Nathaniel Mendez-Laing interview: Cardiff winger on his remarkable road from five-a-side to Old Trafford

Exclusive: Four years before scoring a brace against Manchester United, Mendez-Laing was playing in a local five-a-side league

Tom Kershaw
Wednesday 22 May 2019 11:22
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Neil Warnock reacts to Cardiff City's relegation

It was the day Nathaniel Mendez-Laing finally put pen to paper on an academy contract that his parents revealed the scouts’ calling cards. There were eight, each from well-known clubs who’d picked him out during Sunday League games. A hoard of others, stuffed into tracksuit pockets on a week-by-week basis, hadn’t even been held back.

Ever since the 14-year-old began playing with his brother, cousins and close friends in the local cages in Ladywood, his “heart was set” on joining Birmingham City. Twice he was knocked back from trials and glumly refused to go elsewhere. His mum was intent that he should enjoy the formative years of his childhood before immersing himself in football. Eventually, she stopped telling him about the offers at all until finally, aged 14, he reluctantly let go of his dream and accepted Wolves’ offer.

Thirteen years, three clubs and five loan spells later, Mendez-Laing’s match-winning brace against Manchester United brought a closing light to Cardiff’s gruelling relegation campaign. Before the game, he’d stolen a few wide-eyed seconds on the pitch at Old Trafford to send a video of the empty stadium to his oldest friends. “It’s funny because I was speaking to them before the game and I was thinking it’s crazy how far we’ve come,” the broad-shouldered winger says, savouring the post-season’s downtime.

“Three seasons ago, they were coming to watch me in League Two. Sometimes, you just have to stop and pinch yourself.”

For such a richly talented player, the 27-year-old’s passage to the Premier League was littered by potholes, undone by cruel injuries and an occasional lack of youthful concentration. After giving into Peterborough’s persuasions, opportunities were scuppered by indiscipline, and short pitstops at Portsmouth, Shrewsbury and Cambridge amounted to little success as his career wandered toward a bleak cul de sac.

Almost four years to the day of his bittersweet celebrations in front of the Stretford End, Mendez-Laing was without a club after being released by Peterborough. His close friends dragged him to a local gym each morning to keep sharp, he worked with a personal trainer in the afternoons and played in a five-a-side league in Aston in the evenings, desperately trying to keep the same routine. But after a failed trial with Scunthorpe, the panic began to set in.

“The penny dropped for me when I didn’t have a club,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen to many footballers. They fall out of the game, people with a lot of talent. It does cross your mind [about what might happen in the future]. When I was younger, I thought it would all come so easy.

“The old goalkeeping coach at Peterborough, he went to Rochdale and the manager told me to come down and train for a few days. He said ‘you’re not going to get good money here, but I’ll get you to where you want to be’. Thankfully, it paid off.”

Mendez-Laing was playing at Rochdale in League One in two years ago

Mendez-Laing recently invested in a new house on the outskirts of Birmingham so he could be closer to his old friends. He grew up in one of the city’s grittiest areas, a vast shore of 1960s high-rise tower blocks, before moving to live with his dad in Erdington. Nobody in his family had any experience in football, he had entered the academy system at a relatively late stage and, for a large part of his career, didn’t have an agent. Ultimately, he says with honest self-reflection, he “needed an arm around the shoulder”.

“Certain situations have made me thick-skinned,” he says. “They made me the man who I am today,” he says. “It wasn’t easy growing up but I’m thankful for that. Keith was a good mentor for me. On my first day [at Rochdale], he said ‘I’ll get you there, just trust me and listen to me’. In hard times, he would always speak to me on the phone. Some players just need that arm around them. Over time, I have realised I am one of those people. It took me quite a long time to realise that.”

Mendez-Laing celebrates at Old Trafford on the final day of the season

When Cardiff called in 2017, the decision to work under Neil Warnock came naturally. The 70-year-old had managed Hill as a player at Plymouth and passed on his brand of old-school coaching. In his first season in the Championship, he fizzed into life, scoring four goals in five games and winning the August Player of the Month award. Injury and a bizarre mix-up over asthma medication halted his progress over the second-half of the season, but the ecstasy of promotion was ensured. After a wild journey on roundabout ways, he had made his belated breakthrough to the Premier League.

The season brought a wave of mixed emotions. Mendez-Laing had played less than 90 minutes of football when he was sidelined for three months after damaging his posterior cruciate ligament. By the time he returned, Cardiff were being written off as relegation certainties, averaging less than a goal per game and had just 11 points to their name. “People were saying we’re going to get the least amount of points in the Premier League,” he admits.

“The difference was massive [compared to the Championship]. It’s a lot more clinical and the pace of the game did surprise me. The slightest mistake can cost you vitally whereas in the Championship you might not get punished. One minute you can be on the edge of their box and the next minute it’s in the back of your net. It was those games where we let slip a draw or let slip a win. It’s the minor details that cost us.”

Mendez-Laing celebrates scoring against Brighton

Despite a late rally, Cardiff couldn’t find the strength to stay up. A combination of a tiring squad, the tragic death of Emiliano Sala and a series of questionable refereeing decisions all contributed to Brighton edging them by a mere two points. In a pivotal defeat against Fulham with three weeks of the season remaining, Warnock fielded a first XI entirely made up of players who had come up from the Championship. After the loss of against Crystal Palace confirmed their fate, the manager took his squad to the side, told them they’d all had their moments, that they’d all made mistakes, and that he was proud of every one of them.

“To still be in with a chance one game for the end of the season, considering the budget and that we made very little changes to the squad, I’m really proud of what we achieved. It would be easy now to say we should’ve done things differently, obviously, there are things we should have done better, but we all deserved our shot. We’ve got the best manager to get us back up there. Hopefully, now we will all stay together and do it.”

After the win at Old Trafford, Mendez-Laing drove and teased his Manchester United supporting dad all the way back to Birmingham. The day’s heroics still felt surreal, relegation still felt disheartening and yet there was a humble satisfaction, the fulfilment of a fearless journey through the backroads to unthought-of heights.

“I’m proud of doing it my own way,” he says. “I’ve hard to do it the hard way round. I had to work so hard to get back up there. It’s every kid’s dream. I appreciate it a lot more now.”

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