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The long pursuit of Emile Mpenza

Paul Fletcher | 23:20 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The one transfer from the Football League that jumped out more than any other before the 1 September deadline was that of Belgium international Emile Mpenza, once of Schalke, Hamburg and Man City, joining Championship side Plymouth.

But the 30-year-old's arrival at Home Park was no rash, last-minute piece of business but rather the conclusion of a long and patient pursuit on the part of Pilgrims boss Paul Sturrock.

The story began, recalls Sturrock, in the Belgian city of Mechelen. It was the late 1990s and Sturrock was the manager of Dundee United. He was over in Belgium on a scouting trip and blown away by two brothers playing for the away team.

mpenza_438.jpg"I was very excited about Emile and Mbo but they were like whizz kids and there was no way Dundee United could afford to buy them," Sturrock told me.

Later, while in charge of Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday, Sturrock made further enquiries. Mpenza wasn't having a productive time in Germany and so Sturrock called an agent to gauge the situation only for the figures mentioned to scare him off.

Fast forward to the summer of 2008 and Mpenza had just left Man City after a largely disappointing 16 months. He occasionally impressed but failed to make a regular first-team spot his own. The striker felt he had a point to prove and was keen to stay in England, only nobody was biting and this time it was Sturrock who got the call.

Mpenza and his people travelled to Plymouth and for the first time Sturrock met the striker in person. Mpenza was very quiet; he does not speak much English despite his time at City and did not say much. Nevertheless he conveyed to Sturrock his enthusiasm to sign and a deal was worked out. It is rumoured to be worth £10,000 per week but the effect around the city was immediate. Mpenza was unveiled at the same time as another new recruit, winger Nicolas Marin from French side Lorient. Striker Paul Gallagher also signed on a long-term loan from Blackburn.

Sturrock could not fail to notice the buzz around Plymouth following the signings. The club put season tickets back on sale and hoped that the new arrivals would show the Pilgrims do not lack ambition despite selling the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Peter Halmosi and David Norris earlier in the year.

Sturrock will readily admit that attracting players to Plymouth is difficult because of the club's location in the far south of the country. Married players in particular are difficult to sign because their wives often don't want to move to a place so far from everywhere else. In this context it must have given Sturrock great satisfaction to have finally signed Mpenza, as well as Marin and Gallagher.

However, this story is anything but straightforward and, having finally signed Mpenza, the Pilgrims boss found himself confronted by a new problem.

The striker was, in Sturrock's words, "very ring rusty" and yet "the supporters were baying for him every time we played". On top of this Sturrock was savvy enough to acknowledge that "the chairman will slap me about if I don't get him out on a football pitch".

Sturrock was determined not to rush Mpenza, risk him picking up an injury by throwing him into a match before he was ready, but the situation was not helped by Plymouth's poor start to the season. The Pilgrims drew two and lost four of their opening six fixtures and Sturrock's daughter told her Dad that supporters on message boards were calling for his head.

Home form had been particularly poor and Sturrock was desperate to arrest their slump before losing became a habit. Some of the players were struggling to adapt to the way Sturrock wanted them to play and he was unhappy with their attitude. Mpenza had played just 20 minutes as a substitute in the defeat to Norwich on 13 September and was clearly lacking sharpness. The Belgian might have a lot to offer but the boss would have to wait to see him in full effect. The Pilgrims travelled to Watford for a fixture on 16 September and the manager made a decision.

"I picked a very honest team, made seven changes from the team that had lost at home to Norwich," the Pilgrims boss told me. "I picked a team that if I was in a trench in the First World War and I blew my whistle, then they would all run out of the trench with me."

Plymouth won 2-1, their first victory of the season, and it proved to Sturrock that there is no substitute for the right attitude. As he says: "I believe that most times attitude overturns ability."

The Pilgrims have since won two and drawn another to build on the victory at Vicarage Road - and in doing so have pulled away from the bottom three.

Gallagher, more or less match fit on arrival, has made a good start, netting three goals for his new club. Mpenza has been working hard in training, playing a full game for the reserves and encouraging Sturrock to push him hard since his appearance against the Canaries. The striker is pressing his case for his full debut and made another substitute appearance against Bristol City on Tuesday.

