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Ibra Sekajja on not being able to say no to Edgar Davids

26 March 2020

First it was Kieron Cadogan: “I was walking over to the Under-18s pitch and we passed the Under-16s game and I stopped and said: ‘Wow! Who is that?’ In fact, there was two of them: Wilf and Ibra Sekajja were the standout players for the age group.’”

Then it was Academy Director, Gary Issott: “Wilf went centre-forward in the Under-16s, playing up front with Ibra Sekajja. At that time, they had a good friendship and used to terrorise teams as a pair.”

Two people we’d called to speak about Wilfried Zaha but ended up discussing former Palace striker Ibra Sekajja.

It only made sense that we picked up the phone to Sekajja himself.

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“I came over to England when I was 10,” the 27-year-old begins, detailing how his association with Crystal Palace began.

“Football was always an influence on my life because my family has a huge background in Ugandan football – I’ve got a few uncles that played for the national team and I have an uncle who runs an official club in Uganda called Proline – in fact he has done work with Rio Ferdinand and worked for FIFA; he’s a prominent figure in Ugandan football."

Therefore, when moving to live with his mother and five siblings in south London as a 10-year-old to attend Elmwood Primary School - two minutes from his house – it was inevitable that football would become a big part of Sekajja’s life.

Whenever we talk to former Academy players, there are two constants: they’ve always got time to speak to Palace and there’s always been someone at the club who has gone above and beyond their job description to help them succeed.

This time it is renowned scout, David Webb.

“I got scouted playing in a school tournament for Elmwood by a scout called David Webb,” the one-time England Under-16 international details. “He came and spoke to my parents and from then on he used to take care of everything – he would pick me up and drop me back home after training.”

From the Katanga settlement in Wandegeya, Uganda, to the streets of Croydon in the space of a whirlwind 12 months. “It was tough to begin with as I never had an Academy upbringing,” he recollects. “I was shy having arrived from a Ugandan culture to a completely new one in London.

“I had to adapt and it did take me a bit of time but I cannot thank David Webb enough as he made that transition easier for me.”

It’s funny to re-read Cadogan and Issott’s comments now, when Sekajja kick starts the next part of his story: describing how he and Zaha once couldn’t get on.

Laughing, he explains: “Our biggest rivals were Whitehorse Manor as our schools were 10 minutes apart and that’s actually how Wilfried Zaha and I first got to know each other.

“We were pretty much like family as we grew up in the same parts but we started off as rivals because of our schools.

“I never liked him because he used to terrorise my school football team and he never really liked me because I used to terrorise his team. Through Palace we became close and we had similar friends when we went to high school and we practically became brothers.”

Throughout our call, there’s an endearing confidence to Sekajja – all sporting stars must have it to a certain extent.

“From a young age, I always felt like I belonged,” he downplays our suggestion of nerves when the step-up to the first-team arose for him. “I was always just waiting for my chance to come.”

It was under Dougie Freedman’s management that the striker enjoyed his most fruitful Palace moments and, much like Zaha, the young striker came to the fore most prominently under the Scottish gaffer.

“When Dougie was still playing at Palace, me and him were close,” Sekajja summarises why Freedman had so much faith in him and why he had so much respect for him as a manager.

“He used to mentor me. He was the player I looked up to most when I was a young player for Palace.

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“So when he became the manager I was over the moon because I knew now I was going to get a real opportunity.”

That “real opportunity” arrived as the full-time whistle was approaching at the KC Stadium on 30th April, 2011. “I couldn’t wait to come on,” the endearing confidence returns: “I was watching the game from the bench and I could see so many openings. I was just itching to come on – I was desperate. And then Dougie turned to me and said: ‘Ibs, you’re going on.’

“In my head I already knew what I was going to do. It’s just the goal people focus on but I grew into that game very fast: I was direct as soon as came on the pitch. I had already seen where the spaces were.”

He certainly had, and within 30 seconds of entering the game, Sekajja levelled the score and earned Palace the vital point that would secure their status as a Championship club for the 2011/12 season.

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“It was…oh my God…wow,” he attempts to describe the exhilarating moment. “Everything just went blank. I can’t put it into words. My feelings were all over the place, I couldn’t contain myself; I was overwhelmed.”

Naturally, then, the frontman wheeled into a triple backflip; an appropriate expression that said far more than words.

Freedman’s faith in the Palace Academy system he knew so well had paid off in spades. “Dougie was so proud,” we can feel the smile no doubt etched across the face of the striker on the other end of the phone. “He felt it was befitting for me to have that impact on the game and be that difference-maker.”

This feels like the part in the fairytale where Sekajja was going to kick on and become the next Academy player from the Eagles production line to rack up the first-team appearances. However, the following season Glenn Murray arrived.

Still unwavering in his belief, Sekajja returns to the regular theme of the interview: “Again, it was just case of me being patient to wait for my opportunity. The team went through a patch where things weren’t going their way result-wise and Dougie said he didn’t want to throw me into the deep end when there is a lot of pressure on the team.”

Eventually, though, the patience paid off: “I had an FA Cup game against Derby County – I came on for the last 15 and did really well,” he says with pride in his voice. “I then started the next game against Blackpool in the Championship and was the standout player. But I picked up an injury, and came off around the 70th minute when we were winning 1-0 and they scored right away and then they got the winner with three minutes left.

