When Sunderland signed Africa’s best player… but he left for Gaddafi

At the turn of the millennium, Patrick M’Boma reigned supreme as the king of African football.

Crowned African Footballer of the Year in 2000, the award capped off a dizzying 12 months in which he won the Africa Cup of Nations and Olympic gold with Cameroon while his goalscoring exploits for Cagliari had earned him a big-money move to Parma.

Though primarily a target man, M’Boma had scored goals from every angle at Cagliari, racking up 22 in 46 games. His goals varied from tidy close-range finishes to thunderbastard free kicks, while he had a particular penchant for spectacular diving headers.

Despite scoring eight goals across the AFCON and the Olympics in 2000, his most iconic strike for the Indomitable Lions came in October of that year during a 1-1 friendly draw with World Cup holders France.

From a Rory Delap-esque Pierre Wome long throw, M’Boma executed a near-perfect bicycle kick to bring the scores level and cap off a wonderful year for club and country. To quote Titanic, he was the “King of the World.”

Unfortunately, an iceberg was fast approaching.

Despite scoring twice on his Parma debut against AC Milan and adding another against Bari a week later, M’Boma would go on to add just two more goals to his Serie A tally that season.

A bust-up with coach Gidone Carmignani the following year saw him firmly out of favour and in need of an out with the World Cup fast approaching.

That was how he ended up at Sunderland.

Big Man, Little Man

Back in January 2002, Peter Reid was a man on a mission. Sunderland had secured successive seventh-place finishes in the Premier League’s two previous seasons, buoyed on by the dynamic ‘big man, little man’ strike partnership of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. But the magic was wearing off.

Quinn’s advancing years were beginning to take their toll with persistent back problems hindering the Black Cats’ goalscoring double act. Simply put: they needed a big man.

Unfortunately, Reid’s efforts to secure one had not gone well. French striker Lilian Laslandes had been recruited from Bordeaux for £3.6m in the summer of 2001 but had endured a less-than-vintage six months at the club, that included a run of 12 goalless Premier League games.

With Laslandes shipped off to Cologne on loan in early 2002, Reid was back on the hunt for a target man. It wasn’t going well.

A bid for Schalke’s Emile Mpenza was rejected while a deal for Dwight Yorke fell through on account of the forward’s exorbitant wage demands. Carsten Jancker and John Carew were also rumoured to be targets.

Eventually they settled for M’Boma who had been on AFCON duty with Cameroon earlier that month, scoring three goals, before a minor foot injury saw him sidelined for the rest of the tournament.

Seducing Peter Reid

Evidently eager to hedge his bets after the Laslandes debacle, Reid brought M’Boma in on loan with the deal including an option to make the switch permanent for £4 million the following summer. Not that M’Boma was sweating on it.

“I am confident about myself after the African Nations Cup, but I know it will be different here and harder,” he told the club’s official website. “First I will have to introduce myself to my team-mates and then seduce Peter Reid. After that, I hope things will be okay for me. I hope to stay for a number of years.”

Talk of seduction may have been a little premature, but one man who appeared smitten with the new arrival was Quinn. “I welcome Patrick’s arrival even though it could mean me missing out,” he told reporters.

“To have another striker, and one of his quality, on board is great as far as I’m concerned. It takes a bit of the pressure off… He has lots of technical ability but he’s also a very powerful striker, and I think the fans will take to him.”

Things didn’t get off to the best start, however, when M’Boma tried, unsuccessfully, to get No.70 on his back – a reference to the year of his birth. The Premier League rejected this request, with the Cameroonian instead opting for the far more sensible No.7.

Once he was on the pitch though, things soon improved.

Different Class

First impressions in football are everything. What’s often forgotten is that M’Boma made a surprisingly good one.

A first appearance coming on as a substitute in the Tyne-Wear derby may not have produced a goal but M’Boma earned the admiration of Sunderland fans, and a yellow card, thanks to a full-blooded tackle in the second half.

