When Cardiff and Reading were locked at 1-1 in injury time last season, one moment of genius could prove crucial. Mathieu Manset, the Ivorian striker, came on for Reading earlier in the second half hoping to make an impact. He’d signed from Hereford just weeks earlier accompanied by little fanfare. Few Reading fans had heard of him before and, similarly, not many could have anticipated that Manset would introduce himself in such explosive fashion.
With the seconds petering out, Reading’s Noel Hunt pelted a low cross towards Cardiff’s penalty area. Somehow, Manset eluded every Cardiff defender and bundled home what would surely be the winning goal. The 493 travelling Reading fans erupted in euphoric disbelief. Their joy was tempered, though, as incredibly enough, Cardiff levelled straight after via Craig Bellamy’s free kick, the last kick of the game.
Sadly, that is quite an accurate portrait of Manset’s time at Reading – so much promise, yet so little end product. Since arriving in January 2011 the imposing marksman has started just nine matches for the Royals, showing a worrying inability to complete 90 minutes. Granted, he also scored late goals against Millwall and Bristol City, though in the long run, those instinctive finishes mask a horribly unproductive spell at the Madejski Stadium.
However, Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua – who recently generated a storm by signing Nicolas Anelka – have taken a gamble on Manset, securing a loan deal for the striker lasting until June. It’s a notable leap of faith by manager Jean Tigana to take on such a reserved, enigmatic figure.
Manset, to his credit, scored 13 goals in his last 16 games for Hereford, albeit at League Two level. The potential is there, yet his complex personality often lets him down. After a drink driving charge earlier this year, he was fined £1,400 and banned from driving for a year.
His performances on the pitch have been equally unpredictable and disconcerting. Many critics have raised questions over his fitness levels and, much of the time, he looked inept and woefully out of his depth in the Championship. His flashy tricks rarely came off and his decisions with the ball were bizarre at the best of times, much to the frustration of teammates and, ominously so, Reading manager Brian McDermott. Indeed, last year McDermott openly criticised Manset over his supposedly waning work ethic. Perhaps a daring step into the unknown could be exactly what Manset needs to invigorate his stuttering career.
Tigana’s vote of confidence in Manset will come as a striking source of impetus for the forward. A former French international from French Sudan, Tigana shares common ground with Manset, whose roots lie in Metz, France. The French connections don’t stop there, however. Manset will hope to line up alongside Anelka, something of an oddball himself.
Playing alongside Anelka can only help Manset, who so often polarises opinion and drives debate. The sight of Manset lashing home a late equaliser against Millwall – an unstoppable drive from 20 yards – then celebrating with such unencumbered vigour is in stark contrast to the stilted, introverted interviews he has given journalists in his thus far regretful spell at Reading.
When Manset does open up to journalists, however, he is just as endearing as his unpredictable, volatile career. He has spoken of his admiration for Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, who – if you believe everything you read – could also be pulling on a Shanghai Shenhua shirt anytime soon.
It could be even more of a blessing, then, that Drogba offered an arm around Manset’s shoulder after the Ivory Coast’s Olympic squad defeated Liberia last April, when Manset made his international debut. For Drogba to give some sage, well honed advice to Manset could be infinitely symbolic.
Yet who knows what Drogba said to Manset? It would have been captivating to be a fly on the wall and see one of Africa’s greatest-ever strikers attempt to revive what could be a cruelly wasted talent. That, it seems, is what Manset could be remembered as. He is only 22 but has made just 81 league appearances, most of those coming in the doldrums of League Two.
Tigana now has a tough job to summon up the lacking fire in Manset’s belly. Indeed, Manset’s career at Reading, to be honest, looks to have a hollow future with the Royals purchasing Adam Le Fondre, Karl Sheppard and Jason Roberts in recent months. Either way, Manset is such a bemusing character, it is almost impossible to predict what will happen next in his eventful career. One thing is for sure, however – Tigana now has a genuine maverick on his hands.
By Alistair Hendrie
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona