In some of the most desolate times for a famous old club, Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu was one who offered flashes of hope and excitement to Sheffield Wednesday supporters. Over 12 years since he departed Hillsborough, much has changed for both the Congolese former frontman and his first English club, but there are unmistakably blue and white echoes of the Steel City still safe in his thoughts.
It had been little over three years since Sheffield Wednesday felt Premiership football finally slip away in that 3-3 midweek draw with Arsenal at Highbury, yet they found themselves in the third tier as domestic football returned from its summer break in 2003. Plotting an immediate return to Division One (as it was still known), a number of the higher earners from days gone by remained on the books for the cash-strapped Owls despite a close-season clearout by manager Chris Turner.
Beset by long-standing off-field struggles which would continue to hamper the club for many years after, placing their very future in jeopardy at the worst, it would be far from an immediate process to turn around the playing side after that 2003 relegation. Ultimately, it would take another summer of incomings and outgoings to lay the groundwork, with Paul Sturrock eventually the man to find a way in memorable playoff-winning fashion in May 2005.
Brought in from French Ligue 2 side Amiens on an initial season-long loan in September 2003, young forward Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu would play for a short time under Sturrock as the tide was starting to turn, but it was with Turner that he had been a key figure, scoring ten goals in his debut season in England with Wednesday. In truth, it was one of the bleakest seasons for the 1991 League Cup winners and long-time Premiership competitors; a time when it seemed the dark clouds had rented a permanent room above Hillsborough.
Born in Kinshasa, the capital of the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, ‘Sungu’ was one who offered some moments to smile at for beleaguered Owls devotees at the time, showing undoubted potential and bringing a wholly different style to South Yorkshire and Division Two. Wednesday’s 2003/04 Player of the Year would spend the next five years in the Football League with the likes of Cardiff City, Darlington and Bradford City, and England is where he still lives today.
The noise of a pro career has long since subsided for Guylain, 34, with London now his base as he works in the game as an agent, but hearing the pre-match ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ ring out from the stands in his Wednesday days remains amongst his most enduring memories of life on the pitch.
“Of course I remember that song; there’s no way to forget when 20,000 fans sing to support their team. Sheffield Wednesday was my first club in the UK – I love the fans.
“Wednesday are always going to be my favourite club, forever. I never went back to Hillsborough since I left, but I wish I could go back to watch a game.”
The French-raised player last featured for Wednesday as they hammered Doncaster Rovers 4-0 in a pre-Christmas South Yorkshire derby in 2004, and since he left, the club has been promoted, relegated, and promoted again to the Championship in 2012. Guylain did play at the second level with Preston North End and Cardiff, but never in Owls colours, and like any Wednesdayite, he wants them back at the Premier League party they left in 2000 as soon as possible.
The man who used to wear 24 on his back for the club was hoping for that outcome via Wembley glory as they took on Hull City 11 months ago.
“Of course I still follow the team; I’m a big Wednesday fan. The wish of any Wednesday fan is to see the team in the Premier League.
“Fingers crossed this year they can make it, or as soon as possible. I was gutted last year when they missed that opportunity, but I hope this year can be our year.
“I’m a big Wednesday fan, so that means I watch some of the games live on Sky. (Fernando) Forestieri’s a player with great ability and he scores goals.”
The complexion of Sheffield Wednesday has altered remarkably since Guylain plied his trade in S6; from the way the club is run by ambitious Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri, to the continuing superficial upgrades in and around the stadium. It has only really been in the last couple of years that millions have been available once more to spend in the transfer market, with a very different Wednesday to now from top to bottom when Guylain arrived from France, initially on a three-day trial.
One aspect that is just as he left it is the scale of the support, which he was able to sample in at least some of its full glory. Along with his double to beat neighbours Barnsley 2-1, there was also the last-minute 1-0 victory via Graeme Lee’s header that ended Bristol City’s 11-game winning run and left Wednesday not all that far from the playoffs at the end of February 2004.
