Finding Man Utd’s forgotten striker plucked from Gambia aged 17

Arthur Gomez grew up playing football in the purest form.

In the city of Banjul in Gambia, long before the days of satellite academies scattered around Africa, he watched Manchester United on television and took to the streets looking to emulate his heroes.

Gradually, street football was complemented by more organised games at high school.

Then, in the blink of an eye and after a remarkable turn of events, Gomez found himself wandering into Carrington to train amongst his heroes.

He was just a wide-eyed 16-year-old at the time, considered the next great hope of Gambian football.

The first player ever from the nation to join Manchester United, he lived the dream despite never making a first-team appearance before departing permanently in 2005.

This is his remarkable story…

Typically, it was a rainy day when Arthur Gomez first arrived at the Manchester United training ground as a trialist in July 2001.

Asked to initially train with the reserves, he had other ideas. He wanted to get a glimpse of the first-team in action.

“I was scheduled to train with the reserve team on my first day, but I went to Carrington a bit earlier than our normal time,” he says.

“The first-team was already training, so I went out to watch them train. I was standing a bit far from the pitch and it was raining, I remember being so cold.”

It was at that moment that he caught the attention of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson for the first time.

“Sir Alex Ferguson came over and gave me his jacket,” he explains. “He didn’t even know who I was at that time. That was my first encounter with him.

“After training I had to go into his office to give him back his jacket, and that was how I introduced myself.”

Gomez would go on to train with the first-team on some occasions once he joined the club permanently, rather than watching from afar.

It meant he rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in the sport at a time when Manchester United were the cream of the crop.

“I was starstruck, of course,” he recalls. “I was a kid from Africa coming to train with Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane, David Beckham, those kinds of players.

“It was unbelievable, it was a dream for me. I was starstruck but I just tried to do my job.

“It’s a bit of a blur, because it was a long time ago, but I remember working out with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the gym one day.

“I remember Darren Fletcher was my age. He was injured at the time, but he was already one of Sir Alex’s favourites.

“It was a bit tough in the beginning because that was my first time being away from home.

“Rio used to talk to us a lot, he used to try to make us feel at home all the time, laughing and joking with us. I remember he was a good guy.

“Sometimes you’d come back home after training and call friends or family members back home and they’d always ask, ‘did you really train with those guys’?

“It was a great experience, I can’t even explain it.”

Gomez’s journey to Manchester was a whirlwind.

Like most kids in Gambia, he grew up playing football on the streets before graduating to the school teams.

“Now, things have changed,” he says. “They have academies from a young age, they start trying to build things up from grassroots.

“But back in the day there was nothing like that back here. We just grew up playing street football.

“I started playing very young, then I went to elementary school, onto high school and I was playing there when I was scouted to play for the national teams.

“I played in every category, then I was promoted to the senior team before I even started my professional career.”

After impressing for Gambia Under-17s in a friendly with the senior team, he was fast-tracked to the national setup.

Within a matter of weeks, the 17-year-old Gomez was flown to Europe for a trial with Swedish side IFK Goteborg.

“There was a guy working with the senior team who saw me play against them and told the coach, ‘he needs to be promoted’,” he explains.

“When that happened, I had a few sessions and a few games with them. He had a few contacts with IFK Goteborg in Sweden, so he called them and told them about me.

“They arranged a trial for me to go to Sweden. When I went there, I had a successful trial but their laws meant they couldn’t sign a minor on a pro contract.

“They saw how good I was and they didn’t want me to go back to Gambia, so what they did was contact some different European teams.

“They spoke to a few clubs, recommended me to try and get me some trials. They got in touch with United, and that’s how I ended up there.”

Whilst Gomez would have always chosen to head to Old Trafford, it was not his only option.

A number of clubs offered him trials after getting word from Sweden of his talents – but the decision was largely taken out of his hands by the United-mad bosses at his Gambian club.

“I was playing in Gambia for Banjul Hawks, and the president and owner at the time, they were both die-hard Manchester United fans,” he states.

“When the offer came, I think it was optional and they had offers from a few other big European clubs, but they were always going to choose Manchester United for me.

“I was a United fan as well, so it was really exciting for everyone.”

When he arrived in England, the teenager instantly impressed, scoring 11 goals in just three trial matches including six against Wrexham.

Also playing in the game, taken under Gomez’ wing, was future Champions League winner Sulley Muntari.

“I was scoring almost a goal a game, but there was one particular game where I scored six in one game,” Gomez recalls.

“We played Wrexham I think it was, and Sully Muntari, the Ghanaian midfielder, played in that trial with me.

