Cherno Samba was on the school bus when the call came. It was from a withheld number, but Samba answered, and recognised the voice on the other end of the phone instantly. It was the man from whom he had taken the English schoolboy scoring record, Liverpool and England star Michael Owen.
Samba recalls the day with genuine excitement in his voice, making it clear the memory is treasured, and only unwrapped at the right moments.
“It was electric, I’ll never forget it; all my mates were on the bus, they didn’t believe me! I had to put him on loudspeaker,” he tells Goal in an exclusive interview.
“I was saying, ‘I’m talking to Michael Owen, come on, be quiet!’ Everyone was just going absolutely mad and he was just going ‘you’re a good player’ and giving me advice, and when I came off the phone everyone was just jumping on me, shouting, ‘Oh my God, Michael Owen just called my mate, bruv!’
“It was something I’ll always cherish. They were really good times back then!”
Of course, Samba is best known for his Championship Manager avatar, his virtual self that reached the top of so many games on laptops in bedrooms across the country.
It is often forgotten that he was a pretty tidy player in real life too, scoring over 130 goals in just 32 games for St Joseph’s Academy’s school team in South London.
A move to Millwall seemingly confirmed what many computer players already knew: Samba was on his way to the top, and interest from the big boys of English football quickly followed.
He recalls: “It was Man United, Liverpool, Leeds and Arsenal that were interested and I went to all four clubs and, funnily enough, while I’m a United fan, I ended up loving Liverpool because when I went there, they made me feel very welcome and it was more of a family club.
“I just felt comfortable. Michael really helped me, he called me and said ‘You know, it’d be nice if you came here, we can play together’ and then that just sold the club to me and Gerard Houllier at the time was great, absolutely legendary, he made me feel very welcome.”
Liverpool made a bid of £2 million. It may seem like small change now, but the deal would have set Samba apart as one of the youngsters to watch in English football. Millwall, perhaps understandably, were reluctant to let him go.
“They put a bid in and obviously things didn’t work out because Millwall didn’t want me to go,” he explains. “They couldn’t agree payments or whatever, and then that’s why the deal collapsed.”
Owen wanted Samba at Liverpool, though, and so did Emile Heskey, who even pleaded with Samba not to take his place at Anfield.
“When I went back to Liverpool I spoke to Owen, I was in the changing room with them, with Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey as well, so I remember one incident,” he says.
“We were sitting in there and Heskey said to me, ‘It’d be good for you to come and play with us’ and I agreed.
“And he goes ‘Just make sure when you come, you don’t take my place!’
“And I told him ‘I will be taking your place, I want to be playing!’ It was tongue-in-cheek, at that age, so it was all good, it was banter, and I loved that.”
Transfers were far easier to arrange on Championship Manager. The collapse of the proposed move to Anfield led to something of a nomadic career, Samba playing for the likes of Malaga B, Plymouth Argyle, Wrexham, Finnish club Haka and Norwegian outfit FK Tønsberg.
He retired in 2015, capped at England youth levels between Under-16 and Under-20 age groups, before switching allegiance to Gambia, with whom he has won four caps.
He is now earning his coaching badges, along with former Chelsea duo Frank Lampard and Graeme Le Saux, and is writing a book about his career, in partnership with his representatives Tempus Sports Management.
He is, however, insistent that his real-life talents are often overlooked, reduced to pieces about Championship Manager mistakes, the players that never quite reached the top despite being tipped for stardom.
“It’s just obviously people who don’t know football,” he argues. “That’s why they overlook it. But people in the game, people that know football, I don’t think they overlook it, nor do the fans.
“It can be more singing praises to see what I’ve achieved and what I’ve done. It’s like the record I’ve still got; I took from Michael Owen when I was a schoolboy. It’s a big achievement. It can be overlooked sometimes and I don’t think it should be.”
Samba does not regret the way in which his career panned out, maintaining that he played at a “decent” level, but he readily admits that he struggled to step out of his avatar’s shadow, allowing the hype to get into his head.
However, he believes his experiences can serve as a warning to the youngsters he is now coaching at Spurs.
“I’ve been around so long, the reason for that is because I blew up really early, that’s all it is,” he reasons.
“I haven’t got any regrets, bar one. I wish I’d trained better and worked harder because it was my own fault.
“I was far above everyone else. If we had to do 10 training drills, I’d do five. And if we had to do weights, I’d do a few, I wouldn’t push myself as hard as I should have done because I believed I was better than everyone else.
“Part of it, I’ll take the blame for it. I’m a better person to help the next generation now.”
He adds: “At the end of the day you have your own mind and mental strength so things like that shouldn’t really affect you if you really want to gain something in the game or whatever.
“However, being young, at that time, yes, because you’re not mature enough, they get in your head. And then the pressure comes to you.
“People look at you – ‘He’s the best in the game, he’s the best in real life, he’s the best in the world’ – so therefore you always have to live on that status.”
Samba could never quite escape the fact that he was predicted to become 'the English Ronaldo', but he remains in football, and he is still dreaming.
Having scored his only senior international goal for Gambia, he hopes to take the country, one day, to the World Cup.
“My ultimate dream is to one day manage the Gambian National Team to the African Cup of Nations or the World Cup qualifiers and hopefully get in because Gambia has never qualified for either tournament,” he enthuses. “It’d be a dream to do that for them.”
Though he may not have lined up alongside Owen, Samba’s story is a remarkable one, and he continues to look to the future. Maybe one day, Samba will be a real-life Football Manager.