Those games were two of the most enjoyable of that season at Hillsborough, played in front of crowds of 25,664 (Barnsley) and 24,154 (Bristol City), and there 22,535 there when Guylain came on for his debut in the 2-2 draw with Stockport County, with early-season spirits still relatively high in September. The way The Owls saw the rug pulled from under them as Stockport came back from 2-0 down at half-time in that one was an example of the kind of frustration that would permeate the season, although it was understandably a day that Guylain always remembers for positive reasons.
“My agent told me about Wednesday, I was impressed by the stadium. My first game at Hillsborough was unbelievable; 20,000 fans singing for 90 minutes, I can’t ask for more.
“I really enjoyed it. I wish I could have stayed forever.”
Initially figuring intermittently, he netted his first for the club at Scunthorpe United in the FA Cup second round before scoring a looping header in a league draw at Barnsley a week later. Of his ten goals that season, the Valentine’s Day penalty winner against Hartlepool and the two spot kicks at Rushden were worth points that ultimately ensured the club didn’t slip towards an unexpected but potentially catastrophic relegation to the fourth tier.
With no wins in the last seven, Wednesday were just five points above the drop zone when the campaign ended and 20 off the playoffs. Guylain’s goals and particularly buoyant celebrations were among the brighter parts of a very difficult season for all concerned and he also put club over country, saying he wanted to help Wednesday instead of leaving them to go to Tunisia for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations.
Pinpointing his most memorable game with the club, he also highlights some of the support he received as a newcomer in an unfamiliar country and culture that year.
“Barnsley away, my first (league) goal for Wednesday. We didn’t play well, but I scored my first goal for the club.
“When you don’t get good results it’s hard to enjoy football, but we had a squad where we tried to help each other to get out from where we were. I had a few who gave me advice; I needed it when I first came to Sheffield.
“Alan Quinn, Paul Smith and more.”
After being allowed to join Championship Preston on loan soon after Paul Sturrock arrived to replace Chris Turner in September 2004, Guylain made a final few appearances in blue and white before being allowed to leave permanently in January 2005. When the club made his loan from Amiens a full transfer, Turner had told chairman Dave Allen that having to pay the compensation required to sign him was worth it as he would prove an investment.
At the height of his Owls form, there were reports beginning to circulate about higher-division clubs being interested in Guylain, with Alan Pardew’s West Ham United – challenging for promotion to the top flight – among the sides mentioned. Circumstances turned out differently of course, and Guylain wasn’t the subject of a big move from Wednesday, nor was he a long-term staple of the side.
Nevertheless, when a club identifies a new signing, it means investing in a person as well as a player. When Guylain first arrived, fans would recognise him in the street and greet him, but his English at that time didn’t allow him to say more than ‘hello’ in return.
The same limitations also initially applied to conversations with staff and teammates at the club, while the language barrier also meant he needed help with setting up a bank account, finding accommodation and even having Sky TV installed, for example. As well as having crowds of three-to-four times the amount of what he was used to, the physical demands in England were far greater, both in match play and in the intensity and length of training sessions.
It may have been an all-round change of substantial proportion, but he did take to life in Sheffield.
“My best memories are of the city and the people. Also, lots of restaurants, and I remember Meadowhall shopping centre.
“It was really tough when I first came, as I couldn’t speak English at all. I was far away from my family and living on my own.
“Everyone at the club helped me to settle down, especially Miss Sue Beeley, who worked at the club (as Education and Welfare Officer) and spoke French. She was like a mum for me; she’s done so much for me and I’m still in touch with her.
“When she’s in London, we meet up for a drink.”
Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday host Jeff Stelling memorably quipped ‘local boy makes good’ when Guylain scored for Wednesday – of course in reference to the contrast between his name and Yorkshire surroundings. For reasons of welcoming him as an adopted Sheffielder perhaps, but more so because of the difficulty some had in pronouncing his name, he acquired a certain moniker from Wednesdayites, which he also hasn’t forgotten all these years later.