Marin wasn't sharp enough either when he arrived but Sturrock reckons the player has put in a lot of effort to make up for lost ground and started giving his boss a steely glare every time he puts on his training kit. Clearly, Marin thought he was ready for action and the French winger made his debut as a substitute last Saturday. But with the Pilgrims in such good form they are having to bide their time as Sturrock keeps faith with the players that have hauled the side out of trouble.

The shaky start seems behind Plymouth and Sturrock is looking forward to the point when some of his flair players do get their chance and start winning games with a touch of brilliance. He expects the higher reaches of the Championship to be dominated by the big-spending teams but he has a proud record to defend.

Plymouth have improved on their league position every season since 2000 and finished 10th in May. With the help of Mpenza and Co it could just be that Plymouth keep on moving in the right direction.


  • Comment number 1.

    What a great post! Really enjoyed it and although I'm an LFC man, the family has been living in Plymouth for some years. Still can't believe Mpenza is playing for Plymouth! Whose next, God?

  • Comment number 2.

    another good blog fletch

  • Comment number 3.

    Very good, perhaps this will be the time when Mpenza steps up and really shows what all this potential is about, otherwise he´ll continue having a `nearly´ career that´s promised so much, yet rarely producing the goods.

  • Comment number 4.

    i normally just read and digest these blogs without comment, but this one was so good that i felt compelled to flick my fingers over the keys in some words of appreciation.

    my club portsmouth used to suffer from the same problem (attracting name players), but we made a massive breakthrough when we signed paul merson a few years back. since then the floodgates have opened and we have also developed a very fruitful relationship with arsenal (think campbell, traore), but in those dark times pre mandaric/merson, not many players would consider taking their careers any further south than london.

    great blog paul. along with gavin strachan's intriguing player's view and the fantastic tim vickery there really has been some excellent posts lately that both imform us and inflame opinion. KUTGW

  • Comment number 5.

    good article. I was wondering what was going on with Emile and you told me.


  • Comment number 6.

    brilliant buy! does he score goals?

  • Comment number 7.

    David NORRIS.

  • Comment number 8.

    It was David Norris we lost earlier in the year.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great blog Paul. Between you and Tim Vickery, you provide good football journalism. Shame there's nobody doing this for the Premier League teams.

  • Comment number 10.

    Very good blog. I always enjoy reading about the goings on of the leagues below the Premiership, something which normally only seems to arrive in number form.

    Mpenza is a talented player and I remember a couple of seasons back he was the only threat within the Man City team. He only scored 3 times (albeit that he was signed in February), but all three goals won points and his determination was notable, as of course his technical ability and turn of pace. Given time to recover his fitness, he could find a new lease of life.

    Fair play to Plymouth and Paul Sturrock also. His policies seem spot on, and who knows how far they will go if they continue to improve as they are. All the best to 'em.

  • Comment number 11.

    I was suprised that more clubs didn't show an interest in Mpenza to be honest.

    He has always seemed to promise so much but rarely deliver.

    I think that once fit, at 30 and playing at Championship level, Mpenza will prosper.

    I was really hoping that my team Cardiff, would take a punt on him. However they kinda had there fingers burnt last season by signing 'names' with Fowler, Sinclair and JFH (admitadly JFH did pretty well for us, even if he didnt score as many as we would have liked).

    Good luck to Plymouth and Mpenza. See you down Ninian on Boxing day, or is it new years this time round (We always get you on one or the other!)

  • Comment number 12.

    Having watched Mpenza at City, I fear the attitude that Paul Sturrock has relied on recently will be the let down for Plymouth fans.

    He just doesn't put the effort in.

  • Comment number 13.

    Really nice to see a blog on the Greens. I've got a soft spot for Argyle having lived in Plymouth for a long time and been a few great marches with the Green Army - not least to Wembley in '96. They're great fans and deserve a team they can really get behind. You've gotta love the (geographically accurate) chant of 'you dirty northern ba**ards' eminating from the Devonport End whoever's visiting Home Park.

    I saw Mpenza play for Man City in the league cup last season and he looked dangerous against Championship opposition, I hope he's the signing for Argyle he has the potential to be.

  • Comment number 14.

    I really loved this article - quite unlike any other I think I 've read on football. Unfortunately most writers about football somehow seem to forget that football is part of the real world and in so doing shroud the whole football world with some kind of an aura as if the people involved in it live in a different universe to everyone else. But this article rung true so my thanks to the writer for this - I really appreciated it.

