Ebou Adams remembers setting his own deadline when he was playing for Dartford in the sixth tier. “I said to myself that if I am still here at 20 I might as well give up on my dream of making it as a professional,” he tells Sky Sports. “And then I did turn 20.”
Four-and-a-half years on and Adams is doing rather better than just playing professionally. Not only has he helped Forest Green Rovers to the top of the League Two table, but this month he will be representing The Gambia at their first Africa Cup of Nations.
It is a huge moment for his family. Both of his parents were born there before emigrating to England. “They are over the moon. They just want to see me play but my mum is a bit nervous because it is my first big tournament and it will be showcased everywhere.”
He has earned this. There was no academy background for Adams. His teenage years were spent on loan at Walton Casuals in the Isthmian League. He would attend university in the week, train with Dartford on a Tuesday evening and Walton Casuals on a Thursday.
On a Friday night it was a shift at TGI Fridays. “I would get home pretty late and then have to travel on my own to play for Walton Casuals. It could be Worthing or Herne Bay. I would get back late on a Saturday and have to work again on a Sunday morning.”
He does not regret it. “I appreciate my route,” he adds. “Walton Casuals was one of the best things that happened to me. It helped me to understand men’s football. Jobs are on the line. People don’t want to be relegated because of the financial situations they are in.
“Dartford did not have the facilities of the top clubs either but that meant that when I did get to the Football League, I appreciated it more. I am not saying other players don’t but, for me, it helped me appreciate playing on perfect pitches and having nice showers.
“It gave me the impetus to be a footballer.”
Studying sports science helped. “I made myself a better athlete.” Even the food at TGI Fridays did not knock him off track. “I think I got away with just the wings.” Adams did not make his self-imposed deadline but soon afterwards, his life changed.
Norwich offered him a contract.
He went from playing his last game for Dartford against Havant and Waterlooville to facing Manchester United at Old Trafford in a development game. “I remember being on the pitch and just looking around, thinking about the great players who had played there.”
There have still been setbacks. Unable to make the breakthrough at Norwich, he went on loan to Shrewsbury and did not play much. While he had a happier time at Leyton Orient, he was back out of the Football League and being paid late at Ebbsfleet in 2019.
“It hit others more than me – players with families and mortgages. I was just a kid paying for my car and my phone bill. But it was difficult. There is no straight road to success.”
It was the move to Forest Green that proved the catalyst. “I cannot even call it a team because it feels more like a family. We are like brothers.” Promotion now looks likely. “I don’t want to say too much but I am enjoying how we have started.”
Adams has been integral.
“I would class myself as a box-to-box player. I am a player full of energy. I just love being involved in the game, whether it is defensive work or attacking work. I just love being in and around the game, getting in the box, making crunching tackles.”
Perhaps he will show the world some of those traits for The Gambia over the coming weeks. The adjustment to international football had to be swift – he made his competitive debut against Algeria. “I think you could say I was thrown in at the deep end.”
But it is helping his game.
“It is quite intriguing as a player. It widens my knowledge because I have to adapt to different tactics. You have to be so tactically aware when the stakes are high.”
Wednesday 12th January 3:55pm
The Gambia begin their tournament against Mauritania before facing Mali and Tunisia. They are newcomers but there is quality there. Musa Barrow plays for Bologna, Ebrima Darboe is at Roma and Omar Colley is a regular at Sampdoria. “We have such good players.”
Then there is Adams himself. From TGI Fridays to the Africa Cup of Nations. The journey is not over yet.
“I am looking forward to it and nervous at the same time. But we have nothing to lose so we can play with freedom and enjoy it. The aim is to make the knockout stages, maybe to go all the way and, you never know, maybe to win it. Personally, a goal would be good.
“Hopefully we can just make a statement to the continent. We don’t want to just sit back, we want to join the party with the big boys.
“Everyone is so excited. Let’s see how far we can go.”
Watch Mauritania vs The Gambia live on Sky Sports Football from 3.55pm on Wednesday; kick-off 4pm