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Mohammed Salisu: Southampton’s Diamond in the Rough

Mohammed Salisu - Southampton FC

On August 12th 2020, Southampton signed center back Mohammed Salisu from La Liga side Real Valladolid for fee worth 10.9m, triggering his buyout clause.

At that point, many fans were not familiar with his name. Several even voiced concerns on whether he possessed the ability or the mentality to make it in the Premier League.

Let this article show you that Mohammed has not had a easy, spoon-fed journey to becoming professional. With a mix of talent, hard-work, determination, and a little bit of fortune, he is the player he is today, and will soon be playing in the Premier League. This is the story of Mohammed Salisu.

Humble Beginnings

Born Mohammed Salisu Abdul Karim in Kumasi, Ghana (wrongly claimed by many sources to be Accra, Ghana), he grew up having a love for football. Often, he would skip school to play football with his friends, much to the consternation of his mother. Once, when his mother even ripped his boosts. She was not the most supportive of his passion and wished he would focus more on his education, as any parent would.

Mohammed started out on his footballing journey when he joined local academy, West African Football Academy (WAFA), at the age of 13.

It was difficult for Mohammed, as he surmised in his own words.

It was not easy. At the time many wanted to join this academy, because they travelled with the players a lot.

In Ghana, we have good players, but the chances [they get] is small, like you don’t get someone who will travel with you, and the visas were very difficult.

It was very tough, because I was alone, I didn’t know anyone when I went to training. Then sometimes, I used to miss my family a lot.

Mohammed Salisu, in an interview with Real Valladolid in 2019

Two and a half years later, he left after having personal issues with the academy. Mohammed describes the one year period after as very difficult, but a good relationship with his old team manager resulted him in meeting Fran Castano, the Director of the now-renowned African Talent Football Academy, who offered him a trial in April 2017.

Mohammed showed up on the day, but for some reason he was not able to acquire boots for the trial, and ended up having to borrow a goalkeeper’s boots (which were oversized anyway). In addition, he arrived at the trial late. Castano even told the manager that he wasn’t sure Mohammed was serious, because what kind of serious player would arrive late for a trial, and without boots?

Yet, what Castano saw that day from Mohammed must have been phenomenal, as after 10 minutes of play he was pulled aside by Castano, and told that he would support Mohammed in his journey. Mohammed, of course, duly accepted, and after returning home to Kumasi for a talk with mother, who had finally decided to support her son’s dream, Mohammed returned to Accra, this time as an new student in the African Football Talent Academy.

African Football Talent Academy (AFTA)

The Academy had just began operations on March in that year, founded by Castano, but already it had ambitious objectives and goals, which was to develop talents prepare them for a future move to Europa once they come of age. This preparation included things such as language, training, nutrition and accommodation. Castano later commented about the state of football talent development in Ghana.

“I had been working in Africa for five years and even managed to bring a player to Europe with the help of an agent. I realised that the boys were good, they had a lot of talent but their preparation was very poor. They needed better training, better nutrition and many other things too.”

“I noticed that in Ghana, in any part of the country, even in the smallest town, there can be a great player that nobody has seen or given the opportunity.”

Fran Castano, in an interview in 2020

Fran Castano would prove to be a key catalyst in Mohammed’s development. Mohammed himself has expressed overwhelming gratitude for the great influence Castano and the academy had upon his development.

“I really appreciate what Fran [Castano] did for me and everything. Those who helped me from the beginning, because when I first came I made a lot of mistakes, so they [taught] me a lot, they [helped] me. I’m really thankful to them.”
Mohammed Salisu in 2019

His rapid development meant that in October that same year, he was sent over to Spain to sign for La Liga side Real Valladolid.

Adapting to Europe – “Poca Poco, I got used to it”
As expected, Mohammed at first struggled with how different things were in Europe.

In my first training, I found it very difficult, because of [the] weather, and the environment was very difficult from Ghana.

But , a little bit, like poca poco, I got used to it.

Mohammed Salisu

And got used to it, he did. He went on to have a starring role for the Valladolid reserves, playing 39 games and scoring 1 goal. His impressive performance led him to begin training with the first team.

Castano himself told Mohammed at the beginning of his Valladolid spell that in “1 or 2 years, [Mohammed] would make the first team”. The young man didn’t believe him, but just like Castano’s first impression of Mohammed in that first trial, he was spot on.

He made his first-team debut in January 2019 in a Copa-del-Rey match, less than two years after joining the club’s reserves, when he was just 19.

He started both legs of the tie, where Valladolid crashed out 2-1 on aggregate. Still, he impressed in both showings, as the events that followed indicated.

Breakout Season

In the following season (18/19), first choice center back Fernando Calero departed the club for RCD Espanyol. Two more injuries to Javi Sanchez and Federico Barba meant that it was Mohammed who was entrusted by manager Sergio Gonzalez to start alongside stalwart Kiko Olivas in the opening match.

A string of fine performances, including a win against Betis, a draw against Real Madrid and an impressive shutout against Atletico Madrid propelled him to stardom amongst the Spanish press.

Mohammed finished his debut first team season on 32 games, scoring 1 goal. He recorded 154 clearances in the league, the third highest.

Naturally, Mohammed’s value quickly rose, from 250,000 at the season’s inception to up to a staggering 10m eight months later, according to Transfrmarkt. As such, many big clubs like Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Manchester United, came circling with enquiries.

Among the many links, two serious suitors came up; French side Rennes and English side Southampton. While Rennes were the favorites according to several outlets, Mohammed decided to join Southampton, for three key reasons

  • He wants to play Premier League football
  • Prefers to not have to learn a new language (French)
  • the favorable terms of the contract

After weeks of speculation, fan hype and persistent links, Martin Semmens (CEO of Southampton FC) confirmed the concrete interest in an interview with Solent Sport in July 27.

“[The Salisu links] probably has a bit more truth to it. It has been very clearly documented, to my surprise, exactly what has been happening.”

“He is a player we have looked at for a long time, a really high-quality young player in Europe who would really add something to our squad.”

“We are in a process and we hope that we are lucky enough to get him.”

Martin Semmen to Radio Solent

And finally, the inevitable happened, and the Saints social media team did NOT disappoint.

And what for the future?

Salisu had some words in his first interview.

It is a very good feeling to be a Southampton player. I am very happy to be part of the club and I am looking forward to starting here.

Southampton is a club with a very rich history in developing young players, so it is a very good club for me to develop my skills and to learn a lot as a young player.

I know that the team expects a lot from me and I’m going to try to give all I can to help the team.

Mohammed Salisu in his first interview with Southampton FC

The boy from Kumasi skipping school to play football has worked hard and beaten the odds, is now going to play in the best league in the world!

Article by @markssaintsblog

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