Along the path to a successful professional football career, several significant people and moments will have played a part. Abdul Qayum Shakoor can most certainly lay claim to helping a number of players on their way. A familiar figure in the non-league game around East London and Essex, Shakoor recently left his role as manager of Waltham Forest amid changes in structure at the Essex Senior League club, and he shares his story here with Non-League Daily.
Football reaches out to every part of the world, however, when you are involved in the game, you realise how easy it is to become connected to others. I got involved in this whirlwind the best part of 20 years ago, back in 2001.
At this time, I remember spotting a young 13-year-old player in the Sunday League at Low Hall Farm. I knew several clubs around London and I contacted them to come along and watch him play for Ryan FC, whom I had invited him to come and play for at the time. The player was Rashid Kamara, who then went on and got a two-year deal with Arsenal from 14–16.
I am still in contact with Rashid (currently at VCD Athletic) and we have maintained a strong relationship. I remember back then, Rashid kept telling me about one of his school friends. I wanted to go and see what Rashid was on about, so I went along and had a look. The player was Fabrice Muamba, and after watching him play, I then recommended him to Arsenal. Fabrice’s career was famously cut short, but in that time he showed what a top player and class gentleman he was, and is.
Having been involved in recommending two players to Arsenal, my reputation was starting to grow. Around the same time, I met Trevor and Danny Bailey, who ran Interwood. They invited me to manage in a few 5-a-side tournaments for them, as well as in a match against a National Veterans Champions team. I remember some of the young lads we had on display there; Colin Kazim-Richards, Bradley Johnson, Rashid Kamara, Anton Smith. Colin was outstanding; even against grown adults who had all played at higher levels in their younger days. I remember thinking he could have been a (Steven) Gerrard type of player back then, albeit with even more skill at his feet.
Anton Smith is another great story. From managing him in a few tournaments, he then followed a path that saw him become a pro at Crystal Palace, as well as play abroad in Finland. Anton still works with me today and was my head coach at Waltham Forest, as well as having involvement with Reading.
“Welcome to England, you better get used to the rain.”
Things were developing quickly within the football world, and I was introduced to the agent that signed Dominic Shimmin at Arsenal. This agent also handled his subsequent transfer to QPR in 2005. Through this agent I also met another player called Ibrahim Mansaray, who was at Cardiff City at the time, but more on him later.
After Dominic and his agent split, Dominic needed assistance so I took it upon myself to contact clubs on his behalf. Davie Irons, who managed Greenock Morton at the time, was quite keen, so we arranged a trial for Dominic, Rashid and Alfie Kamara (another ex-Arsenal player). Davie signed Dominic, and Davie and I still keep in touch to this day.
In 2004, things were going well and I was increasingly receiving contacts from players and agents asking for some assistance. I was not working in football full-time, and I did have a career outside of the game, so it was challenging. But it is the sport I love, so I continued to do what I was doing.
Rashid knew the uncle of Alhassan Bangura, who had come over from Sierra Leone. Rashid introduced him to me, and Alhassan ended up playing his first game in English football for me, at Ryan FC. I remember the game vividly, with the rain lashing down and Al struggling to keep his balance on the muddy pitch, as he wasn’t wearing studs. Even then you could see the hunger and strength the lad possessed. When the game finished, I remember saying to him “welcome to England, you better get used to the rain.”
Alhassan and Rashid both went on to trial with Watford, and Alhassan was signed up, subsequently representing Watford in the Premier League.
With time, effort, and passion to help out young lads within the sport, my network continued to grow. Whereas previously my range was East London alone, I was soon able to cover both East and South London.
My working model is not restricted to certain areas or locations. Often, scouts tend to park up in so-called ‘hotbeds’ looking for football talent, but over the past five years or so, my model has been fluid. I have scouted players from everywhere; be it Saturday / Sunday football, right through to going to watch players at your local Powerleague Centre. One such player, D’Sean Theobalds, currently playing at Leatherhead, was introduced to me after a conversation with a double-glazing salesman who saw numerous footballs in my hallway and sparked up a conversation about how he was heavily involved with football charity work back in Brazil. He showed me videos of charity events he arranged with the legendary Romario and the Colombian national team. D’Sean had an interesting background, being a British lad that had been training as a kid in South America.
During this period, I was also managing the Ryan FC Under-23s, taking over after Christmas to help out Richard Williams, who is a good friend. Most of the players who we had access to were 15 or 16 years old at the time. When I took over, the team was rock-bottom of the league with a minus 60 goal difference. It was mathematically impossible to win the league, even if we won every remaining game! With hard work and quality, focused coaching, we managed to come 2nd in the league and we lost by one goal in the league cup final to the team who did the double.
I had obtained a lot of experience in grassroots football at this point. Even though I had seen, and worked alongside players that made it to the Premier League and their respective national teams, I saw something in this group of lads. In particular, Mohammed Ali Sagaf (now with Ipswich Under-23s) and Salim Nassor (playing in the Middle East) were probably two of the best players I had ever seen at this age group.
I was concerned for the boys, though; not only Mo and Salim, all of them. I had seen talent go to waste over the years, mainly because of the lack of opportunity, so I decided to take a huge gamble. I knew of a club in Spain looking for investment, so I took my inheritance money and used it to invest in Real Aviles (which was in Segunda B, the third tier, at the time), on the basis that these lads can have opportunities out there.
