By his own admission, Muhammadu Faal has encountered an arduous past year-and-a-half. His January 2020 move to Bolton Wanderers after a red-hot spell with Enfield Town meant a leap of four levels, from Isthmian Premier to League One. Following a brief taste of match action in the third tier, enter a pandemic, with a fractured foot later halting his progress after a promising pre-season.
Back to fitness, he would leave the then-League Two side on loan for the season, joining Barnet in the National League, a club there was arguably nobody more relieved than at the division’s absence of relegation for 2020/21. A tumultuous campaign to say the least brought a revolving door of managers and players alike, against the already-bleak backdrop of no matchday supporters and continued uncertainty for clubs.
Limited to six starts in his 22 appearances (scoring against FC Halifax Town in one of numerous heavy defeats for the Bees), his departure from his parent club was confirmed in May. It isn’t hard to understand how the 24-year-old could now be feeling the need to reset and rebuild – and reignite his undoubted potential. It is precisely why he has rejoined the club from which he vaulted into the EFL in such unstoppable form, and in the weekend’s league opener at Carshalton Atheltic, Mo struck twice in a 4-2 win. A man on a mission, he sees his League story as a firm case of ‘to be continued’…
Firstly Mo, how did rejoining Enfield come about, and what else was on the table in terms of your next move this summer?
I had options in the Conference, a few opportunities to go on trial, Scotland and then the League, but I just wanted to play regular football, and just be happy. Play for a manager that believes in me, because I’ve had a tough 18 months; mentally and physically it hasn’t been the easiest for me. I just wanted to go somewhere I could play my football, score goals and then hopefully push up the pyramid again.
The manager (Andy Leese) says you’ve committed to the club until December initially, was he the one to put the idea to you about coming back, or vice versa?
Yeah, he came to me, and initially, it was ‘just train, get some fitness and see how you are’. He had that talk with me, saying ‘come back to the club, get some goals in you and push up the pyramid again’. He said he knows the opportunities I had to stay in the Conference, but I feel like I need games, and I haven’t had that for the past year or so.
So, going back to last year, when you arrive at Bolton, before even the football, what was the whole experience of signing for a club like that like? When did you first hear they were interested?
I heard they were interested around early-December (2019); around that time, I had 20 goals or something like that. The assistant manager at the time (David Flitcroft), he got in contact with me, and it just happened pretty fast, to be honest. There were other clubs interested as well, I think they just got there first. It was a nice moment to sign for them. You don’t know how big they are until you get there. It was a privilege and an experience that I’m happy I got to go through, the whole process of signing, the fanfare and all that stuff.
✍️🏻 Confirmed. We are delighted to announce the signing of striker @madzfaal from @ETFCOfficial on an 18-month contract.
— Bolton Wanderers (@OfficialBWFC) January 6, 2020
When you go into that environment, either in training or around the place in general, what did you notice as the biggest changes?
I think the training every day, the professionalism from other players, just the day-to-day running of the place. I’ve been in a professional set-up before, so everything wasn’t too new to me.
There’s been quite a lot of players from non-league in recent times getting signed by League clubs, which is brilliant, but you see so many then let go by those same clubs not very far down the line, when there perhaps hasn’t been that much of a fair opportunity for them to make the transition. What would you say about your own experience in that regard?
I think with me, it was just a case of them being a bit more patient with me. The plan was to get me ready for the season after, because the adjustment from non-league and barely training, to training every day, it’s tough. I got that under my belt around a month in, then Corona hit, and that kind of killed me a little bit as well, but I came back to pre-season, I was really, really fit; I was one of the fittest at the club. I was training really well, had a good pre-season and scored, then I broke my foot. After that, I had to go out on loan to Barnet; it wasn’t really a move I wanted to make but I had to do it anyway, just to get games. That didn’t work out either. I guess if you look back at it, it was a case of probably being a bit mishandled. Like you said, you can move into a club, but because they haven’t invested that much into you, they’re not going to make sure that it works out. It’s probably one of those experiences that unfortunately I had to go through.
Such a disjointed, crazy season for a lot of clubs, but especially Barnet, with different managers and a flood of players. What was it like to be around day-to-day?
It was definitely a challenge, more so mentally. When I came into Barnet, just the experience that I had with Bolton, it was tough to forget that, and then you’re coming into Barnet, you’re hoping for new things, a better experience, and then you find an experience that was even worse, probably. Changing managers, there was no stability, no continuity for me, because one day I’m on the bench, one day I’m playing, then I’m out the squad. It was just tough to find rhythm and to find that confidence to get back to the levels that I know I can play at.
The mental side of it you mention, going to Bolton and then Barnet, was it difficult in the sense that you’re stepping up to that level and it’s in your mind that ‘I’ve got to prove that I belong here’?
The mental side was more how I was treated, not the football. The football side was probably the good thing, that you’re training every day, you’re doing what you love, because I love playing football, that’s all I want to do. I want to reach the highest levels and I still have that aspiration. By December, hopefully I’m going to be in the League again, because I know I’ve got the talent to do that. The mental challenge was just about being looked after, basically, and being invested in, and that’s what I think I’ll get from a place like Enfield. The place where you’re being loved, being believed in and being invested in. When you sign for a club like Bolton, you expect that they believe in you, they’re going to give you an opportunity to show what you can do, but it’s football at the end of the day.