  • Comment number 15.

    I watched Emil Mpenza when he was a youngster alongside his brother, Mbo at Euro 2000. He was very promising then, but what a disappointing career he had.

  • Comment number 16.

    Most interesting blog I've read so far, really enjoyed reading it. Nice to read a different take on the transfer market, and how players are integrated into a team.

  • Comment number 17.

    I thought this was a really interesting article in terms of content, although it felt a bit tentative in terms of your approach - maybe a bit rushed? An example is the mistake below, which I rarely see from Fletch:

    Marin wasn't sharp enough either when he arrived (PAST TENSE) but Sturrock reckons the player has put in a lot of effort to make up for lost ground (PRESENT TENSE) and started (PAST TENSE) giving his boss a steely glare every time he puts on his training kit (PRESENT TENSE). Clearly, Marin thought he was ready for action (PAST TENSE)

    How about a job as a proof-reader? I'm cheap...

  • Comment number 18.

    Why when I put the mouse cursour over your face Fletch, does it say 'Phil Mcnulty'?! Good article as always though

  • Comment number 19.

    Great article, good to hear from Luggy (a fellow Arab). I must say I was a bit surprised to learn that Mpenza had gone to Argyle, but I hope at this level he'll shine. I was another who expected much from this player, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it works out for both parties. Great blog!

  • Comment number 20.

    As a Belgian, I can tell you that Emile has got great potential but until now has rarely filled the expectations.He was so brilliant at Mouscron in his early days, playing with his brother Mbo. They were so fast they were just unplayable for the defenders. Loads of injuries followed and he faded away. I think Plymouth has got to be very patient with him, assess him at the end of the season, not before. If he stays fit, he will be very valuable for the Greens.

  • Comment number 21.

    Great insight into the day to day challenges of managing of a Championship club. Some of the posters on fans bulletin boards (including my own) who call for the manager’s head after a few bad results should read this for a reality check; unfortunately they have no patience and no understanding!

  • Comment number 22.

    Great blog Fletch, enjoyed it.

  • Comment number 23.

    To be honest I don't think it's fair to say that "the supporters" were calling for Sturrock's head.

    A vocal minority, for sure, were, but I think most understood that you can't sell a whole team, buy a whole new one and except them to click in 5 minutes.

    Also he's by far our most successful manager, and has won I think 5 promotions in 8 years with 5 different clubs, 2 of them with us, we all know he's quality.

    Otherwise good blog, hopefully Mpenza will be giving Paul Gallagher and Rory Fallon a run for their money soon!

  • Comment number 24.

    What ever happened to his brother Mbo?

  • Comment number 25.

    developed a soft spot for the pilgrims after my visit to Home Park last year v Sheff Wed (they lost 2-1) and always look out for their results.

    Everyone was really friendly and it was a smashing stadium, had a great time.

    good luck for rest of season.

  • Comment number 26.

    Surprised to see no mention of Craig Cathcart, a Northern Irish under-21 defender on loan at Argyle from Man Utd. From what I hear, he's playing a big role in Plymouth's improved run.

  • Comment number 27.

    Glad to see some blog space being given to non-Premier League football. The tale of Mpenza's move to Plymouth is certainly a remarkable one. If he wants to prove a point, he really must make an impact at his new club.

  • Comment number 28.

    PrinceRockPilgrimPad and anavorn - I'm ever so sorry about that. Norris, as you quire rightly point out, is the correct surname.

    djconnell - you starting to make me very tense!

    To tell the truth, I intially wrote the article in the present tense but then had a change of heart and reverted to past tense. The sentence to which you refer is, I guess, a slight victim of my indecision. Sorry.

  • Comment number 29.

    So easy to criticise isn't it.

  • Comment number 30.

    Saw a fair bit of Mpenza for city and i disagree that he didn't put enough effort in ,I thought he put a fair bit in actually, more than Samaras and look what he is doing in the SPL .As i said to a couple of Argyle fans at work Mpenza does struggle with his weight and fitness but give him a chance to get those right and he will be very good for them in the Championship..nice to see that i was right and that Sturrock is close to starting him into first team.Good luck to the Greens and Emile.

  • Comment number 31.