“I had already been there for a couple of weeks and he met me there. I was guiding him around at the time and eventually he went to Italy.”

At the conclusion of his trial, Gomez headed back to Gambia where news soon filtered through that he had done enough to earn a permanent deal.

Understandably, it was big news in a country not known for its football prowess.

“After I came back from England, I stayed in Gambia for a little bit because the process takes a while to finalise everything,” he recalls.

“I was back home when I found out I was getting the contract, and it was already written and in the news in England.

“People knew about it before it came to us in Gambia and it was big news for everyone. I was really excited.

“Gambia is not a big footballing nation in Africa. Having someone signing for one of the top clubs in the world, it was big and exciting news for everyone.”

With the paperwork finalised, Gomez returned to Manchester to begin his professional career, still just a teenager barely able to comprehend what had transpired.

After a few months with the reserves, occasionally training with the first-team, it was determined he would be sent to Antwerp on loan, a common move for United youngsters at the time.

But the experience did not work out with a combination of injuries and unrest making for a tough start to life in professional football.

“After I signed the contract, I was loaned to Antwerp,” he says. “The experience, in a footballing aspect, it wasn’t really successful because my time there I had a lot of injuries.

“In Antwerp, it wasn’t really a great setup, they weren’t really very professional and my first year I was there alone by myself.

“Even our wages were delayed by a week or two sometimes, and it wasn’t really a good experience on the footballing side.

“The team weren’t very happy and that was my first experience of senior football outside of Gambia, so it was hard.

“I made some friends who I’m still in touch with, but that’s the only positive thing I can really take from there.

“The problem was during those three years I was always injured. The time I played, if I was fit, I did score quite regularly but most of the time I was on the sidelines not playing.

“It was unfortunate that I didn’t play much in Antwerp. I never had any serious injuries but it was always little thing – a hamstring, an ankle.

“It was a tough first season of pro football because I was still learning what professional football was like.

“It was so different from Gambia, then I was getting injured all the time. I was unfortunate that whenever I had some games, I would get injured again.

“My second year I played a few more games, I was the top scorer in the team, which was a positive but in professional football you have to be consistent and be fortunate not to have injuries. Without that going your way, it’s going to be difficult.”

Gomez spent three seasons on loan at Antwerp, playing 44 league games and scoring 12 goals before being released by Manchester United in 2005.

After another year in Belgium, he joined China’s Red Devils , Henan Jianye, winning the second tier in 2006 to earn promotion to the top flight.

Unfortunately for the man once considered the future of Gambian football, injuries continued to take hold and he eventually admitted defeat by retiring from football several years ago.

He says: “After I left United I went to China, I played in China for a few seasons then I went back to Belgium because I was still only young.

“I had problems with both my achilles tendons, but with my age I thought I still had time to play a few more years and earn a bit more money.

“But things weren’t happening, it got more difficult and I ended up having to quit.

“I did some normal jobs in Belgium, stayed there for a while, and then I’ve come back to Gambia and it’s time to see what I’ll do next.”

Now aged 36, Gomez is back in Banjul where he has set up a football agency and academy with some friends in the city.

He hopes to use his experiences in Europe to help guide the next generation – but what would his advice be to someone in his shoes?

“It’s always less special if you climb the ladder down,” he replies. “Sometimes starting at a big club brings a lot of pressure and attention.

“As a football player, if a big club comes in for you, you’re not going to say no but sometimes it can be good to start from the bottom.

“For example, I was there on trial with Sully Muntari. He went to Udinese and look how his career ended up.

“I’m not saying if I went to Udinese I would have had a career like him, but you saw how he was able to work his way up.

“Nowadays, it’s a lot easier for kids over here because they’ve seen a lot of experiences they can learn from, they’ve heard lots of stories and people are more aware now.

“We have some people advising them and there are a lot more resources for young players here now than when I was starting out.

“My advice to these young players is just work hard, because there are so many distractions now, with social media.

“If you just work hard, have some luck with injuries, there’s always a way to have a good career and hopefully reach the top.”

Gomez could be forgiven for looking back with a tinge of sadness and regret that his Manchester United dream fizzled out.

Instead, he recollects the time he lived the dream as a young teenager plucked from Gambia to join the biggest club in the world with pride.

“I definitely have fond memories,” Gomez concludes. “I would say I have no regrets at all.

“Even though I did not have the career that I was hoping for or that everyone here was expecting me to have, I still have fond memories of my footballing career.

“Even when I was young, all I wanted to do was be a professional footballer and that happened with Manchester United, so I’m really grateful.

“I’m still a United fan, and a lot of people here in Gambia are Manchester United fans. I watch them all the time and it’s nice to see them doing well.”

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