“Yes, it was funny they couldn’t say my name so they called me ‘Dave’!”
Just days after his release from Wednesday, Guylain was snapped up by Colchester United boss Phil Parkinson, who described him as ‘a player who’ll excite the crowd’ and ‘a real box of tricks.’ After staying with the Essex side for the remainder of that League One campaign, netting once against Bournemouth, he made the long trip north to join Darlington in summer 2005.
In half a season with the League Two Quakers, he was rejuvenated, racking up 11 goals to alert Championship Cardiff City to his potential. In 11 games (four starts) with the South Wales club, he wasn’t able to find a goal and would move to Gillingham in League One for 2006/07.
Five goals for the Gills followed, before an August 2007 switch to Bradford City, where he struck six goals in the first half of the season. The campaign’s January transfer window saw him heading back to Darlington as he remained in League Two, netting the final three of his 37 goals in English football.
Guylain’s career has seen him play at several notable grounds, including St. Mary’s, Ewood Park, Elland Road, Molineux and of course, Hillsborough. It may certainly have been a surprise to some that he didn’t feature again in the Football League beyond the age of 25, although he did train with clubs in the league after his last Darlington stint.
Former Nottingham Forest defender Des Lyttle was one of those who tried to sign him, for Tamworth in 2010/2011, after he’d been playing in Cyprus, which brought issues with international clearance. His career did continue after his last games in England and he is still connected to football through his agent work, but did he ever turn his hand to anything completely different?
The reason for the question being that there was a photo of him in a studio!
“I went to see a friend of mine who was doing music and I took that picture there, so just for fun! After Darlington, I went abroad to Cyprus and the Middle East: Ayia Napa FC and Al-Watani FC (Saudi Arabia).”
It is BeatsandRhymesFC.com so of course there is a music theme to each player interview. For Guylain, there was some soukous (Congolese genre with dance/rumba elements) in his favourites from when he was younger, before most of his listening focus centred on English-language music in the form of some of the rap game’s most widely-acclaimed artists.
“I like hip-hop music, like Jay-Z, Drake, 2Pac. In France when I was young, I was listening to some Congolese music; an artist named Koffi Olomide.
“I have been to a Jay-Z, Drake and Kanye West live concert.”
That’s an example of Guylain being the one in the audience, but with the popularity of singing initiations throughout football, it is commonplace to get the players to take on the creative and harmonic (in relatively few cases, admittedly!) mantle. Did he ever have to step up when he joined a new team, or does he have any teammate in mind who he could get to cover a track with him, if such a situation ever came up?!
“I never had to sing for a teammate. I’ve never thought about recording a song – I like listening, not singing!
“I can’t really remember who was singing at teams I played for, but rapper, I will say Lloyd Owusu. At Bradford, the main music person was Donovan Ricketts, and at Darlington, Akpo Sodje and Clark Keltie.
“At Wednesday, Lloyd Owusu was the DJ in the changing room and he was really good at it. I can’t really remember many others but at Cardiff, Cameron Jerome used to be the DJ.”
Current Norwich City striker Jerome was among a set of attacking options at Cardiff with Guylain that also included Scottish international Steven Thompson and Irish target man Alan Lee, while the highly talented Jason Koumas was a huge creative source behind. It was a considerable step up for Guylain, who had been seen as a low-risk gamble coming from League Two as he joined up with a manager who would find himself at Wednesday six years later.
“Yes, Dave Jones signed me at Cardiff. He doesn’t talk a lot, but really good manager.
“I was coming from Darlington to a Championship team and he said to me to work hard and I would get my chance to play.”
Although there were no goals in his few months with the Bluebirds, Guylain did come up against some old friends as Cardiff beat Wednesday 1-0 at Ninian Park in March 2006. He was a late sub in that game and the current Owls skipper had actually been on the home bench with him on the day.
