Ahead of facing Man United on Saturday, QPR’s former Man City and England youth defender chats to SPIKES about Thierry Henry, his passion for athletics, and why the decathlon is king.
Nedum Onuoha is one of the Premier League’s quickest. He’s also an English schools’ 100m medallist.
When did you first discover you were fast?
I was always quite fast at primary school but I didn’t properly know until year eight [second year of high school], when I started to take sports hall athletics more seriously. I also competed for Trafford AC, and I was in the same sprints group as Andrew Steele [the 2008 Olympic 400m semi-finalist].
Did you boss your school sports days?
Looking back I did win quite a few times [laughs]. Although in my form there were a few good athletes.
What was the highlight of your athletics career?
Winning the English schools junior 100m silver medal in 2001. I was beaten by just 0.02 by Wade Bennett-Jackson. Craig Pickering was in the race as well, someone I’ve since become good friends with. At the time I was gutted.
I probably went into the race as favourite, although I didn’t have the perfect lead up to the race, as I had to compete in the heats of the 4x100m relay quite close to the 100m final. Looking back it was a great experience but I was a bit of a sore loser at the time.
David Beckham once described competing in the English schools’ cross-country championships as one of the most nerve-wracking moments in his career. How was it for you?
It was the first time I’d ever travelled away overnight to play sport. It was so professional and the standard was so high because people from all across the country were competing. I made many friends there and I always used to look forward to it.
How has that experience helped you in football?
I adopt a similar approach towards football that I did towards athletics. In athletics you tried be the very best you could at any given moment. To achieve that I had to be so dedicated to training, or run the risk of being mediocre. Although football is a team game, I put the same pressure on myself in football as I did in athletics: to be the best that I can be.
How long did you stay involved in athletics?
In 2002 I finished fourth in the 100m. That year I ran an unofficial 10.9, which is my 100m personal best. I also took part in the heptathlon at the English schools’ combined event championships, and finished about eighth. I was half-decent at long jump and quite good at hurdles as well.
I reached the age of 16 and I had to make a choice between football and athletics. I chose football but it was a real disappointment that I couldn’t do athletics anymore.
Do you win the sprint drills at QPR training?
I’m definitely up there. With football it’s not only about the speed but more about the sharpness and the ability to cover the first 10-15m. I always do better over 20-25m, it takes me a few yards to get going. I really enjoy the physical side, the fitness and speed side of football training.
How fast could you cover 100m today?
If I trained for it, it would have to be faster than when I was aged 15 or 16, because I’m more powerful and my endurance is definitely better. I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t ten seconds something.
Who is the fastest footballer you’ve played against?
It would probably be Thierry Henry. I played against him twice. He was not only a fantastic athlete but also a fantastic footballer. It is always very difficult [An 18-year-old Onuoha actually helped keep Henry at bay in his debut season for Man City, earning a 1-1 draw at Highbury].
Someone like Theo Walcott is also incredibly fast for a footballer but I’m not sure how successful he’d be over 100m.
Marking Thierry: You’ve got to catch him, first.
Which is your favourite athletics event to watch?
I love to see athletics on TV and athletes compete at the highest level. I really admire the decathletes. I always keep a close eye on the multi-eventers because they are the complete athlete. It is incredible to think that these men can do each of their events better than 99.99 per cent of the population.
Do you have a favourite athletics memory?
Watching Michael Johnson win the 200m and 400m double at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I remember him dominating the world… and those gold shoes.