“Watching training every day, Michael was the one,” Mark Bowen tells the South London Press, as he begins to recount hearing whispers of Michael Olise’s snowballing potential when he arrived at Reading in March 2019 as technical director.
Although Jose Gomes handed Olise his professional debut at 17 it was Bowen who cultivated and nurtured Olise into the competitive nature of the Championship by carefully managing his minutes before unleashing him as a consistent starter from February 2020 onwards.
Bowen, who became Royals manager in October 2019, explained: “Whatever they were doing, whether it was shooting drills or a game at the end of a session, he was the one I wanted to get out on the training field and watch every day.
“He’s a player who stood out straight away. He likes to have the ball and is comfortable with it. He was a precocious young talent.
“At times, he would get kicked or even try to take the mickey out of senior players – which you didn’t mind as it showed his real high level of confidence. He caught your attention straight away.”
Charlie Adam shares the same enthusiasm for the prodigy’s game.
The Scottish midfielder, who played alongside Olise during the 2019-20 season, said: “He’s as good a talent coming through that you will see. I knew we had some good players in Michael, Danny Loader and a couple of younger boys at U18 level, but Michael was the one that you could see stand out.
“There were moments in training when Michael would pick the ball up and drive, and all of a sudden, you were 50 yards up the pitch. He has that pace and he’s strong.
“He could do things in training and in games that didn’t surprise me because I knew that he was a good player. It was frustrating at times, but I love mavericks – people that try to be different.”
In the early days of Olise’s time with the Reading first team, the glimmers of genius were equally matched by moments of irritation.
“I have got a smile on my face saying this, Michael found it hard if you were doing something on the training ground and it didn’t involve an actual game situation,” explained Bowen. “He would say: ‘What are we doing this for? Can’t we just play football?’
“Michael just wanted to get the ball out and play. That’s all he wants to do. But he has got to get that maturity in his demeanour and how he acts every day.”
Olise demonstrated from his early days with Reading that he had an abundance of skill and could glide past players with ease. But he was missing the experience to track back and gain Gomes’ faith.
“When I first went into Reading, Michael wasn’t getting in the first-team squad a few times, and he was getting down,” said Bowen.
“I tried to explain to him: ‘The manager has to trust you. He knows you can do it on the ball, but if he can’t trust you off the ball, then he won’t play you, and he will look for other options’.
“I went to the U23 coach and said: ‘He’s playing for you the day after tomorrow – play him in central midfield or as a defensive midfield player in front of the back four.’ I knew he would naturally go forward with the ball, but it would make him have that responsibility because he’s the primary defensive midfield player.
“It worked. He only played around two or three times there. I think he had that realisation of: ‘If I am going to lose the ball in that transition of the play, I can’t just switch off and throw my arms in the air looking disappointed. I have a fundamental responsibility to get back for my team, even in the U23s’.
Bowen adds that Tottenham scout David Pleat was closely watching Olise’s progression around that time.
“I spoke a good few times with David. He really liked Michael. I don’t know why they didn’t come back and make a move for him. This is only a guess, but perhaps David saw things in reserve games and thought: ‘The lad has enormous talent, but we don’t know whether he will develop that other side of the game’.
“He certainly has now – believe me. The last year to 18 months, looking at the stats after games, Michael was right up there with the rest of the team.”
Sean Conlon, CEO at We Make Footballers, says he was “overwhelmed” at seeing Olise make his move to the Premier League with Crystal Palace this summer.
Conlon, who was scouting for QPR in 2009, heard about a seven-year-old drawing mounting attention at Hayes FC.
“The pitch was covered in daisies, and the grass was very long, but even as a seven-year-old, Michael just stood out,” said Conlon. “He was a unique talent. His athleticism and movement style were probably his best attributes. He’s very sharp physically and mentally, too. Michael was the best player on the pitch by far.
“We got Michael involved with our club that has other academy players and even then he was the standout player in that group.”
Although Olise was training with Arsenal and Chelsea at the time, he was yet to sign a deal with either club due to his age. It allowed Conlon to snap up Olise and act as a step in his personal development while he trained with the professional academies.
“Once I got to know Michael and saw him playing regularly as a young player, I believed that he had the potential to do what he is doing today,” said Conlon. “There were outstanding moments. There were moments in games where your jaw dropped, breathless, watching what he was doing.”
Conlon begins praising Olise by recounting a match when he was eight and “got fed up” with the scoreline being 0-0 against Esher Wizards – a team packed with academy players. Olise, dribbled past the whole side and curled a shot into the top-left hand corner.
“We always believed that Michael had that potential to make it all the way,” said Conlon. “There was some rockiness on the journey – it wasn’t smooth all the way to the top – but we were so happy to see him make it to the Premier League.”
It was following the forced break in football due to the pandemic that Adam began to notice a change in Olise’s endeavour.
The Hammersmith-born midfielder headed to the gym at Reading’s Hogwood Park training ground every day and stayed behind after sessions to perfect his craft on the pitch.
When asked where he believed Olise’s new-found determination had come from, Adam said: “Maybe a word or two with the senior players and Mark being open and honest with him to say: ‘You’re probably too good to be playing here – you should be playing in the Premier League.’
