Cherno Samba: From England's hottest prospect to FK Tonsberg

The striker was tipped to set World Cup 2006 alight, before his career stalled and you can read more about him by purchasing Football Manager Stole My Life, available on August 10
Kenny Millar
Co-author of Football Manager Stole My Life

Negotiating a new mobile phone contract is a soul-destroying experience. You and the salesperson both make bullish, unrealistic demands, empty threats are made on both sides before the tedious face-off ends in a compromise. A chosen few manage to avoid the ordeal and a famous name comes in handy – like Cherno Samba.

You might not know who he is, but 10 years ago every major English club had the then 16-year-old on speed-dial, to the extent that one school bus journey home was interrupted by a phone call from Michael Owen encouraging the Millwall prospect to sign on at Liverpool.

Ten years on, the phone has stopped ringing and Cherno recently agreed a move to little-known Norwegian club FK Tonsberg. However, the very mention of his name still stirs the blood of fans of the Football Manager computer game series – who instantly recall the virtual reality heroics of the 2001/02 version’s must-buy striker.

Cherno explains: “My famous name’s been a good ice-breaker over the years. There can’t be too many people kicking about called Cherno Samba, so it’s always good fun when someone realises who I am, usually in a shop when I hand over my debit card.

“I phoned up to get an iPhone upgrade and the guy on the other end of the line went crazy, talking about what a legend I was for him in Championship Manager. Thankfully it got me a good deal! That kind of thing happens quite a lot.”

Still just 26, by this stage of his career Samba could reasonably have expected to have had a fleet of personal assistants sorting out trivial tasks like securing a new phone for him.

However, his tale is one of youthful naivety, missed opportunities and negative influences – an unfortunately common story of a talented young man having his head filled with empty promises.

Samba was born in Gambia and moved to London with his family at an early age. He first surged to prominence as a 13-year-old after netting 132 goals in 32 games for his boys’ club.

While the bigger clubs dithered, Millwall stepped in to secure the signature of a young man tapped to lead England’s assault on the 2006 World Cup.

He soared through the England youth international ranks and his bewildered family quickly grew accustomed to agents competing to get their hands on such a prized asset – with one offering them an instant lump sum of £25,000 for his signature.

A week-long trial at Liverpool saw Gerard Houllier personally intervene in a bid to force through a transfer, but Millwall refused to part with their prospect on the cheap – reportedly rejecting a £2 million bid. What teenager in those circumstances could hope to remain unaffected?

By his own admission, Cherno’s ego grew quicker than his goal tally and his progress stagnated. That big move never materialised and Millwall released him in 2004.

And so began a nomadic eight-year journey. Between countless unsuccessful training stints with clubs closer to home, he popped up in Spain, Finland and Greece before embarking on his latest adventure in Norway.

The travels have opened his mind and allowed him to mature into an articulate, impressive figure who still harbours hopes of making up for lost time on the biggest stage.

Upon signing for FK Tonsberg he reflected: “This is a perfect place for a fresh start – a place I can have fun with football again.

“Talent never disappears, but the mental and physical side of things must also be in place. I think that I shall find that here.”

Football Manager Stole My Life is published August 10 in paperback and across all digital formats by BackPage Press. It features articles and interviews about how the game takes over the lives of those who play it; the footballers whose international success has been predicted by the game and others whose careers have not been as stellar in real life. In a series of exclusive articles Kenny Millar (@Kenny_Millar) reveals the stories behind some of the greatest players you never saw.