a new club for the 2020/21 campaign.  I don’t know where he will start next season, and neither does he, but wherever it is, George is trusting that it’ll be part of God’s plan.


George Essuman is a member of the Dominion Centre, a non-denominational Christian organisation in Wood Green.  If you’d like more information, please visit their website:
https://dominioncentre.org/

George’s girlfriend, Eliz D, also runs a Christian youtube channel.  If you want to learn more about her and George’s journey in faith, please visit her channel:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4xQL720OtHXiZLFGJs15xA/featured

 

 

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