Cheltenham’s Mo Eisa is the League Two player of the month after hitting the 20 goal mark in his first season as a professional. Adam Bate caught up with the Sudan-born striker to find out how he has made the step up from part-time football looks so easy.
A crowd of 1,450 people at Morecambe’s Globe Arena might not epitomise the glamour of the professional game, but for Cheltenham Town’s Mohamed Eisa, those sights and sounds showed just how far that he had come. “I had never played in front of that many people before,” he tells Sky Sports. “I wasn’t used to looking up and seeing that many fans there.”
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Signed in the summer from Greenwich Borough, Eisa was seen back then as one for the future. The Isthmian League South is English football’s eighth tier so it was no surprise when Cheltenham boss Gary Johnson made it clear the now 23-year-old striker would be unlikely to go straight into the team unless he had an outstanding pre-season.
Eisa did just that. He impressed immediately and then got off the mark in that debut game at Morecambe. Nineteen more goals have followed and in doing so he has become only the second man in history to score 20 goals in a Football League season for Cheltenham. Though the club are in the bottom half of the table, only Accrington’s Billy Kee has scored more.
“I am over the moon,” says Eisa as he reflects on the thrill of winning the League Two player of the month award for March. “Getting that goal in the first game really got me going. I thought it would be a big step up and I did not know what to expect, but I think I have handled it well. I have felt comfortable here right from the start.”
Tales of players working their way up through the divisions are nothing new but Eisa’s story is particularly unusual. Born in Sudan, he came over with his mother and younger brother at the age of nine to join his father in England. He did not play football until the age of 14 when he got involved with the Pro Touch academy in London. Even then it was once a week.
There has been interest in him ever since but the setbacks become obvious when Eisa begins to list them. “I had a couple of trials at Southend and Norwich but that didn’t work out,” he explains. “I went to Oxford and that didn’t work out either. I went to Dartford and I wasn’t playing there either so I just kept going down and down.
“There were clubs who said I wasn’t strong enough or whatever. Eventually, I found somewhere that would give me the chance to play week in and week out. At Greenwich, I was training on Tuesday and Thursday nights and then playing a game on a Saturday. I knew I needed to score as many goals as I could to get noticed.”
Finally, after 57 goals in 100 games for Greenwich, the club where Ian Wright started his career, that happened. “I knew it would but I just didn’t know when,” he adds. “I just had to patient and work hard until my time came. Gary Johnson and Cheltenham took that massive chance on me. If it wasn’t for him, I would probably still be playing in non-league. So he is a massive reason why I am where I am now.
“The gaffer is always telling me new things to do and I am taking that into the games. At Greenwich, the training was not as intense as it was here in terms of training full-time so I feel I am improving every week. I am so much more comfortable on the ball. At first, I didn’t want to try stuff because I worried what would happen if I lost it.
“My biggest strength is my finishing but I have nine assists this season and my overall game has improved so much. I wasn’t as good at holding the ball up and having my back to play when I first arrived as I am now. Now I am doing that more often, the team are trusting me more to do that. It is good to be able to help the team in other ways as well.”
Some things have been easier to adjust to. Dealing with robust League Two centre-backs has not been a shock. “I was well used to the knocks in non-league,” he says. And he will not get too down if he is unable to overtake Kee in the scoring charts. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. If it happens, it happens, but it has still been a good season for me.”
He discusses his plans to return to Sudan in the summer to catch up with extended family, the support of his family here in England and his little brother’s Abo’s first professional contract at Shrewsbury. Is he better than his older brother? “I don’t think so, not yet,” says Eisa. “Believe me, I would be the first to admit it if he was, but not yet.”
For now, he is focused on his own journey. Club chairman Paul Baker wants to keep Eisa for at least another season and he has already agreed an extended contract. “I am still learning and I don’t want to rush anything,” he says. “But I have got faith in myself now. I know my abilities and I know what I can do so I want to challenge myself to play higher if possible.”
In the meantime, there is still the thrill of playing in front of a crowd. The knowledge that the dream of playing professional football is now a reality. “Our fans took to me early on and already had a song for me at my second game,” says Eisa. “I couldn’t believe they were singing my name. That helped me a lot. To be honest, it is nice to be wanted.”