To many of us the name Cherno Samba evokes memories of Championship Manager at the turn of the millennium. But behind the stats and flashing goal text is a tragic backstory and a man ready to share his story with the world in his newly released autobiography Cherno Samba: Still in the Game.
Samba was one of the highest rated strikers in youth football and a scrum of clubs battled for his signature. Despite being a Manchester United fan, it was Liverpool who had won Samba’s affection. “Liverpool showed more interest, more love. They showed me they wanted me more than Manchester United, Leeds and Arsenal. At the time Michael Owen was my idol, so it was actually very normal for me to pick Liverpool,” explains Samba.
If you were thinking it must have taken something pretty big for a Manchester United man to choose Liverpool – you would be right. “Michael Owen rang me when I was on the bus home from school,” he recalls. “I put him on loud speaker, he said to me it would be a privilege to play alongside you, we’ll look after you and it ticked all the boxes. I thought to myself ‘wow, if a legend like him will call you and persuade you to come to Liverpool, you’d be a stupid not to look into it!’”
Samba was convinced that his move to Liverpool was secured and was already dreaming of scoring goals in front of the Kop. It therefore came as a nasty shock when his Dad called him downstairs to tell him the deal was off. “I don’t know what happened actually! Everybody knew what was going on except me. My Dad called me down and he said I wasn’t going to Liverpool. I dropped to the floor and started crying like a little boy. I was only 15 and straight away I remember thinking if I do stay in football, all I care about is being secure financially and my family are secure financially.”
As well as representing England at every level up to Under 20, Samba played for Millwall and Plymouth as well as spells in Finland, Greece and Norway before retiring in 2015. So why has Samba chosen now as the time to tell his story?
“I wanted to get my story out there for two reasons. Firstly, it was eating me up about what has happened and writing the book helped get that frustration out. Secondly, it is to help the next generation of emerging talent to learn from my mistakes. The players, the coaches, agents, managers, anybody can learn what to do and what not to do to get to the top.”
Whilst Samba admits writing the book has been a great source of therapy for him, the story goes much deeper than a dream move falling through. The scars from the Liverpool deal were just the beginning of what was ahead. “I stopped playing football for 6 months, I wanted nothing to do with football,” Samba recalls. “My parents and my friends convinced me to go back to Millwall. I came back but I had already lost my appetite for the game, I was already damaged.”
A move to Cadiz in Spain followed in 2004 but it was here where things took a darker turn. Struggling with the weight of not fulfilling expectations, Samba sought a different resolution to the constant reminder of what had happened.
“My wages were good, the food was good, the weather was good but I just thought I had failed in my own country and I couldn’t stop thinking about the deal at Liverpool. I never recovered from that deal. I used to go in the physio room and take as many pills as I could. The constant sweats and nightmares were just too much. I wanted to end my whole life.”
“I kept everything in. Very chirpy, very outgoing. You wouldn’t know anything was wrong. I was very good at hiding it. It was the wrong thing to do. You need to speak to someone.”
I would say I was weak for not speaking out. I should have spoken to someone.”
Samba describes it as fate that a teammate who came to pick him up for training broke down his door to find him and essentially save his life by getting him medical assistance. When Samba awoke in the hospital, he knew it was time to find a way to move on from the fear of not fulfilling those expectations.
Whilst some of that expectation came from his profile on Championship Manager, Samba does not hold the game accountable for any increase in pressure.
“I hear my counterpart Freddy Adu hates it, he thinks it ruined his life! I disagree, if it wasn’t for FM there’s every chance I wouldn’t have been heard of! There’s no blame game, you are going to get distracted anyway and if you think FM distracted you, you are probably in the wrong game. It’s up to the individual to focus and embrace the distraction and be the best that you can be. If you feel this sort of thing distracts you then you are never going to reach your heights.”
For many of us, Samba lead the line on Championship Manager and plundered hundreds of goals and brought fictional silverware to our imaginary trophy cabinets. Mine is full to the brim. It’s enormously heartening to hear Samba recall tales of him picking himself and enjoying the same journey most of us have only been able to do with crafty use of the in game editor. Samba didn’t have to worry about any of that.
“Someone at Millwall came to me and said “have you heard of Championship Manager, you are unbelievable!” I love it, it’s part of me, to see people who get joy from picking me. What was good about me was you could get me for so cheap!”
Having become famous in some circles because of the ever popular management sim (including being upgraded to a next day delivery whilst buying an iPhone because the call operator was a CM fan), Samba fancies a shot at the real thing. Having already obtained his Level 1, Level 2, B License and A license he has set his ultimate goal as one day leading The Gambia to the African Nations Cup or the World Cup, as they have never qualified for either. In the short term though his focus is on Academy coaching where he can pass on his experience to young players just beginning their journey. “There’s not a better person who can teach these emerging talents what to do and what not to do. I’ve been there, done it and lived it so I want to coach these emerging talents this is the way to do it to get to the top. If I can help any youngsters avoid the pitfalls of the game, I will”
After all he’s been through, Samba can look back now with pride on a career that any aspiring footballer would be delighted with.
“I am very proud of what I have achieved because my two goals were I wanted to be a professional footballer and I wanted play for England. I’ve played 64 times for England and scored 36 goals. I’ve played in the Championship, one of the hardest leagues in the world. I’ve played in Spain. The expectation on me was so high at a young age it looks like a failure.
People were taking notice of me scoring goals. I was meant to win the World Cup in 2006 with England. Expectation was just high. I put pressure on myself.”
Does it bother him that the “Championship Manager” tag may follow him around forever?
“I’ll be 89 years old with a stick and if people come to me and say “Cherno, Championship Manager!?” I’ll say “yes that’s me son!””