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“Despite the defeat, Dougie was buzzing with my performance and said I made a real impact. The next game was away at Old Trafford and I didn’t think I had picked up a serious injury against Blackpool so I was looking forward to that but I actually required an operation…on my thumb!

“It kept me out for the three months. Can you imagine?! My thumb kept me out for three months!”

Despite Sekajja’s humourous recollections today, this was the first real negative sliding doors moment of his career. “That killed me. That stopped the momentum big time,” this is the first time Sekajja drops the positive tone of voice.

“That was the biggest setback I’ve had. I was really on the up and I only managed to get back into the team on the bench for the last game of the season.”

And then Freedman heads to Bolton Wanderers, the manager who Sekajja “knew would always give me a chance.”

In came Ian Holloway and any initial fears that Sekajja might have had were quickly alleviated - it helped that Holloway already knew the striker from the performance against Blackpool.

“When he saw me he went: ‘Ahh you’re that kid that played against us [Blackpool] and was causing us all sorts of problems – I’ve definitely got to have you in my team.’

“We clicked straight away from day one – we all know what his character is like: always full of energy, love, enthusiasm and passion.”

With the excitement and belief that Holloway had in him it looked like Sekajja was set at Palace.

But then a certain Ian Wright, a then-first-team coach at MK Dons, enters the picture.

Wright was keen to boost the Dons’ firepower and was doing all he could to get Sekajja to Milton Keynes. “This is a guy who is saying things that as a player you might not even seen,” Sekajja fondly recalls one of Palace’s finest strikers taking a keen interest in him.

“I was telling Ian that: ‘Of course I’d love to come down and work with you and you’re definitely someone who could improve my game. However, I also want to play for Ian Holloway. I can’t do both at the same time.’

“I spoke to Holloway and after some deliberation he said ‘Look, Ibs, it’s only going to be for a month, I can call you back whenever I might need you and you have the chance to work with Ian Wright. I think you should take it up. Let’s make it happen.’

Sekajja secured that brief loan to promotion-pushing MK Dons in League One and returned to Palace ready to impress in the final part of the season.

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Then Edgar Davids got appointed as manager of Barnet and we realise now that the former Champions League winner is a hard man to say no to.

Before discussing the eventual loan spell to the Bees, Sekajja explains how he and Davids built up a rapport in the first place: “When Edgar came to Palace we got on really well. He saw me doing these tricks and he came over to me and said: ‘I see you got tricks – show me something.’

“We went one-on-one and I realised that he has a lot more tricks in his arsenal! These sessions used to happen all the time after training and that’s how we got to know each other.”

Recently returned from Milton Keynes, Sekajja’s phone rang: “When he got the job at Barnet he called me up and said ‘Yo, Ibs! Come down and let’s play!’

“I said to him: ‘Look, Edgar, I’ve just come back from MK Dons in League One, I’m not really looking to go back out on loan.’”

And then the Dutch icon uttered two words in football no one could reject: ‘It’s Edgar.’

Sekajja now sold on a brief stint at the Hive stadium, he needed to convince Holloway this was the right step for him.

“Ian told me that ideally he was looking to keep me until the end of the season and that he might need me, to which I replied: ‘I’ve got guaranteed games and it’s Edgar!’

“It’s Edgar,” the two words proverbially rubberstamping down on the loan agreement.

“I had an amazing time with him. He did not let me down. I played every game, loved the training sessions and he was there for me.

Sekajja’s return from Barnet didn’t spark an addition to the two league appearances made in the famous red and blue. Again, circumstance hindered the Ugandan-born striker with Palace at the time of his return “on a run! Bolasie and Wilf on the wings and Murray banging them in – they were causing havoc.”

Unfortunately for Sekajja, Holloway left the club early in the following season – the return to the Premier League – and Tony Pulis was hired.

“I had an option to stay for another year,” Sekajja reveals. “But Tony Pulis spoke to all the young players at the end of the season after avoiding relegation and he made it clear that he was not really going to be playing us next season – he was looking to bring in a lot of experienced players.

“I thought about it and having been out on loan several times I made the decision it was time for me to move on.”

Now, Sekajja has notched nine clubs across the Scottish leagues and non-league football in England since leaving Palace.

You can easily pick up on his irritation: a player of considerable talent, who went toe-to-toe with Zaha and is full of unwavering self-belief, shouldn’t have had to “work his way back up.”

In his own words the whole situation “was draining and a hard transition.” But now, almost six years after leaving Crystal Palace it looks like Sekajja has managed work his way back up.

And it’s back to a familiar face.

“When Ian [Holloway] was appointed at Grimsby Town I was actually about to go off to America and take up an offer I had over there.

“But with Ian I know that I’m always going to get a chance and I know the sort of players that he loves.

“I went down to Grimsby for the first game he was there and in the end it was a no-brainer.”

With the current postponement of football due to coronavirus, the contract with Grimsby Town isn’t finalised. However, there’s nothing to suggest that Sekajja won’t be a Mariner whenever everything starts up again.

After all: ‘It’s Ian.’

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