The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk. It would make a great Christmas gift for a non-league friend or relation!
‘International Man of Mystery’ – Number Two
After the story of Rob Gier, the former Grays Athletic defender, turned international globe-trotter and international footballer, which was published in our Cheshunt programme on 4 November, we now turn our attention to another non-league ‘International Man of Mystery’.
There are many sounds that accompany non-league football. You could hear plenty of them tonight. The clunk and clang of an elderly turnstile [Asst Editor – remember Mill Field……..and the Rec?]. The sizzle of burgers on a griddle. The distorted voice of the loudspeaker, rendering the diligently compiled team announcements unintelligible. The collective grumble of the crowd: ‘What did he say…?’ [Asst Editor – sorry guys – that even happens at the fantastic new Parkside Stadium!].
Welcome to the poetically named Draycott Engineering Loop Meadow Stadium, home to Didcot Town of the Evo-Stik Southern League Division One South & West. A dry, chilly Tuesday night draws supporters like moths to the floodlights’ flame. Tonight, the light jacket of summer has been swapped for something a little more insulating and the consumption of hot, sweet tea is mandatory.
This is midweek non-league football as it’s always been – unvarnished, unsanitised and a million miles from the posturing and preening of the Champions League. Indeed, when the half-time scores are called out, we are updated on how the unglamorous likes of Tiverton Town, Swindon Supermarine and AFC Totton are faring. They keep to their own round here.
The majority of the Loop Meadow crowd are men on the cusp of, or well into pensionable age. For decades, most will have spent their Tuesday nights and their Saturday afternoons, right here. Tonight, we get plenty of on-pitch entertainment. Eight goals for our nine quid, with Didcot claiming five of them. I miss at least three, though, as tonight I only have eyes for one man – the visitors’ holding midfielder with the freshly shorn mohawk. The blue number four is another international playing in the Thames Valley at a level markedly below his natural talent.
Sam Bangura, of Marlow and Sierra Leone, moves across the turf with the assurance and composure of a player who’s had time and care invested in him. Like Rob Gier, Bangura was picked up in his early years of secondary school by a Premier League club – Chelsea. He was released without once getting close to the first team. He’s one of three ex-Premier League academy players on duty tonight; the other two spent their formative years at Southampton. All three stand out among the usual, more workman-like fare of the pyramid’s eighth tier [Asst Editor – remember that when you are watching our eighth tier tussle with today’s visitors, Mildenhall Town].
Bangura is impressive in a quiet, undemonstrative way, neat and tidy in the tackle, but also given licence to spray the occasional Hoddle-esque, defence-splitting ball. He’s only twenty and tonight is a long way from the national stadium in near-equatorial Freetown to the chill of a modest ground sponsored by a local engineering firm, where the lights in the gents aren’t working and where there’s a cement mixer parked behind one of the goals.
After Marlow’s 5-3 defeat, Bangura explains how he got here. He was eight years old when his father moved the family over from war-ravaged Sierra Leone in 2003. Growing up in peaceful Reading, young Sam became as football-obsessed as his classmates. ‘I had to join in,’ he says. ‘I picked up the game quite quickly and joined a local team within two or three months. I got signed by Chelsea when I went to secondary school at eleven. A Reading scout was watching me at the time, but someone from Chelsea came to watch me. My manager said, “Reading have come to see you”. I thought Reading was just another Sunday team.’ They weren’t. Reading had just been promoted to the Premier League.
‘Two days later, I went to Reading to play a trial and Chelsea were there again. They spoke to my parents and I joined their academy and went there three days a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and on Saturdays. They slowly move you up the system. You miss one day of school. Then you miss two days. Then you start going to school up there.’
Despite the obvious cachet of being part of the chosen few at one of Europe’s most successful teams so far this century, Chelsea’s academy has proved to be a graveyard of ambition during the Roman Abramovich reign [Asst Editor – like every other Premier League club and some further down the Professional Leagues]. Upgraded in 2005 at a reported cost of £30 million, with annual running costs of around £8 million – it simply hasn’t delivered. Or, more precisely, it hasn’t been allowed to deliver.
The cheque book wins the day at Chelsea. No-one is patient enough to turn graduate into superstar, especially when superstars are readily available for a fee comfortably covered by the loose change found down a Russian oligarch’s sofa. The academy’s last great success was all the way back with John Terry. The only recent graduate to become a fixture of the first team squad (but not the starting X1) has been the perpetual bench-warmer Ruben Loftus-Cheek [Asst Editor – at least his loan to Crystal Palace has brought him first-team football and now a full England international cap].
