Kinder Eggs. Advent Calendars. Favourite footballers. Three things that it’s acceptable for children to have, but not so much for grown men. Perhaps because with age our excitement and wonderment is displaced by the realism that these things we were once so giddy about turned out to be a bit of a let-down, for the most part hollow and decidedly over-priced. Or perhaps it’s because our wives or girlfriends won’t let us.
Either way, occasionally we allow that childlike excitement at the ultimately insignificant to return, as anyone who has ever been lucky enough to bite into a wafer-less Kit-Kat will appreciate. And so whilst I may not have any posters on my wall, and I though may not yell his name in Brian Moore’s voice whilst kicking a pebble down the street, I can still proclaim with certainty that right now my favourite footballer in the world is Mustapha Dumbuya.
A month or so ago I relayed the last eleven words of the previous paragraph from the Viva Rovers twitter account. Perhaps it was the unusual step of a grown man gushing admiration for a single player (Henry Winter talking about David Beckham aside) that did it, I’m not sure, but it turned out to be our most acknowledged and repeated ‘tweet’ thus far. It wasn’t just other fans who shared the love for Mustapha Dumbuya. BBC Radio Sheffield’s Seth Bennett was amongst those to retweet, whilst Doncaster Rovers’ Press Officer Chris Mortley went on to quote this Dumbuya appreciation message in the matchday programme for the Millwall game. The last thing to make this sizable an impact on Doncaster were the railways. There’s only one question for non-Rovers fans reading this. Who is Mustapha Dumbuya?
If you’re in the deprived masses hat have not heard of Mustapha Dumbuya, don’t panic. It is perfectly understandable. Just over a year ago Dumbuya was kicking around the Isthmian non-league scene in search of a game like the Littlest Hobo, only shorter, and without as compelling a soundtrack, pitching up at Maidenhead United, Wingate & Finchley, Potters Bar Town and Grays Athletic. Whilst with Grays Dumbuya had trials with league clubs Gillingham and Hereford United, but both declined to take on the then twenty-one-year-old, both citing a ‘lack of experience’. An odd thing to turn down a trialist for. It’s like turning down an Acapella group for having a lack of instruments. Thankfully for the player and for us Doncaster would intervene and after impressing on a trial, Mustapha Dumbuya signed for the Rovers – his first professional contract – a month before his twenty-second birthday.
In his first season at the Keepmoat Stadium Rovers fans were treated only to fleeting glimpses of Dumbuya. Two minutes at Bramall Lane, twenty-three minutes at home to Nottingham Forest. Too much too soon would have spoilt us. A raw talent. On appearance and style Dumbuya would easily be typecast as a winger, but then Sean O’Driscoll doesn’t go in for typecasts, he’s an intelligent football manager for a start, and he and his partner in methodical implementation Richard O’Kelly had already identified Dumbuya as a full-back in the making. It was in this position he starred against Forest. Playing with constant instructions from Shelton Martis their brief partnership had the look of a Bring Your Son to Work Day.
After twenty-five minutes action across a whole season many would have dismissed him as an unsuccessful gamble, the player himself could have justifiably questioned whether it was all worth it. But that’s not how the summer panned out for Dumbuya. The management kept faith in the talent they had spotted, the player focused and increased in confidence, and with James Chambers injured and Gareth Roberts departed Dumbuya was edging up the pecking order. Rovers had signed George Friend, had Brian Stock fit again, and had splashed out a million on Billy Sharp yet the name getting the most favourable reviews pre-season was that of Dumbuya. Sometimes the answer is right under your nose.
Come the competitive action and Dumbuya had edged from the fringes of the squad to somewhere nearer the centre parting. Not starting games but always on the bench, and making an impressive impact, drawing praise first against Accrington Stanley and then at Cardiff and Watford. For the next fixture, at home to Norwich, Dumbuya earned his first professional start and has featured in every game since. From unwanted non-league journeyman to second tier stalwart in eighteen months, it’s a trajectory which is all too rare in modern football.
In the past the transition between non-league and the top two divisions was as regular and as unremarkable as employment itself. In the 1980s and 90s it became rarer but still far from unheard of. Coventry City snapped up plumber Stuart Pearce from Wealdstone. Crystal Palace’s FA Cup finalists of 1990 included Alan Pardew signed from Yeovil and had former Greenwich Borough forward Ian Wright to thank for two of their goals. Kevin Phillips was twenty-one before he left Baldock Town for Watford. But with the expansion of youth academies and the influx of foreign talent players now tend to arrive on a downward trajectory, or only the slightest of inclines. I can think of no other current Championship regular who has gone from non-league straight to the second tier. This on its own would be reason to honour and celebrate Mustapha Dumbuya., but there is even more to him than that.