Handed a first start next time out against Tottenham, M’Boma then scored on his full debut to cancel out Gus Poyet’s opener after latching onto a Bernt Haas long ball before stroking the ball past the oncoming Neil Sullivan.

It might have been even better still, had referee Rob Styles spotted Dean Richards’ pulling the Cameroonian back in the second half with M’Boma bearing down on goal. Instead, the foul went unpunished and Spurs duly capitalised with Les Ferdinand bagging a winner.

• • • •

Seven of the PL’s greatest AFCON icons: Radebe, Gyan, Okocha…

• • • •

Even so, M’Boma continued to make the headlines on Wearside after putting in an all-action display in a crucial 1-0 victory over Bolton that ended a nine-game winless run.

M’Boma earned particular praise from Reid who revealed the striker had been playing through the pain of a back injury and some personal anguish having learned his best friend, Chievo star Jason Mayele, had died in a car crash.

“Patrick was different class for us. Some of the things he did with the ball were incredible,” Reid said after the game. “It was a very emotional night for him and I know he appreciated the reception he got when he came off.”

Score As Soon As Possible

After what had been a promising start to his Sunderland career, M’Boma appeared to be settling well.

“The Italians are used to saying they are the best and that they know everything about football,” he said. “The Premiership is far more exciting, especially for a striker. I’ve only started one game so far at the Stadium of Light but the crowd was over 40,000 and the atmosphere was tremendous.”

“I’ve scored one goal for the club but I want to score at the Stadium of Light as soon as possible,” he declared, evidently confident of making good on that promise.

Yet there would never be any goal at the Stadium of Light or any other Premier League ground for that matter. Though M’Boma impressed next time out against Chelsea, he could do little to prevent his side from losing 4-0.

Incredibly, that would prove to be the last time he ever completed 90 minutes in the Premier League with a series of injuries restricting the striker to limited playing time.

An Achilles tendon problem proved especially difficult to shake off affecting both his mobility and ability to strike the ball while M’Boma undoubtedly struggled with being away from his wife and family – including a two-month-old son. Whatever the truth, the reality was that the goals simply did not flow.

He went on to make just five more appearances with Reid claiming part of the issue was that “Patrick didn’t seem to like the cold wind up in the North East.”

Evidently no longer viewed as Quinn’s heir apparent, the final nail in M’Boma’s red and white coffin came on the final day of the season. Needing to either win or draw against already relegated Derby to stay up, Reid opted to start Quinn ahead of M’Boma.

When the Cameroonian did come on, with 15 minutes to go and the game poised at 1-1, he did little to suggest Reid had been wrong to leave him out. The manager later confirmed the club would not be exercising their option to buy.

“He scored one goal for us against Tottenham, but he had a lot of injuries,” Reid said. “He just didn’t do a job for us and I think I will be leaving that one alone.”

Relegation and the Gaddafis

The following season Reid went in search of another big man to play alongside Phillips and found him in Rangers striker Tore Andre Flo. Unfortunately, the goals did not, er, flow, and Reid was duly sacked with Sunderland relegated.

M’Boma went on to score against Ireland at the World Cup earning some modicum of revenge against the Republic’s Sunderland contingent, but Cameroon ultimately exited at the group phase.

In truth, M’Boma’s club career never recovered from his Sunderland sojourn, though matters were hardly helped when M’Boma forewent several offers from big clubs to join Al-Ittihad Tripoli in Libya on what was supposed to be a bumper contract. To the surprise of precisely no one, it didn’t work out.

“It was one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, who contacted me,” he later told L’Equipe. “The adventure was enticing on paper and for my finances, but it was a real nightmare, I was not paid for months… in the end we ran out of money.”

Eventually departing for a final stint in Japan, M’Boma never did succeed in seducing Peter Reid, or replacing Niall Quinn. Like so many before and since, his love affair with Sunderland burned brightly but all too briefly.

By Jack Beresford

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