In 2014, after eight years at the club, Bangura was released. ‘It’s tough, but you are made aware. The coaches will say “Only one of you in this team will make it. Maybe none of you will.” Most of those drift on to League One or Two or non-league football, if they’re still in the game at all.’ Their talent stifled, their hopes extinguished, these young lads become landfill.
The process of moving on was made easier for Bangura thanks to the call-up by the Sierra Leone FA, just as he was saying farewell to Stamford Bridge. The team boss – a twenty something Ulsterman called Johnny McKinstry – had, as boss of the Sierra Leone under-21s, seen Bangura play at a tournament in Wales with the Chelsea academy. On his promotion to managing the national side, he made the call to Bangura, who was soon on his way back to the city of his birth and the prospect, after years of playing scarcely attended youth matches, of walking into the cauldron of the national stadium in Freetown.
‘On the way to my first game in Tunisia, every shop was closed and the streets were packed. Everyone was following the coach, making noise all the way. It took us about half an hour to get off the coach as the little tunnel where they park was full.’ Bangura doesn’t need me to contrast this with the quiet residential streets surrounding the Loop Meadow.
Addressed by the president of the Sierra Leone FA in the dressing room, the fear factor didn’t dissolve once Bangura was in his natural environment of the pitch. ‘It was scary at first. I didn’t know what to expect. But it makes you want to play more. You work harder with so many people watching. We were all fighting for a place in the team, trying to impress the new boss and the country, as was he. We all had something to prove. It all worked out.’
An away match against Cape Verde followed three days later, but of late things have been quieter for Bangura on the international front. A player without a club is hard to pick for his country. An international player with eight years’ experience at Chelsea tends to attract attention, not to mention a pressure to dominate matches at the eighth level of the game. ‘It’s all eyes on you from the coaches and the players. You can’t put a foot wrong.’
Bangura’s LinkedIn profile – a particularly twenty-first century method for a footballer to tout his wares – makes it clear that while he might be a regular in Marlow’s starting line-up, he’s ‘free to leave the club at any stage if the right opportunity comes along’. So what shape does ‘the right opportunity’ take?
‘I’d take it if it was at Conference South level. Or higher, of course. Mark, the manager at Marlow, has quite a few connections and gets quite a few people to come and watch me. I’m training at Wycombe twice a week at the moment, too. They’re happy with the way I play, but their worries were that I’d never played at men’s level. It was the Wycombe manager who advised me to go to non-league for experience. All that you learn at Chelsea doesn’t go out of the window… Well, to a certain degree it does.’
Every match for Marlow down here in the second tier of the Southern League, one infinitely more rough and tumble than those technically neat, but ultimately meaningless academy matches, is one small step towards gaining sufficient experience to satisfy the recruitment team at a team like Wycombe. While he waits for offers, Bangura has set this season aside to notch up game-time, to gather the kind of experience that gives League clubs no reason not to sign up for his services.
When he considers the trajectory of his career so far, does he regret that he listened to the overtures of Chelsea? Would he have had a greater chance of success if he’d signed for Reading instead? And what would his advice be to an eleven- or twelve-year-old in his position now? It appears that last question is more pertinent I realise. ‘My little brother’s at Reading at the moment and the Chelsea coach is trying to get him over. I’m trying to give him advice based on my experience there, so that he can make up his own mind. I’ll probably tell him to go with whatever he’s comfortable with. I’ve got a few friends at Reading and they’re complaining about not playing there either.’
And let’s not forget that, without the blue of Chelsea, Sam Bangura would never have had the opportunity to slip into the green on Sierra Leone.
Bangura’s first season in 2015-16, playing men’s football went well. Although Marlow struggled to maintain a presence in the top half of the table, Bangura was named as the club’s player of the season. He’s now looking forward to the 2016 pre-season divided between three league clubs, one of which could offer him a route back to the Premier League.
UPDATE FROM THE WANDERER
In the 2016-17 season, Marlow finished fourth and Bangura played in their play-off semi-final, but they lost 2-0 to Barton Rovers. In July 2017, Marlow made the following announcement on their website:
“Sam is about to start university, and it means he will be relocating, and won’t be in a position to continue to play for the club. Sam has been a tremendous squad member over the last couple of seasons, maintaining extremely high standards in training and on match days. I wish Sam all the best for the future”.
His last LinkedIn post a few months ago suggested he was still looking for a football move – “On the search for a new club, will play in any country, own a British passport, ready and available.”
Updated 09:27 - 7 Dec 2017 by GAFC News