Former Chelsea defender Aziz Deen-Conteh spent his teenage years learning at the feet of Carlo Ancelotti and Ashley Cole, which is still the happiest spell of his career.
The left-back won the FA Youth Cup during his time at Stamford Bridge, coming up through the ranks with Jeffrey Bruma and Josh McEachran – now he just wants to enjoy playing again.
Ancelotti awarded him a two-year deal at Chelsea, but he failed to make a single first-team appearance for the Blues, before embarking on an eclectic career taking in Greece, Moldova, Georgia and even Stoke-on-Trent.
“I had a lot of opportunities to train with the first-team, especially when Carlo Ancelotti was at the club; he really loved the young players and he’s a manager that believes in the youth so he gave a lot of players the opportunities to join in with the first team,” Deen-Conteh told ITV News.
“I was with him a lot when he was there as he really liked me, so I had a chance. It was a good experience, as you learn from the best players. At the time Ashley Cole was there and he was a player I looked up to and it was a real good experience training with top players and learning from the best.”
Like most youngsters leaving a Premier League club, Deen-Conteh had a crucial decision to make, one that could shape his career. A number of offers came in for him and there’s a tinge of regret in his voice when he mentions turning down the chance to join Notts County.
“I still had a year option in my contract, but both Chelsea and I decided not to renew it. After such a long time at the club, where I’d met really good people and they were really good to me and it was the only professional club I’d known all my life so it was really hard leaving the place, as Chelsea is a family club. I just had to leave for himself to try and make my name out there.
“When I left I had some offers in the Championship and League One, so I went to Notts County. My agent and the club agreed a deal, I was in the office about to sign, we’d negotiated everything, but what my agent had agreed with the club wasn’t in the contract and then things broke down. Then my agent called me and told me to leave the place.”
After the move to Notts County fell through at the last minute, the Sierra Leone international made the surprise decision to join Greek side Ergotelis.
First, his path to be the starting left-back was blocked by the club’s captain and then his situation in Greece was compounded by the nation’s financial crisis, forcing him to leave the club.
“It was a shock move. I was in bed and an agent called me saying he’d got my number from a player and he said he had a move for me in Greece. It was in a really good city, a good club, played in a big stadium, so I made up my mind straightaway and it was a really good offer for me.
“A lot of people see Greece as a holiday destination, but I wasn’t there for a holiday, I was there to do my job and enjoy my football. It was a team of good players, a good city and they made sure I was welcomed when I got to the airport. I didn’t make my debut straightaway as the captain was the left-back, which was unfortunate. It took me three or four months to make my debut then I started playing."
“When I went there there was no crisis in Greece. I got my first month’s wages, but then they stopped paying everyone. I hadn’t experienced such things, I was only 20. I’d signed a two-year contract, but I had to terminate it and come home to the UK.”
Deen-Conteh, who has three caps for Sierra Leone, returned to England to play for Port Vale but his time there was a constant struggle to get playing time as the manager Rob Page stuck to a consistent line-up, stalling the Londoner’s progress.
It was a frustrating time for the youngster who was offered little chance to develop at League One level, at a crucial time in his career.
“I’d signed a three-year contract, but I didn’t get my chance at Port Vale. The manager wasn’t thinking about the players, he wasn’t thinking about the club, he was thinking about himself. At the time the left-back was the captain, so it was a hard situation for me. I was just working hard in training every day. I had to cut my stay there short as things didn’t work out for me and I didn’t really get along with the gaffer.”
Eventually his agent, Dimitri Seluk, arranged for Deen-Conteh to leave in January 2016 for Moldovan side Zaria Balti in a bid to get time on the pitch.
Moldova is an alien country to many and despite the cultural differences, the former England Under-19 international enjoyed his time there, winning his only professional medal in the process as his team lifted the domestic cup.
“I’ve got the same agent as Yaya Toure, Dimitri Seluk, and he called me to say there was club in Moldova who would give me games until the end of the season, so I thought ‘why not?’.
“It was decent money and I went there for four months. Moldova is a small country and not a lot of people know it, the culture, the style and it was very different for me. I didn’t do much there, I just went to training, back to the hotel but I was happy there as I was playing games and we won the cup, my first professional medal. It was a really good spell, it really helped me.”
Staying in Moldova with Zaria's rivals Milsami Orhei was an option for Deen-Conteh but due to their president being in prison, the defender decided it wasn’t a safe option. Against his better judgment, the defender accepted an offer to join Georgian top-flight team FC Zugdidi.
Not getting paid was an issue in Georgia, once again forcing Deen-Conteh to leave the club early for his own welfare and sanity. His agent helped out with his wages, as the club struggled to stump up the cash.
“It was a really strange move to go to Georgia. I’ve made mistakes in life, which this one was. I wouldn’t say I regret it, but it has cost me, leaving me in the position I am in now. Everything I’ve gone through now, I wouldn’t have called it as a failure, I just see it as an experience.
“I had to leave there early as it wasn’t right for me, but sometimes it’s not all about the money, it’s about the person. I wanted to come back and play in the UK and I left there in October and I’ve just been training back in the UK.”
Deen-Conteh has matured quicker than most and now, aged 24, he hopes he can use his experiences in life and football to move his career forward.
“It’s made me rounded as a player and a person, I’m stronger, I can cope with any situation now. I don’t think a lot of English players would be willing to do that, to leave their comfort zone, especially to where I’ve been.”
Happiness is the key for the London-based player now, who has an offer from Russia waiting for him, as he searches to find a club he can call home and show his talents once again.
Regular playing time is key and he realises it won’t be easy for him to make it back up the leagues in England, but a more experienced Deen-Conteh has learned from errors in the past and his unique career makes him wiser than many others out there looking for work in the game.
“I really want to stay in the UK, I don’t want to go back to Eastern Europe, I’m done with that side. I want find somewhere to call home and enjoy my football, so I can show my ability and what I’m capable of. I’ve not had that feeling of being able to call somewhere home since I left Chelsea.”
He acknowledges that he is starting again in England, but he’s up for the fight to make people take notice of his ability, whatever the standard he has to play at.
“I’ve just got to start again from the bottom and try to battle for recognition, so people will know me again. For me to get to the top now, I need to start from the bottom.”