Football News: Champ Man Legends: No 1 - Cherno Samba

 

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Champ Man Legends: No 1 - Cherno Samba
Image from: inews.co.uk

Cherno Samba Championship Manager 2001-02 Edition Legend


Samba is not the first Champ Man legend, that honour goes to Nii Lamptey, but he is probably the best known of all, at least in England. In the game Cherno becomes a great who can lead your club side to glory and even score the goals to win England trophies. That alone should have told people it was never going to happen! The game starts with him as a youngster at Millwall on the verge of a breakthrough, available to buy cheaply and ready to jump straight into your first team and score goals. Lots and lots of goals.

Real life was a totally different story for the son of a Gambian international goalkeeper, though he did manage to have a short international career for Gambia. In 2001 he was backpage headlines in England as he got called up for the England U16s aged just 13, with 132 goals in 32 games for his school team he was a national sensation. That attracted the attention of the big clubs as well as numerous agents, who would give their cards to Cherno to give to his dad, they would phone his school and bombarded his dad's phone so much he had to change his number twice.

His father, Al-Hajie, admits that the temptation of money did begin to get to him, with him working as a chef for £1,000 a month and agents offering him as much as £25,000 just to be given the chance to represent Cherno. However, despite the temptation, Al-Hajie looked to someone he knew and trusted to be Cherno's agent in Harry Gebber, who had been involved with coaching him since he was 9 years old. Gebber, who had a job on Millwall's coaching staff, convinced Cherno to train with the club.



Cherno admits that the attention was going to his head, with even then-Millwall chairman, Theo Paphitis, saying "there isn't anyone comparable with him," in 2000. "There were many agents trying to get me," Cherno later said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. "They were ringing my school and turning up at my house. They tried to bribe me by offering me gifts and money. I was the most wanted kid in England at 14 and I became arrogant with it. I thought 'I've made it, I'm the best player in the world and no one can talk to me.'"

At this point it was time for Cherno to sign schoolboy forms but he was not keen on staying at Millwall because, as his dad put it, "my son was going to be a star." With interest being shown in him from a number of top flight clubs, including Manchester United and Liverpool, Millwall reluctantly agreed to allow him to tour prospective clubs with a view to joining them. However they warned that they would be demanding compensation from any club that he joined.

Cherno spoke to and visited a number of clubs over the next few weeks but it was a phone call he received just after a week long trial with Liverpool that helped him make his mind up. Cherno was sat on the bus coming home from school with his friends when his mobile phone began to ring. It was Michael Owen on the other end, calling him in front of all of his friends to tell him to join Liverpool because it is a great club and that he, Owen, would love to play alongside Cherno. Despite being a Man Utd supporter, that call convinced the teenager that Liverpool wanted him more and he decided to sign for them.

However, Millwall decided they did not want to play ball and rejected a £2m+ offer for Cherno from Liverpool. The South London club put the blame at the feet of the player's representatives but Mel Stein, the sports lawyer that had been asked to broker the deal, rejects that notion. Stein claims that Millwall just refused to name any kind of price and wanted to force it to a tribunal, knowing that they could potentially get a huge sum for him there. Liverpool were unwilling to take the risk and the move broke down.



Millwall were desperate to hang on to Samba and agreed a contract where he was guaranteed a professional first team contract when he turned 17. A 14 year old academy player being guaranteed a contract was against their policy but the club wanted him to stay and those were his demands. This was despite him admitting he had lost his love for the game following the breakdown of the move to Liverpool. In the end, he took a 6 month break from football to recover, claiming he felt tortured and wanted to quit football at the time.



At 14 he was playing for the under-17 side, at 17, when he got his professional contract, he was still playing for the under-17s. Youth academy director Nicky Milo questioned his desire saying, "he may have wasted his first two years with the club. People had overtaken him in terms of physique, development and commitment." He was still in the England set up playing alongside the likes of Glen Johnson, Darren Bent and David Bentley, after being pushed ahead of Wayne Rooney and Wayne Routledge, who were both in his age group.

Cherno was now finding the attention from the game was an issue with lots of the players talking about it: "I remember David Bentley saying to me: 'Bloody hell, I can't afford you. You need to lower your wage demands.' I used to have a laugh with him about it." It was starting to go to his head, having a Nike endorsement contract and also the cash to buy a brand new car outright in the dealership, it is enough to affect any young lad of 17 having it all handed to him like that. It was little wonder that it started to go wrong at this point.

There was no first team football at Millwall and he was eventually released in 2004 without making a single appearance. With little interest in him in England he signed a 4 year development contract with Cadiz in Spain, where he felt he was just beginning to get to grips with things when an old injury flared up, a knee meniscus tear. It required surgery and he was loaned to Malaga B for the 2005-6 season to recover his fitness and form. That was probably the point he was playing his best football and he made 18 appearances, scoring 11 goals.



Again there was a setback as his then-pregnant wife suffered badly with homesickness and he returned to England where Ian Holloway, then managing Plymouth Argyle in the Championship stepped in to pick him up on a free 31st August 2006. With a 2 year contract in his pocket Samba finally got his chance in English football and made his first ever Football League appearance a month later on 30th September 2006, when he replaced Reuben Reid in the 74th minute at the Ricoh Arena in a game against Coventry City. Just 8 minutes later Samba scored what would turn out to be the only goal of the game.

It was like all the best Champ Man stories, scoring the winner on his debut, but it was the highlight of his Plymouth career. Again the game did not help, Cherno remembering one time in training with Argyle he shot well wide and veteran striker Barry Hayles saying, "f**king hell, Cherno. That's not why I bought you in Championship Manager." He was now at the point where he just pretended not to play the game to stop people talking about it to him constantly.

His debut goal turned out to be the only one he managed to score for Plymouth, who sent him on a month's loan to Wrexham in the January, with the Welsh side having an option to extend the loan to the end of the season. They sent him back after the month was up and he had made just 3 appearances for them, without scoring. Plymouth released him at the end of his contract in the summer of 2008 and he signed an 18 month deal with FC Haka of Finland.

Bizarrely it was at this point that he got his first call up for Gambia, for their qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He made his Gambia debut as a late substitute on 6th September 2008 and made 3 more appearances for his national side, scoring his one and only international goal in a friendly v Tunisia in 2010. Gambia did select him for their 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers but Cherno dropped out of the squad, meaning his entire international career was 4 appearances and 1 goal for Gambia.

Samba's time in Finland was as fruitless as the rest of his career and he was back in England in 2009 taking trials with clubs including Norwich City and Portsmouth. With no takers for the one time 'wunderkind' in England he signed a 2 year contract with Greek 2nd Division team Panetalikos in the February 2010. Sadly even the Greek 2nd Division proved to be beyond him and he failed to make a single first team appearance and was back in England in the summer of 2011, once more doing the rounds of teams on trial. This time he had lowered his sights and underwent trials at Conference sides Forest Green Rovers, Alfreton Town and Mansfield Town.

Once again there were no takers and he was once again off to play in the 2nd Division, this time in Norway for FK Tonsberg. It was a better spell there than his last few as he at least got 11 appearances and 3 goals but it was a long way from successful. In the end Cherno Samba, the Champ Man wonderkid, was forced to announce his retirement from playing due to injury in July 2015 to the shock of all who had played the game. Since then he has been working on his coaching badges, ironically enough he was doing his coaching hours with Liverpool for his A License. Talk about rubbing his nose in what could have been!

Written by Tris Burke



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