“Sometimes you have to look at yourself in the mirror and be honest with yourself. Living in his own place and having to stand on his own two feet maybe helped him as well. He changed his mentality and realised: ‘What a wonderful opportunity I have got’.
Before Bowen departed Reading, he did decide to have a frank conversation with the burgeoning Olise about the direction of his football career.
Despite Bowen lacing the then 18-year-old’s game with vital first-team experience, there was one aspect of Olise’s artillery that had yet to blossom alongside his masterful manipulation of the football and intelligent movement – goal contributions.
Olise, who has been capped by France at U18 level, only had two assists to his name and was yet to score his first professional goal before the start of last season.
Bowen explained: “He had always wanted to play in the Premier League, so I told him the next step for him was to put some stats down. Michael would get the ball and he found it so easy at times that he would run forward – and I am looking at the opposition full-back, and I can see the fear in his eyes – and Michael would put his head up and look for a pass.
“I’d say to Michael: ‘When you get the ball, look at that full-back and think that you’re going to come at them, embarrass them and get past with the ball – really commit every time that you get it. You will have people off their seats in those stands.’
“I told Michael: ‘You will catch the eye, but a lot of Premier League coaches and managers will want to see the evidence – how many goals does he create and how many does he score? The next thing you need to add to your CV is that you have a percentage of goals, winning games and creating chances’. He certainly did that last season.”
Olise set about becoming one of the most exhilarating talents in the Championship last season. He produced seven goals and 12 assists under new manager Veljko Paunovic and picked up the EFL Young Player of the Season award. An ever-growing list of suitors already included Palace, with sporting director Dougie Freedman asking Bowen for a reference on Olise in the summer of 2020.
The Eagles enquired in last season’s winter window but had to wait until this summer to prise Olise away from Reading, triggering an £8million buyout clause.
Olise had five years on Chelsea’s books before he was released at 14.
Conlon said: “Michael has been the best player in his age group all the way through. At times, that almost worked against him because he had so much talent – sometimes, that’s not easy for players to deal with. They might not understand the need to work as hard.
Anything you asked Michael to do, he could do it without much effort, whereas other players had to try really hard. That was a challenge for Michael growing up through the academy system.
“The talent was all there…it was just Michael was a teenager. It was more the difficulties of clashing with coaches at that age, which means he’s had to go into Reading to get his head down. It’s all benefitted and shaped him to become the player he is today.”
Olise didn’t allow the rejection to define him.
Conlon said: “When it didn’t work out with Chelsea, I did a one-on-one training session with Michael. I told him: ‘We need a four-year plan. You need to picture yourself as an 18-year-old making it. Show everyone that you are the player that we know you are’.
“I can remember him looking at me with a lot of intensity when we were talking about that. I felt that he had the vision, despite his current situation, that he was going to make it. He’s matured physically and mentally. If you see photos of him as a 15, 16 or 17-year-old, he’s always been athletic but relatively slight. Now he’s been in the gym, a stronger man, and he’s physically fitter.”
Olise’s ability has never been called into question. It is a major coup that Palace have acquired one of the hottest prospects in the country.
Olise was only behind Norwich’s Emiliano Buendia for most assists in the Championship last season, and that was for a Reading side that finished outside the play-offs. Buendia, who signed for Aston Villa for £38m this summer, supplied firepower to the champions, who boasted the second-most potent attack in the league.
Olise’s versatility could also become a valuable tool for Patrick Vieira to deploy. He can play anywhere behind the striker, out wide or in midfield.
Although Olise chose to put Palace’s advances last winter on ice, a conversation he had with Vieira over Zoom in the summer became one of the deciding factors to him committing his long-term future to Selhurst Park.
Bowen said: “I still know a lot of people at Reading, and I know that he drove the manager there bananas at times with his attitude.
“But the biggest thing for me now is that he has gone to Palace. If he grasps it, matures, takes onboard the right things and tidies up those loose ends of what a footballer should be, he can go really far in the game. It’s up to him.
“He has got all the ammunition in the locker to go to the very top. He’s quick, can run all day, has individual skills, has a great eye for a pass, and can create and score more goals.
“He’s a shy lad, so he’s not one of those who will go to Vieira or his coaching staff and ask for advice, but I will tell you one thing, he will be the last off the training ground every day.”
The back injury Olise arrived at Palace with has turned what could have been an explosive start into a slow drip-feed into top-flight life.
But he has shown he is comfortable at this level – turning James Milner at Anfield and playing a role in Palace’s third against Tottenham.
And when Olise was sent on with Palace 2-0 down against Leicester City on Sunday, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He took the game to the opposition, showing his directness before an emphatic finish beyond Kasper Schmeichel.
Adam said: “For Vieira, Michael might be a bit like Yannick Bolasie where he’s a bit of a roaming player – him on one side and Zaha on the other.
“Michael will be able to handle the pressure of being at Palace. Hopefully, he can hit the ground running.”
Olise’s showing at the weekend will only add to the clamour for him to start matches.
“Fans will have to be patient,” said Conlon. “They need to understand they have a mercurial and incredible talent on their hands.”
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