Nedum Onuoha: 'I have gone backwards – but I'll get it back'

He was City's bright young thing five years ago – but after the influx of expensive talents, he's still only hopeful of a starting place. The defender talks to Ian Herbert about life on the fringes at the world's richest club

A cold, autumnal Wednesday, waking to thoughts of whether there will be a place in the Manchester City manager's starting XI for the arrival of Arsenal in the Carling Cup tonight. Nedum Onuoha has been here before.

It was more in hope than expectation back in 2004 that he scanned the teamsheet Kevin Keegan had prepared for the arrival of Arsène Wenger's side and found that he would be making his first-team debut. Onuoha did not anticipate still being peripheral at City all these years later, especially after performances for Mark Hughes in the second-half of the last campaign which made him a serious contender for the club's Player of the Season and led to a new four-year contract. But then Joleon Lescott arrived, followed by Kolo Touré, for a collective cost of £38m, and Onuoha cannot deny some angst. "It is disappointing not to play, given what I did last season and compared to then I do feel I may have gone backwards," he says.

Onuoha has been a victim of City's desire to get somewhere in a hurry and though he believes he can play a part in the club's new chapter – "I don't think it is impossible to get back to where I was," he declares – the 23-year-old also speaks from the heart when cautioning them against overlooking local talent in their breakneck pursuit of Champions League football.

The hurdles for young City players have just got twice as high. The City chief executive, Garry Cook, said on the recent trip to Abu Dhabi that they want to model their academy on Arsenal's and will buy in the best young players for it if necessary – a point Hughes reiterated yesterday. All part of the "project", Onuoha understands. "If the club can be more successful then things will level out," he says. "In the last 18 months they've been trying to give themselves a solid base and rush it through where with other clubs it might be a longer ongoing process. If we do achieve some of the things we want, then maybe things can level out and the academy can come to the forefront again." And yet he believes City do run the the risk of losing young talents such as 20-year-old Vladimir Weiss, the Slovakian midfielder who played such a vibrant role in Jim Cassell's 2008 FA Youth Cup winning side.

"Three or four years ago at this point he [Weiss] might have played 50 games for the club already," Onuoha says. "In training you see he's a really good player and in my opinion has much more technical ability than any of the [first team] academy [graduates] - certainly more than Micah [Richards] and me. But he has not been able to break into the side because of the people ahead of him and the pressure that comes with the shirt these days."

Onuoha speaks from the experience of 13 years at City, in which he has seen many young prospects go. Striker Ched Evans delivered a bitter parting shot this summer when he left for Sheffield United but Daniel Sturridge, who went to Chelsea after City considered his £65,000-a-week wage demands ridiculous, is another whom Onuoha believes had given up on the prospect of regular football. "It's harder for the people trying to make a name for themselves against the people who already have," he says. "Most of Daniel's appearances were coming off the bench, that's not the type of thing you want to be doing."

There's a certain fatalism about his own outlook on the future in east Manchester, where many seasoned observers wonder why Lescott was signed this summer when Onuoha and Vincent Kompany were in situ? Keegan picked him for that Arsenal game, three days after the north London club's famous "Battle of the Buffet" with Manchester United, having happened to walk in on the defender's best academy match of the season. Then, one of his first league starts, under Stuart Pearce, happened to be one of City's best performance of 2005-06, the narrow 1-0 home defeat to champions Chelsea. "In my time here I've never gone through a season when I've been first choice, whether through injury or selection," he says. "So I've seen this type of thing before and I always seem to end up playing. I never see people come in and think 'that's it'. It's the people who really want to be here who'll be here the longest and when it matters."

He is the man who Pearce, when asked by a member of the Manchester press corps where Onuoha might be found at the Carrington training ground, once joked that he was "probably splitting the atom or something around the back." The personnel have changed since then but Onuoha, with his three A level A grades (maths, business studies and IT) is still considered the resident bright spark sought out by team-mates for answers. "If someone comes across a problem and they don't think they'll be able to do it they'll come and ask me even though it's a simple thing," he grins. "I think I just give things more thought so people think it's difficult. They're just too lazy to figure it out for themselves."

His reputation as a considered and erudite individual has also made him an important part of the equality campaign Kick it Out campaign (www.kickitout.org). Few who were present can forget his response to the racial abuse he received during England Under-21s' 2-0 victory over Serbia at the European Championship in Nijmegen two years back. He simply paused and stared at his tormentors with a mixture of pity and bewilderment. "I just wanted to make a stand, to let them know I could hear what was happening," he said that day. "Still, we must move on."

That kind of outlook has been bestowed by a mother, Anthonia, who has a doctorate in environmental sciences, and a father, Martin, who is a secondary school maths teacher. When Onuoha was five they swapped their relatively salubrious home in Nigeria – "it wasn't rough and I do recall we had house helps," their son recalls – for a home in Manchester's Miles Platting district, which was "not the best place to be at that time." Onuoha's sister walked in on a burglar and it was their desire for something better that led the couple, once established, to put him through Hulme Grammar School. He might actually have been a sprinter. A career at Trafford Athletic Club, with Craig Pickering and Andrew Steele, two of England's finest, peaked with a 100 metres time of 10.9 seconds. But it was to be football instead.

Capped 21 times for the Under-21s, he is holding out on accepting Nigeria's requests to play for them and the same goes for any thoughts of leaving City for more regular football just yet. "You can always say 'should this have happened, that have happened?" he says. "But going back five years, there was a period when we didn't even score a goal in the second half of the season at home. To be wanted as part of a bigger project is a big thing."

Home-grown: But what are their chances?

Total Man City apps/2009-10 apps so far

S Wright-Phillips (28 yrs) 234/16

Stephen Ireland (23) 161/15

Micah Richards (21) 138/9

Nedum Onuoha (23) 101/1

Michael Johnson (21) 45/2

Kelvin Etuhu (21) 15/0

Shaleum Logan (21) 3/0

Vladimir Weiss (20) 3/2

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