Glenn Loovens became a key player at Cardiff after arriving in South Wales on loan from Feyenoord at the start of that season and he would be training with Wednesday at the time of old boss Dave Jones’ December 2013 departure from S6. Jones had wanted to sign him for Wednesday but there had been a delay as they awaited clearance from the Spanish FA for the former Zaragoza defender.
As it turned out, Loovens did still sign after the managerial change and has become integral at the club in the three-and-a-half years since. Guylain was a player who liked a bit of trickery, so how did he fare when taking the Dutchman on in training?
“Loovens is a strong defender so it wasn’t easy to use skill on him!”
After leaving Congo as a young child, Guylain continued learning the game around the Franconville suburb of Paris. A Marseille supporter, he had to leave family and friends to join Amiens after a successful trial, though his family initially wanted him to continue with his studies when he joined the club as a teenager.
“I moved to France at six. I always lived around the Paris area before moving to Amiens, where I played my academy football.
“I played a lot on the street in Paris. My favourite players were the likes of Ronaldo, the Brazilian, and Patrick Kluivert.”
A match-winning scorer for Amiens on his first senior start against Saint-Étienne in 2002, Guylain knew a little of Wednesday a long time before his cross-Channel move, thanks to the popularity and success in Marseille of Owls icon Chris Waddle. The list of managers Guylain played for in England includes Billy Davies, the aforementioned Paul Sturrock and Phil Parkinson, David Hodgson, Ronnie Jepson, Stuart McCall and Dave Penney, although he expresses most thanks to the one whose decision brought him over to these shores.
“I played for lots of good managers but Chris Turner was my first manager in the UK; he gave me the chance to start my career in England.”
Just 20 years old when he came to Sheffield, he was turning out for Wednesday in a 3-2 Hillsborough loss to Port Vale on his 21st birthday. Now he’s a father and his experiences in football helped to hand him lessons he has been able to apply in different areas of his life.
“I like spending time with my family; I’ve got two boys, aged six and three years. I learned a lot from English football: how to look after myself on and off the pitch even more, and my English improved!”
After Guylain had been taking part in some community work with the club, Sue Beeley took him up to the Grandstand at Hillsborough. Although he had been with the club for a number of months at the time, he said it was only then as he looked out from the top of the South Stand that he fully got to appreciate the magnitude of his home stadium.
While joining The Owls naturally helped map out Guylain’s career, it ultimately changed the course of his life in many ways, with him still living here today. He took happy memories away from Hillsborough and left with Wednesday on the climb again.
There is also plenty of Wednesday influence, past and present, in his final response. Nobody who watched Guylain play on a regular basis could deny that he had imagination in his game. Whether it always came off how he wanted or not, it didn’t deter him from trying, which is commendable in any player at any level.
For the fantasy scenario in this regular final question, he would certainly get the freedom to have some fun. We are looking for a selection of teammates, from any teams in his career, to go alongside him in a 5-a-side lineup.
The reasons for choosing each player are entirely up to the interviewee, and male and female players from various corners of the game have thought hard about this one in their own interviews on here. It has meant a great mix of personalities, styles and nationalities in the responses, and in Guylain’s team, you can find a Dutchman, Irishman and Jamaican, starting with the former Reggae Boyz and Bradford stopper between the posts.
“Keeper: Donovan Ricketts – strong and tall keeper who knows how to talk to his defenders. Defender: Glenn Loovens – not easy to pass him, a good leader, really strong.
“Midfielder: Alan Quinn or Paul McLaren – I can’t choose between Macca and Quinny, I love those two. Quinny fights for every ball on the pitch, a good leader, too.
“Macca’s got that first touch, good technique and knows how to read the game. When you are a striker and you’ve got those two behind you, you will score goals, for sure.
“Striker: Cameron Jerome – Cam’s got pace, strong, works hard and scores lots of goals.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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