Despite his unusual path into the team, the thing that is endearing Mustapha Dumbuya to the Rovers fans most is his actual ability. Diminutive with quick feet, he reminds me of Marvin the Martian in running style and general style for that matter. Legs a blur, dressed in red, mini-Mohican, although credit to Dumbuya his is actually his own hair and not a Centurion style helmet. His pace is undeniable, as is his willingness to keep moving for as long as there’s space in front of him. Against Leeds, a Yorkshire derby and only his second game, there was a genuinely joyous moment as he showed remarkable composure to first thwart an attack and then instead of hoofing the ball to safety he elected to dribble it there, neatly slaloming through the Leeds midfield like Alberto Tomba to the safe-haven of halfway.
Going forward Dumbuya’s form has never been in question and the partnership he’s struck up down the flank with Jamie Coppinger has been increasingly enjoyable to watch, as well as being deceptively far away. Rovers’ two most diminutive players have made many a more established player look very foolish on more than one occasion this season. Coppinger’s own confidence on the ball is clearly rubbing off on Dumbuya as characterised at Portsmouth as the freshman found himself isolated as last man and being charged down by Dave Kitson. A neat side-step and drag-back was all it took to leave Kitson haring the wrong direction into a wide unpopulated expanse of Fratton Park.
What question marks have been hurled at Dumbuya have been aimed at his aerial and defensive capabilities. He answered both of these criticisms in a fine second half performance at Coventry; firstly as he out-jumped Marlon King on not one, not two, but three occasions to head clear of the Rovers’ half. Even accounting for his hairstyle, that’s a deficit of seven inches, a stone and a half and fourteen convictions he’s overcome. The second question was countered with an excellent sweeping display capped as he single-handedly thwarted a three-man counter attack with a perfectly timed slide challenge.
Quick, industrious and skilful, he’s even added robust to his attributes; a factor he seems to pleasingly save for facing football’s irritants. Having stood up to Marlon King at the Ricoh Arena, Dumbuya’s next victim was the ever pleasant Michael Brown whom he took down with a fierce bur fair challenge that not only wiped out the Portsmouth midfielder, but also set-up Rovers’ second goal. And then of course lastly, and crucially for any cult hero, he has a great song. “Dumbuya M’Lord Dumbuya” was ringing out amongst the Rovers supporters before the player himself made the field for his debut. Against Swansea on Saturday, it got its loudest and melodic airing yet in honour of the full-back as he robbed Nathan Dyer of the ball and came within a linesman’s flag of setting up the opening goal.
But, why judge a book by my heavily illustrated cover when instead you can read the subject matter? I don’t use this twisted analogy lightly either, no instead I use it to clumsily segway into a couple of paragraphs about Dumbuya’s social media usage. Three weeks ago I received my favourite email of the year to date, the subject line of which simply read; “Mustapha Dumbuya is now following you on Twitter”. Yes Dumbuya is a tweeter, but even on this platform the player is a notable breath of fresh air. Not for him the typical lads-mag football ‘banter’, instead Dumbuya most often uses the social network to rechannel passages of the Bible.
That said, beyond the psalms and the philosophies the odd football observation and insight does come forth. After Sunderland’s victory at Chelsea Dumbuya said what we were all thinking to offer “I hope and pray Gyan gets more than 15 goals, just so I can see man dance”. And late Saturday night after Swansea’s 93rd minute equaliser at the Keepmoat Stadium he delivered a resolute single word to show that footballers do feel it too; “Gutted”. Despite his on pitch form Dumbuya’s Twitter account reveals things have not gone perfectly for him in South Yorkshire; “I’m losing my nut tryin 2 find a black barber in the place they call Doncaster”. And it also illustrates he’s not quite perfect…
Dumbuya’s Twitter account does however produce the clinching argument in the case for the full-back as your new favourite footballer. In late July he uploaded a photo, taken candidly from a doorway, of a young Rovers supporter wearing a Doncaster shirt with ‘Dumbuya 24’ on the back. The text added by the player himself to the upload; “God has truly blessed me….dnt eva let any1 tell u its not possible”. Genuinely moving and humble. Ladies and gentlemen I give you Mustapha Dumbuya; your new favourite footballer.