It’s a long way from Corduff Park to Stamford Bridge – more so, perhaps, metaphorically than geographically – and Yassine En-Neyah has grafted more than most to make it.
Leaving his family behind in Dublin at the age of 16 to begin a new life at the Nottingham Forest academy was the latest in a series of momentous leaps for the 19-year-old Dubliner.
While that could equally apply to his penchant for spectacular bicycle kicks, it was a leap of faith to go out on his own in the English midlands.
As it was when his mother relocated the family from Morocco, where ‘Yaz’ was born and spent his early years with a football at his feet, to Blanchardstown on Dublin’s northside.
A potentially career-ending injury suffered following a brutish tackle in an Under-23s match with Watdord threatened to curtail the remarkable progress he’d made since moving across the water.
For those who know him, there was never any doubt that the strong-willed teenager would recover from the blow.
And his hard work and perseverance was rewarded on January 5 when he was introduced for the final nine minutes of Forest’s 2-0 FA Cup defeat away to Chelsea.
Yaz’s story is all the more remarkable because, unlike the vast majority of elite footballers in Ireland, he didn’t go looking for football – it found him.
A young En-Neyah was kicking a football around the park in Corduff with his uncle when his talent was spotted from afar by Corduff FC PRO John McGuinness.
Corduff, now one of the premier names in Dublin schoolboy football, was in a period of transition from a club that fielded a handful of teams in the late 90s to a thriving club of 25+ underage teams.
McGuinness chanced his arm and approached the pair and invited the young man to train with the club, and his talent was such that soon he was playing two years above.
En-Neyah was part of Davey Travers and Clive Keogh’s all-conquering 1998 group, who won all before them at local level and broke ground at All-Ireland level.
Of that group, Jean-Yves Poame signed for Sunderland and Ismael Diallo joined Nottingham Forest along with En-Neyah, but Yaz is the last man standing in England.
“It’s funny because there’s a backstory behind it,” Steve Morley, who coached En-Neyah for the final two years before he made the move to the City Ground.
“John happened to be down the park – he lived down the park at that stage – and he saw this little kid knocking around with a man kicking a football and he said ‘he can hit a ball’.
“He went over and said ‘would he be interested in playing football?’ That’s how he was drafted in – he was just spotted in Corduff kicking a ball on a Sunday or Monday afternoon.
“No matter where he was going, he had a ball in his bag or under his arm, and it’d be a battered ball you might find on the road. I’ll never forget that he’d always arrive with a ball.
“You’d see programmes on TV with guys like George Best and they’d always have people on saying ‘I knew when I seen him playing that he had something special’.
“I must have watched thousands of footballers over the years, from our own teams to academy teams and Ireland teams, and you can always pick out the guys who are exceptional.
“A lot of guys are successful because they’re solid and fill positions because they’re in the right place at the right time, but the Yaz guy has serious natural talent that is few and far between.”
The disappearance of the fabled ‘street footballer,’ as mythologised by Eamon Dunphy and John Giles, is well-documented.
Few grow up with a ball glued to their foot like Giles or Liam Brady amid the concrete jungle of Ormond Quay or Whitehall – though the likes of Wes Hoolahan and Troy Parrott may buck the trend.
Those players still exist in working class enclaves like Sheriff Street and Corduff, but it was on the faraway streets in Morocco that En-Neyah honed his close attachment with a football.
Morley draws the parallel with Zinedine Zidane, who also happens to be of north African heritage, who developed his unique skillset in the working-class banlieues of Marseilles
“His speciality is bicycle kicks, or scissor kicks, the Pele goal from Escape to Victory. I don’t know how many of them he scored over the years in the park on a rainy day against someone.
“I remember asking him one day: ‘how come you’re so good at them? Because your technique is fantastic’.
“He says, ‘well, in Morocco, we played on the concrete and it’s no problem doing it on grass’.
“That summed it up to me. He is a genuine street footballer.
“I would compare him to the likes of Zidane who grew up in a block of flats with a patch of concrete ground in between, and that’s where he played his football. You can see that in Yaz. He’s got that.”
Though born in Morocco, and also eligible for Italy through his mother, En-Neyah is a Dub who would like nothing more than to play for his country.
He was called up to the international side at Under-15 level but, as he is still in the process of applying for his Irish passport, his international future remains up in the air.
“He does want to play for Ireland, so we’re just trying to sort it out between ourselves and the various departments in the government, to sort of out his passport.
“He has options, which is great for him. He’s not restricted.
“We’d love him to play for Ireland, and he would too, and the FAI are quite interested in him.
“It would be great to get Yaz in because with the European under-21s next year, which he’d be eligible for if he had the passport sorted.
“He wouldn’t have an issue with the workrate or skill to get into the team, so hopefully he can get that break, if we can sort out that paperwork.”