This interview first appeared in the March edition of the Everton magazine. Order your copy now for £3.95, get past editions, and subscribe by clicking here.
In his two years at Everton, Oumar Niasse has shown a fierce determination to succeed. The fans’ favourite explains the roots behind his tenacity and drive, from growing up, in his own words, in a poor family in Senegal, to proving doubters wrong with moves to Turkey and Russia, the striker’s work ethic on the pitch has been matched by an iron will off it from the moment he set out to achieve his dream.
Oumar Niasse is searching for the right words. He is trying to convey how he once earned the money to afford his football boots and kit.
He has already explained that he started to play the game “as soon as I could stand on my feet”. And expounded on his strict upbringing.
Niasse’s parents demanded he complete his schooling before permitting him to devote himself entirely to his sport.
“I am from a poor family and my parents could not accept that football could be a proper job for us,” says Everton striker Niasse.
“We could play for fun… but not for work.”
Niasse is one of eight children, raised in Ouakam, an ‘arrondissement’ or borough of populous Senegalese capital Dakar.
“When we had holidays, I used to go to work for two or three weeks,” says Niasse. “When people are building houses, you say you want to work there. You work from early in the morning and they pay you at the end of the day.
“That gave me the money to buy the kit I needed to play football. My parents could not buy me boots. I don’t know how to explain it in English, but when you go to a construction site, you have the people who work to bring the cement and sands to help the main workers.
“You do not have any experience, but you can use your strength and fitness to carry things.”
Niasse, then, was essentially a labourer. He would toil and graft, doing whatever was necessary to achieve his dreams.
His application, perseverance and fierce ambition would come to define Oumar Niasse as a footballer, too.
It requires a certain mindset to reach the pinnacle of professional sport. All the talent in the world will carry you only so far if those gifts are not twinned with an iron will.
Sir Alex Ferguson once related that he had seen myriad footballers of greater ability than some of the finest he had managed drift away from Old Trafford, unable to muster the resilience necessary to survive in the game’s uniquely demanding, intensely competitive environment.
There was never any question about Niasse being made of the right stuff. Indeed, this is a man inclined to seeking out a scrap.
No matter that he has been embroiled in an ongoing fight for recognition since he first pulled on his hard-earned boots – indeed, Niasse confides that when he learned of Everton’s interest in him, he attended the Toffees’ 2016 League Cup semi-final second-leg against Manchester City, just another spectator at the Etihad Stadium, blending anonymously into the crowd.
Niasse once chose to have a crack at making it in Russia, when offers to go to more homely France, or remain in Turkey, where he was flying, were on the table.
And he did make it, too.
Just as he confounded the doubters in his homeland, after an initial European venture ended with him returning home inside six months.
It has been like this from the outset, though. Niasse had to prove his five brothers wrong in order to succeed at his first club. But the battle with his mum and dad was arguably the toughest of all.
“My parents did not let me play football early in my life,” says Niasse. “I was going to school and they always told me not to go to play football. But I would hide and sneak away to play whenever I could.
“I was between school and playing in the street, until I got to 18.
“There is an exam in our country which is the most important one before you go to university – if you pass that you can come back at any time and finish your schooling.
“When I got that exam, I said to my mum, ‘I want to concentrate on my football, let me show you I can make it’.
“With my dad, they said, ‘Okay, you can go now’. So, between being 18 and 19 I started to play football properly.”
Niasse’s experience of organised football as he neared the end of his teenage years amounted to a clutch of Under-17 appearances for hometown team US Ouakam.
“The coach liked me, so even though I was not going to training, when they had games he called me to play,” says Niasse.
Liberated from his studies, the single-minded Niasse was a man in a hurry.
Never mind that he was, in essence, a street footballer, raw in the extreme and bereft of any tutoring in his sport, the player’s stated aim was to gatecrash Ouakam’s first team.
US Ouakam are big news in Senegal, a Premier League club – until a fatal outbreak of disorder at their Stade Demba Diop as the side contested last season’s cup final resulted in their demotion – and backed by a partisan and fervent support base.
What Niasse wanted to accomplish would find its comparison in a teenager fresh out of his A’ Level exam hall and with a few games for Chelsea’s youth team under his belt, declaring his immediate intention to displace Alvaro Morata from the capital club’s forward line.
“I said to my brothers, ‘I am going there to play in the first team’,” says Niasse. “They said, ‘No, it is too much, you need to take it step by step’. But I knew I could do it. So I went from the streets to a league club in Senegal.
“I have always been a fighter, I knew other players had more experience but I just put my energy on the field every time they gave me a chance.”
Niasse was never likely to be daunted by the prospect of thrusting himself into competition with more seasoned – and polished – professionals.