Moving up north, and away from family and friends, how did you find it?
I liked it up north, to be fair. It was different, quiet, obviously it rains a lot! But I’m used to living away from home, so it wasn’t too bad. I had my family sometimes come up; not too often, but when they did, it was nice. It was just a chance to really focus on the football, so I guess if things were a bit different and I was given the opportunity to play, it might have been a bit better. If a team up north were to sign me again, I wouldn’t shy away from that opportunity.
#BWFC Squad Numbers
18 – Ethan Hamilton
19 – Muhammadu Faal
28 – Toto Nsiala
29 – George Thomason pic.twitter.com/lXDEKIeSWk
— BWFC Stats (@BWFCStats) January 11, 2020
Either at Bolton, Barnet or anywhere else you’ve been, have you had to sing when you joined the club?
Yeah, I had to sing at Bolton! I had to sing at Enfield. I didn’t do it at Barnet because the season was crazy, but I’ve done it everywhere else.
So when you’re going into Bolton, you don’t know the people there, some bigger names, was it extra daunting having to get up and sing? And what was the song?
Well, the players were really nice to me and they did try to look after me. The captain was really nice, Jason Lowe, and all the players, to be fair; knowing where I’d come from, they always tried to advise me and stuff like that. I think I sang Drake ‘Shot For Me’.
I thought you were going to say Mario ‘Let Me Love You’, like everyone in football seems to…
Yeah, they didn’t let anyone re-sing songs, so that one was taken pretty quickly!
Whereabouts have you grown up and which team did you support?
I’ve grown up in Hackney, so it’s not too far from Enfield, a 20-minute train journey. The team I supported was Liverpool.
Tell me about your African heritage and how central in your life that tends to be.
Yeah, I’m from Gambia. It’s definitely something that’s at the forefront of everything I do in life, because I’m Muslim as well, so I have big faith in Allah, and in the good times and bad times, that’s what keeps me strong. The tightness of my family, and the love and the peacefulness, it’s just nice to be in that community.
So is playing for Gambia before you finish your career something you’d really like to go and do?
Yeah, it was on the cards at Bolton, when I signed for them. It was on the cards when I was playing at Barnet as well, but I just needed the opportunity to do that. Hopefully in the future, I’ll have the opportunity to play for Gambia. I just need to play, and then I know that opportunity will come.
64 CAFC 2-4 ETFC – Calamity at the back for the hosts leaves Faal with the chance to slide home our 4th
— Enfield Town FC (@ETFCOfficial) August 14, 2021
Your time playing in Italy as a youngster, with L’Aquila, how does a move like that come about?
I was sleeping one day and my friend called me and said ‘do you wanna come and play a game?’ I think I’d just come out of the Boreham Wood academy set-up and I scored a hat-trick I think for Ryan FC, and there was an agent called Qayum Shakoor*; he’s kind of like family to me, he’s a really good guy. That’s the first time I met him, he saw me score a hat-trick, he took my number and then he watched me a few more times. He sent me on trial to L’Aquila, and after two days, they said they wanted me, so I signed. I think I scored about 18 goals there, made my first-team debut in Serie C at about 18, so that was a really good year for me.
*Qayum has featured on this site twice in the past, most recently in March 2020
What about life there, what was it like in terms of where you were living? How did being far from home at that age test you in a new way?
Because I was so young, I think I was more excited about the football and playing in a foreign land than thinking about the actual surroundings that I was in. That was the first time I encountered racism, though, in those times, from the opposition and fans. I think it did change me as a man; it made me see other sides of the world and how people think, how they interact and how they view Black people as well.
You touched on it earlier, in terms of what you need right now, but if we broaden it to your whole time in football so far, are you someone who responds best to being encouraged and appreciated by a manager, or can other approaches also work?
I’d love to play for any manager that just wants to believe in me. I do feel like I respond well to when a coach shows you love, puts an arm around you and believes in you, and tells you ‘go and do what you can do’. At the same time, I don’t mind a manager that wants to challenge me, as long as I know he believes in me and he’s allowing me to play.
Whether it’s strike partners, wingers, midfielders, have there been any teammates in particular that you’ve felt an extra strong understanding with on the pitch?
Mo Sagaf at Dagenham & Redbridge. He’s a very, very good friend of mine outside of football and we’ve known each other since we were 17. We play together a lot, we talk almost every day, so when I play football with him, he’s a midfielder, he knows the passes I like.
Away from football, we mentioned family and faith, is there anything else you enjoy or you’re currently involved in?
In the future, I want to do a lot of charity work outside of football. I’m putting plans in place hopefully in the next year or two to make that a thing, where we can help people in Gambia. I enjoy watching basketball. (Who’s your team?) The Lakers…and before anyone says anything, I’ve supported them since Kobe Bryant, when they were rubbish! I also like to read; I’m always up for understanding more about myself.
Finally, what are you wanting from football in the next year, the next few years? What do you also take away from the past year-and-a-half, more than anything?
What I want from football is to go back into the League and to show what I can do. I feel like that got taken away from me, and I want that opportunity again to show that I am at that level, and push even higher. I know I’ve got a good manager in Andy (Leese) and (assistant) Mario (Noto) to showcase my talents again, and hopefully, that next manager will believe in me the same way.
Interview by @chris_brookes