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For many football fans, simulation games such as ‘Football Manager’ and the cult classic ‘Championship Manager’ provide a degree of escapism and enjoyment that little else can offer. For those who have maintained a constant love affair with the games, spending endless hours slaving away at every edition, a select few real-life players have gained legendary status.
Tonton Zola Moukoko, a must-have for any side on Championship Manager 01/02, only ever actually made 73 appearances in senior football. Maxim Tsigalko, the Belarusian goal machine regularly bagged 50 goals per season in champ manager but in real life retired at 26 due to injury. Another name to add to this illustrious list? Cherno Samba.
Born in Banjul, the capital city of Gambia, Samba moved to the UK, initially Watford, when he was just six years old. Shortly after, his family moved to Peckham, South London. He displayed both passion and talent for football from a young age. Whilst attending St Joseph’s Academy in Blackheath, Samba is believed to have scored 132 goals in just 32 games – an average of over four goals per game.
Samba’s undeniable goal-scoring ability soon turned the heads of professional clubs, and by the age of fifteen, he became part of Millwall’s youth system. His hot streak continued for the Lions’ youth teams and interest soon arose from Manchester United and Liverpool, with the latter making numerous attempts to lure Samba to Anfield. A £2 million bid from Liverpool wasn’t enough for Millwall to part with their prized asset and the move broke down, leaving the youngster devastated. Ultimately, this was a setback Cherno sadly never recovered from.
Aged 19, Samba joined Spanish second division side, Cadiz. His three years in Bermondsey had come and gone without a senior appearance. However, his first season in Spain was spent on loan, at Malaga’s reserve side. Despite an impressive return of 11 goals in 18 appearances in Andalusia, his time in Spain came to an end after the 2005/06 season.
Samba’s next destination was a return to England, this time with then Championship side Plymouth Argyle. Manager Ian Holloway spoke fondly of Samba when he was signed initially. His first goal for The Pilgrims, and also his only ever goal in English League football, came on his debut. A late substitute against Coventry City at The Ricoh Arena, Samba opened his account with a pinpoint header, earning his side a 1-0 victory.
Despite his instant impact, he failed to establish a place in the starting eleven. During the 2007/08 season, Samba was sent on loan to Wrexham. A month later he returned, however, the disappointment of his flailing domestic career was overshadowed by a first international call up. Whilst he represented England at all age groups, he eventually opted to represent his native Gambia at senior level.
His international debut came in September 2008, in a World Cup Qualifier against Liberia. However, his lack of consistency at club level was soon reflected on the international stage, as he was capped just four times before eventually retiring from international duties in 2010. His only goal for The Scorpions came in January of that year, as he netted against Tunisia.
After his month-long loan spell in North Wales, Samba returned to Home Park. 18 months later, he signed for Finnish side FC Haka. Without a senior goal in almost two years, his career was in danger of sinking into the abyss. However, his inconsistency could be put down, in part at least, to a recurring injury which hampered him for the majority of his career, and eventually forced him into retirement in 2015.
In the final few years of his career, Samba went onto Greek side Panaelitikos, as well as Norweigan club FK Tonsberg. After struggling to find any success abroad, he ultimately returned to England and was then on trial at a host of different lower league and non-league clubs.
In July 2015, almost three years after his last contract in Norway had ended, Samba officially retired from professional football, citing a persistent injury as the reason for his career coming to an end.
While Samba’s real life career never reached the heights expected, he did flourish within the virtual world of Championship Manager 01/02. Creators of the game blessed him with generous attributes, believing he would become England’s next superstar. He could be snapped up on the cheap and blossomed into a world class striker within a few seasons. However, unlike his American equivalent, Freddy Adu, he openly embraces his cult hero status and loves bringing joy and fictional silverware to strangers around the world.
Whilst his career may have been an adventurous and exciting one, the promise he showed from such a young age will have left many gamers wondering what went wrong, and the fans of his many clubs wondering what could have been.