‘The Premier League is known as the top league in the world so it’s definitely going to be a lot tougher,” Michael Olise said in his first interview as a Crystal Palace player. “But nothing I’m not ready for, so …”
Seven months on, the versatile forward whose dazzling array of skills briefly graced the academies of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City has shown he is back where he belongs. Olise’s return of two goals and three assists from the 314 Premier League minutes he had played for Palace by the start of January meant that with a goal contribution every 63 minutes, the 20-year-old was the division’s most productive player.
His instant success at Selhurst Park has come as no surprise to Sean Conlon, who first met him when Olise was playing for his local side Hayes in west London at the age of seven.
“He’s always been someone who scores goals because his control is so good and he is thinking so many steps ahead of everyone else,” Conlon says. “Michael also has so much variety in his technique that allows him to see the picture and means he is able to make the decision on what is the most appropriate finish.”
Conlon had just left Chelsea as a coach and was working as a scout for QPR but was so impressed that he recommended Olise to his former employers. “Michael was also training with Arsenal at the time because before you move into the under-nines, you’re allowed to train with multiple teams,” he says. “But he probably lived closer to Chelsea and they obviously have a great academy so he ended up signing for them.”
While at Chelsea Olise also received individual training from Conlon’s company We Make Footballers, which specialises in developing players between the ages of three and 12, and turned out for his grassroots team.
“I’ve always said that from the age of nine Michael has been the best player for his age in the country,” Conlon says. “He’s always been very graceful and elegant in the way that he moves. But it was when he went into the academy setup at Chelsea that his technique began to shine and all of his ability on the ball started coming through. And then as he has got older his football IQ developed so he answered almost every question that was asked of him.”
Although Olise always appeared destined for success, his departure from Chelsea at 14 – described as “a mutual decision” by Conlon – was a reminder that there are never guarantees in football. Having spent a few weeks travelling to Manchester to train with City, he went six months without a club.
“Sometimes people don’t think about it being hard for players who are supremely talented because that can also come with its own difficulties,” Conlon says. “It’s not been a perfect journey for Michael but I think that has benefited him. Coming out of Chelsea at that age has given him that resilience and desire to succeed.”
Before joining Reading, where he made close to 70 Championship appearances and was crowned EFL Young Player of the Season last year, Olise played in several showcase games that Conlon had arranged. “We had all the scouts from clubs in London watching and everyone was just in disbelief about how good Michael was,” he says. “I videoed those games and I need to get them off the hard drive … I’ve taken one of them to the shop because I was like: ‘Oh my God, there’s gold on these!’”
Patrick Vieira has carefully managed Olise’s integration into the Palace first team, having seen off interest from City and others to sign him for £8m in the summer after activating the release clause. “He’s making huge progress from when he arrived to six months after – I think he’s a different player,” Vieira said last week.
Olise has made only five Premier League starts but cemented his status as a fans’ favourite with a goal and an assist at their local rivals Millwall in a heated FA Cup third-round tie during which he taunted home supporters after being struck by a bottle as he prepared to take a corner.
“I remember when Michael came down to play for my seven-a-side team at Alperton goals,” Conlon says. “It was full of semi-pro players who were so aggressive. Michael came and, at the age of 14, he was the best player. And because of his character, everyone liked him and respected him. He might be a little bit quiet but he’s humble and very polite. I’ve heard some of his teammates referring to him as the rock star. He has got something very unique about his persona.”
Judging by the cool celebration after another brilliant goal against Hartlepool in the Cup fourth round, Olise has found his swagger in south London. Conlon also coached Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott and Olise’s younger brother Richard – a promising right-back who has been a regular for Chelsea Under-18s this season – and recently introduced a scholarship named after the Olise brothers that provides two young players from Hayes with free coaching sessions. “When he signed for Palace I spoke to his dad and they were just so grateful for the situation,” he says.
Olise’s father is from Nigeria and his mother’s heritage means that Olise is eligible to play for France and Algeria as well as England. His only international appearances have been for France at the 2019 Toulon under-age tournament and Conlon is intrigued to see which country Olise ends up representing.
“I would imagine that there could be quite a few options for him in the end. Michael takes his football very seriously and knows where he wants to get to.”