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Who is Yasin Ben El-Mhanni?

Written by Tom Easterby

When he makes his Newcastle United debut in Wednesday night’s FA Cup third round replay with Birmingham City, Yasin Ben El-Mhanni will begin writing another chapter in the remarkable story of his nascent career to date.

At just 21 years old, the winger has taken the road less travelled into the professional game. El-Mhanni’s is not the well-worn tale of rising through a top club’s academy; his has been a more humble route. Barely half a year ago, he was on the books of Isthmian League Division One South side Lewes.

Born in Chelsea, London, to Moroccan parents Mostafa and Naima in 1995, El-Mhanni honed his skills on the streets of the capital as a youngster. He credits this period with developing the spectacular array of tricks and flicks which he’s used to good effect in the Magpies Under-23s side this term.

“Street football gives you the chance to learn and teach myself things rather than being coached,” he told the Daily Mail back in July, the same month he penned a professional contract at St. James’ Park.

“I was basically learning from YouTube, watching matches and players like Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Robinho and Cristiano Ronaldo, trying to interpret what they do.

“Growing up on the streets, everything is just war. Everything is right, so you just do it.”

His talent with the ball – which is showcased in numerous online videos, amassing thousands of views – led to invitations to film television commercials in sunnier climes with some world superstars.

Few can claim to have acted as a double and an instructor to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. El-Mhanni can.

“I've doubled for Neymar, I've doubled for Cristiano Ronaldo and done their skills on camera, which was great. It was mind-blowing, really, to see people that you look up to on the pitch, and meet them in real life, in person. It gives you something to aspire to,” he told nufc.co.uk.

“I had to show them how to do a set of tricks. The directors would tell me what tricks to do, and I'd have to demonstrate it to them. Then they'd have to do it themselves.”

It wasn’t until his late teens, though, that El-Mhanni was picked up by Barnet, where he spent time with their academy.

It didn’t work out, though, and by his own admission, he spent around a year without a club. There were brief spells with Farnborough Town, Aldershot Town and then Lewes, where he began to turn heads.

He was invited for a trial at Chelsea, where he trained with the first team under Guus Hiddink and scored on his debut for their second string.

The tricky wideman caught United’s eye, and along with fellow young recruit Stuart Findlay, he put pen to paper on a deal with the Magpies in the summer.

“It's helped a lot, playing non-league football. It's strengthened me in other areas where I was fairly weak, and it's given me experience of men's football, so I think I have the edge on a lot of players my age," he said upon his arrival.

“After all these years striving to become a professional player and being given the opportunity, I think I'll take it with both hands and do well. I'm very happy to be here.

“This is what I've been waiting for. Now I've been given the contract here, I just need to go all out and do everything I need to do, to train hard and see if I can get into the first team, hopefully.”

He’s certainly made his presence felt for the under-23s this season. Driven to grasp his chance, El-Mhanni has added three goals to some dazzling displays on the wing so far, including a goal on his St. James’ Park bow in the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough in October.

“This is good, but not good enough - I need to do more,” he said after notching at the Leazes End.

“This is the first time I've been in a professional environment, so I really need to take it seriously and hold on to it, because this is what I've been dreaming of all my life. Now that I'm here, I really need to take this opportunity with both hands.”

That opportunity comes under the lights on Wednesday night. El-Mhanni will need no extra motivation to take it.

“This is the first time I've been in a professional environment, so I really need to take it seriously and hold on to it, because this is what I've been dreaming of all my life. Now that I'm here, I really need to take this opportunity with both hands.”

Yasin Ben El-Mhanni (speaking in October 2016)

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