From Umbria to Cumbria: Mo Sagaf’s Incredible Journey

This summer, Mo Sagaf realised a dream when he put pen to paper on a professional contract with League 2 Carlisle United. His move into the Football League marked the latest step in an unconventional career journey that began on the playing fields of east London before the player served an unlikely apprenticeship in Italian football.

Sagaf has spent the last few years climbing his way up the English non-League ladder, culminating in a productive spell with Braintree last season. His performances in a struggling team brought him a National League Player of the Month award and a posse of admirers from the Football League. After a short trial, it was Carlisle who made the decisive move last August.

The player made a promising start to life in Cumbria too, making 17 appearances in the first half of the season, before an injury on New Year’s Day and a change in management conspired to dampen his progress. In those games, Sagaf’s composure on the ball, passing range and energetic style won the support of many Carlisle fans. “I’m a box-to-box midfielder”, Sagaf said, “but a good player can play in any position”, demonstrating a progressive mindset influenced by his year spent in Italy.

Born in Kismayo, Somalia, Sagaf is very much a Londoner at heart, having moved there at a young age. Now 22-years-old, his formative years were spent on the youth circuit with Leyton and Dagenham United before an improbable opportunity arose in the summer of 2015. The player’s agent (EQ Sports Management) arranged for Sagaf and another London-based player, Salim Nassor, to have an extended trial period with Salernitana. Sagaf recalls: “I smashed it; things went really well. I played and scored in the trial game at the end of the week”.

The pair returned to London and waited to hear whether a formal offer would be made. But in the meantime, Salernitana were outmanoeuvred by their Serie B rivals Ternana. I rossoverdi’s scouts had been at the trial game and were sufficiently impressed to make an offer for the players to join their Primavera squad for the 2015/16 season.

As it transpired, there were other offers on the table too, and Sagaf and Nassor were able to choose their ultimate destination. They were impressed with Ternana’s offer, which was made all the more compelling by the opportunity to compete in the Campionato Nazionale, pitching them against the equivalent youth teams of Roma, Lazio and Napoli. The duo packed their bags and headed for the peninsula.

Upon arrival in Terni, Sagaf was immediately struck by the mindset of his new team-mates. “It wasn’t like academies in England, they were totally focused on the football. Everything was less material, players would turn up in old cars, but it didn’t matter”. With Nassor for company, Sagaf describes a stripped-back lifestyle that allowed him to get the most out of his time there; with only a little exaggeration, it was a case of eat, sleep, football, repeat.

The nature of the football similarly presented some eye-opening differences for the youngster. “It was aggressive, very tactical and there was a strong focus on keeping the ball”, Sagaf reflects. “I don’t remember doing much fitness work in training, it was mainly ball work, repeating phases of attack and defence. Every day for two months, we’d repeat the same drills.”

Sagaf certainly came to recognise the benefits of this routine as the team’s approach became ingrained in the players. “Everyone knew the system and what to do in different situations. If we lost the ball, the focus was on getting back into shape. When we won the ball you immediately knew where the striker would be and what movement he’d be making”. As a young player, this experience left a strong imprint on Sagaf in terms of tactical discipline: “I learned a huge amount about patience; things like knowing when to press, when not to press.”

After arriving in September 2015, it understandably took Sagaf several weeks to adapt to his new environment, making his Primavera bow against Bari in January. In the second half of the season, he featured 8 times, including games against Roma and Napoli, and lining up against future Italian internationals Gaetano Castrovilli (Bari) and Riccardo Orsolini (Ascoli). The high point was undoubtedly Sagaf’s two-goal haul in the 4-0 demolition of Avellino.

At the end of the season, Sagaf returned to England enriched by his experience in Italy. However, it wasn’t a case of stepping straight into a Football League academy; he began to gather senior experience with Leatherhead and Waltham Forest before spending six months in Ipswich Town’s under-23 setup. Whilst that arrangement didn’t endure, it ultimately led to the platform that has seen his career take a sharp upward trajectory. He joined Braintree in the National League, where he established himself as a first-team player and his name came into the consciousness of Football League clubs.

Fast forward to the present day, and the looming uncertainty felt by people up and down the country. There is no exception for lower league footballers, such as Sagaf, who are waiting on news of new contracts for the year ahead. The likeable and level-headed Sagaf isn’t resting on his laurels and intends to make the best of whatever comes his way: “Of course, I want to play at the highest level possible, score goals, and learn and improve as a player. The Premier League is where everyone aspires to be, but I would definitely consider playing abroad again if it helped me to achieve my potential”.

And who would bet against him? From east London to the Lake District, via the rolling hills of Umbria, it’s been an incredible journey so far for this ambitious young player.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, take a look at my interview with Spezia’s young Englishman DJ Buffonge.

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