I took Mo and Salim out there, as well as Ibrahim Mansaray, some ten years after I first met him. Whilst out there, I met an English sports lawyer who had been instructed by the Spanish agents involved at the club to help with the legal paperwork. Needless to say, the investment unfortunately didn’t work out well, however the lawyer and I stuck up a strong friendship and working relationship immediately, something that we maintain to this day.
Like me, he wasn’t someone that simply dismissed players or recommendations, and we had a synergy on how we saw football as a sport and as an industry. He knew a lot of the clubs in England through his legal relationships with them, so we began working on projects to organise trial games. In one such game, we had a ‘Ryan FC Select’ go up to Fleetwood Town and play against their development squad. We won 1-0, and six of those lads were offered deals in Italy through the lawyer’s contacts. Those six were Mo, Salim, Muhammadu Faal (now Dulwich Hamlet), Devonate Roberts, Asher Modeste (was with me at Watham Forest) and Paulius Ditkevicius, who went on to represent Lithuania’s Under-21 team last year in the European Qualifiers.
“Jimmy Bullard called me ‘the Harry Redknapp of non-league football’ as I knew so many quality players in non-league.”
I started last season managing the Leatherhead Under-23s, after having beaten the first team in a pre-season friendly with a lot of our younger lads. Once Jimmy Bullard was appointed as the manager, we re-arranged a friendly between my lads and the first team. During this match, Jimmy liked a few of the players, and signed D’Sean.
I subsequently introduced Mo, Nana (Boakye-Yiadom, now Dulwich Hamlet), Yannis Ambroisine (now Whitehawk) and Salvyn Kisitu; all of whom Jimmy liked. They all joined the first team. The chairman and Jimmy were so impressed that they invited me to take over as the head of recruitment. This meant me leaving my role as the Under-23s coach, but it still led to moments of great pride. At one point during the season, I had as many as ten players in the first-team squad.
Jimmy Bullard called me ‘the Harry Redknapp of non-league football’ as I knew so many quality players in non-league.
We shouldn’t forget a lot of these lads would not have had the visibility otherwise. It would have been a shame to see such talent go unnoticed, so it was great that these players were getting into the spotlight, especially when Leatherhead beat the expensively-assembled Billericay Town last season, and posted that now world-famous celebration video online!
Looking back at the recommendation of D’Sean, I know dozens of people that would dismiss such stories or such recommendations, but I was always fascinated. The British kid that was training in South America, recommended to me by a double-glazing salesman; it is easy to put this aside as nonsense, but something drove me towards investigating this further. I always wanted to look deeper when I received a recommendation, to see what the excitement was about. Of course, most recommendations do not come to much, however I believe all of the players deserve a chance. It is wrong to dismiss them out of hand.
During my time with Leatherhead, I heard of a situation that was taking place at Waltham Forest. In January 2017, the whole squad left when the manager had moved to Ware. I was asked to step in as the joint-manager by Turgut Esendagli (former Chairman of Waltham Forest), who sadly passed away late last year. We managed to achieve a top-half finish with a newly-assembled squad, and we had reached a cup final (we were unable to take part due to an administrative error with a player not being registered correctly).
It was a challenge, however, to retain players such as Mo, Salim, Muhammadu, Nana and D’Sean without being able to offer any salary whatsoever, however, I am pleased to be able to say that I assisted in the development and progression of many of these young lads.
We arranged a match against Ipswich Under-23s to fill a fixture request, with 24 hours’ notice. We managed to go in and beat their U23s, and this is what led to Mo being called back initially, as well as him still being there now.
“Far too many scouts and agents jump from player to player, seeking ‘quick money.’”
In addition to Mo, we have Arjanit Krasniqi at Colchester United, Salim is playing abroad, Nana and Muhammadu are at Dulwich Hamlet, Rashid is at VCD, Michael Bemwin is in Cyprus (to obtain some game time, upon request of Hamburg), Salif Konate is in Italy and Nathan Okoye went to Crawley. These are just the fruits of this season.
Michael and Salif I have managed and advised but I won’t lie and say I played a direct hand in them going to Cyprus and Italy. They achieved that via agents but I still stay in regular touch with them. Advise them and look out for them.
I have learned that maintaining honesty, transparency, and keeping strong relationships is all hugely important in this game. I maintain my relationships with those I have met over the years, and have positive contact with several clubs in the non-league including Barking, Hornchurch and Greenwich, in addition to some of the others mentioned. Furthermore, over the years I have gotten to know several people in the professional game, so I can call on clubs when I see a player that could really break through.
Ibrahim Mansaray is in Denmark at the moment, so he still sends players over to me, too, including Simon Bloch, who had signed for Accrington Stanley earlier in the season before deciding to return home.
I have had some amazing experiences in the lower leagues, from my work with Ryan FC, to Leatherhead, through to our amazing achievements with Waltham Forest with absolutely no budget. It was a shame that we were not able to finish the season at Waltham Forest, having been one of the form teams in the past couple of months, with such a young squad. Despite the team having struggled to maintain that momentum, I hope that it is able to turn its fortunes around soon.
In conclusion, I have built up years and years of contacts, and more importantly, kept in touch with the more humble, polite footballers. Attitude on and off the field is paramount, and this is something I always stress. I have placed my faith in the youth and have seen some rise to the challenge and become stars. We currently have another crop that I believe could do the same. However, none of this would be possible without perseverance. Far too many scouts and agents jump from player to player, seeking ‘quick money’. My vision is to always put the player first, and fortunately, this has led to a lot of young lads earning their keep from the game. I look forward to continue doing so, for the next 20 years, maybe.
With the contacts and success that Qayum has demonstrated for many years, Waltham Forest’s loss could well be another team’s gain.