    Sturrock is a hard working and honest manager, I wish him really all the best.

  • Comment number 32.

    keep up the good work, and as a wednesday fan iv got nothing but praise for old sturrock, quality manager and i am sure all wednesday fans will agree that they thought he was great for the club, can only wish him well.

  • Comment number 33.

    Having seen his cameo against Bristol City at Ashton Gate on Tuesday night, I can tell you that Mpenza has certainly wasted no time in
    adapting to Cornish Pasties.

    I don't know about attracting the big names down to Plymouth, on this evidence they've certainly had no problem attracting big eaters to Home Park. 'Ring rusty' indeed!

  • Comment number 34.

    good post fletch, nice to see argyle getting some exposure. The team is going places and you didnt mention that come January we may see a few Japanese players at Home Park!
    Living out here in philippines means that all prem games are on TV and not the Championship. The videprinter is my saviour plus blogs like this to get updates on the team.
    Check out the best fan site i have ever come across - although im bias!
    It would be interesting to know if you have actually seen us play? Keep it Green.

  • Comment number 35.

    This is a really good blog because it is so informative in many different ways - plus it's a great story. Difficulty in attracting good players due to geographic reasons is not exclusive to Plymouth though. A friend is from Carlisle at the opposite end of England. They too find certain players prefer to remain in Cheshire or London. Isolated locations do add difficulties for such managers, so when they can overcome them with good football, then their achievements certainly deserve an extra mention. Well done Fletch.

  • Comment number 36.

    Nice blog Fletch! Keep it up.

  • Comment number 37.

    Great post, even for doubters like myself. We are on the improve and lets just hope the patience shown to these types of players pays off and lets give the playoffs a nudge. Go Green!!!!

  • Comment number 38.

    Another good blog, Mr. Fletcher - very interesting. One of my regulars in a pub I used to run was a Pilgrims fan, so I always keep an eye out for them.

    Keep up the good work - if you can find time to be a ghostwriter for messrs Mcnulty and Robbo 'I'm not funny' Robson, that'd be even better!

  • Comment number 39.

    Top blog Fletch. Here's hoping we can keep the run going now the confidence is back. Mpenza will get his chance and so will Marin. Competition for places is a wake up call to some of the players and nobody's starting place is safe as some of the new signings have found to their dismay.

  • Comment number 40.

    A really good post by Fletch about a great club with great supporters and an honest approach to building the team. I can't wait to see Emile play but may have to wait as I'm exiled in London. Glad to hear that he appears to like the odd pastie - shows he's green!

  • Comment number 41.

    A good read. I remember seeing the Mpenza brothers playing as teenagers for Belgian (then 2nd division) side Kortrijk. It only seems like a couple of years ago!

  • Comment number 42.

    Paul - excellent blog! They should get rid of McNulty and let you do a few more...

    Paul Sturrock comes out as a lot more thoughtful and intelligent than I previously suspected too.

  • Comment number 43.

    Note to Plymouth fans:

    I don't know if you are aware but Paul Sturrock is the best football player I have ever had the good fortune to witness. PS is a clone of Kenny Dalglish. They both had huge arses. Both could turn like Bruce Lee on speed. Luggy was a real once in a lifetime entertaining genius. Check his Dundee United record. My best football memories comprise PS, Davie Narey, Paul Hegarty, Ralph Milne, Eammon Bannon et al. When my kids go on about Christiano Ronaldo I always tell them the best player ever was Paul Sturrock (Luggy).

  • Comment number 44.

    Mpenza is dogpooh. He´s flopped at every club he´s been at including my home team Hamburg. He will flop in Plymouth as well.

  • Comment number 45.

    Great article Fletch! Keep it up!

  • Comment number 46.

    I'm a Hull City fan and in the summer we tried to get Mpenza to come to Italy, train with the boys and see how he got on. It made big news up here. By all accounts the tickets were booked, everything was set to go but the player failed to show up at the airport with his agent. I know Phil Brown and the chairman went spare, having tried to contact him several times but with no response. In the end they gave it up as a bad job. I'm not saying he'll be a poor signing - if you can get the lad fit he'll be a real handful in the Championship - but that kind of behaviour smacks of a really bad attitude.

    Hope you have more luck with him then we did, and thanks for Halmosi - the lads an absolute diamond!


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