He used to make the most of those times he scuttled off to play football after school, preferring to mix it with older and stronger boys, rather than use his power and exuberance to adopt the role of flat-track bully among his contemporaries.
Niasse paid a heavy and painful price for his fortitude.
“I broke my leg twice,” he says. “First when I was nine, then when I was 14 – both times playing football.
“That made things much more difficult. To afford the medical help I needed was very difficult. But I was always going to try to play with people older than me. And I was not scared. They always tried to put in bad tackles and hurt me. They hurt me a lot.
“That was another reason why it was not easy for my parents to let me go. And it was not easy for me to fight and tell them I could do it.
“When you are from a big family, it is not easy. Especially when you do not have money. It is always complicated when you do not have those people behind you to push you.
“You have to do it yourself. You have to fight. But they understood at the right time – and that is why I am here today.”
Niasse made good on his vow to force himself into Ouakam’s first team in 2009. He was 19.
Then his world was rocked by the death of his dad, Makhone.
“It was one of the most difficult times in my life,” says Niasse. “Dad was ill for four months, then he passed away.
“I did not have any football experience. The team I was playing in was difficult, they have crazy fans. They could not accept me playing all the time. And, honestly, I was not doing a good job at that time. People could not understand why I was there. But it was more difficult because I had just lost my dad. I was spending every night not sleeping, thinking what was going to happen to my life.
"I wanted my dad to be here. But, eventually, I had to say to myself, ‘Even if he is not here anymore, he can know that his son made it’. That is why I did not give up and kept fighting and fighting.
“After one year, I started to become a proper, good player. I understood the league and how to be consistent and always give something better than the previous weekend.”
Niasse came good to the extent that he was one of the attacking spearheads of US Ouakam’s first – and still only – Senegalese title in 2011.
Here we are reminded of football’s capacity to bite you on the backside.
Niasse’s status as a national champion was not sufficient to shield him from the sharp tongues and suspicions of his countrymen, when he landed back in Dakar following his first European venture.
The player joined Norwegian team SK Brann in early 2012. The terms of the deal put Niasse in Bergen for six months – with the club then expected to exercise their option to sign the forward on a three-year contract.
He was desperate to make a go of it in Scandinavia. Too desperate.
“It was difficult from the beginning – like everywhere I have been,” says Niasse. “It was hard to get used to the weather, and everything was different… the culture, it was all new to me.
“I kept fighting. But I was doing too much and injured my groin. That kept me out for one-and-a-half months and I did not have enough time to prove myself.”
Niasse returned to Senegal in August 2012. Was he concerned his chance to establish a foothold in the game on this continent had just slipped through his fingers?
“It was very difficult when I had to go back,” says Niasse. “If you have been to a professional team in Europe and have to return to Africa to start again [he pauses and exhales, an indication of his exasperation] people will not trust you anymore.
“They will say, ‘He went and came back, so that means he is not good enough’.
“I had to prove a lot of things.
“Deep down I had to be strong, very strong, to show people I could do it, and to show myself I could do it.
“People didn’t say it to me directly, but I could tell by the looks on their faces, and the way they were behaving, they thought I was done. I was 22 and people believed that was it for me. But I thought, ‘If I made it to Norway, I can do it again’.”
Niasse attributes a portion of his indomitable spirit to the example set by the first Senegal national team to qualify for the World Cup finals.
He watched agog as a 12-year-old – “jumping around with everyone like a normal kid” – as his country reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 competition, having shocked defending champions France in the opening game.
“We love the national team in our country, it is very important in Senegal and you love all the players,” says Niasse.
“That was such a good period. Even if you did not appreciate what it all meant and the history, you understand it more when you grow up. That was the most important time for football in our country.
“It helps you understand… you need to fight for everything to get where you want to be.”
Serendipity intervenes in most footballers’ careers, at one stage or another.
For Niasse, his moment of fortune came when compatriot and former Brentford and Reading defender Ibrahima Sonko saw him shine in a match for Ouakam.
Sonko was plying his trade for Akhisar Belediyespor in Turkey, and he quite fancied Niasse would score goals for the Super Lig club.
A trial was fixed up – but Niasse was suddenly hot property, with French team Brest dangling a three-year contract under his nose.
Niasse, characteristically, refused the easier option.
“My family told me to take the contract and not take the risk to go to have a trial,” says the devout Muslim. "But I had already spoken to Sonko about Turkey and had my visa to go. I felt confident in myself – when you already have a contract to go to France, you know you can make it in Turkey.
“And that is what happened. After three days, we had a friendly game and I scored and played well. The coach liked me and from there he gave me the opportunity.
“Turkey was a bit easier for me to adapt to. They are a Muslim country and the weather was not bad.”
Niasse is not one of those strikers who feigns indifference over his own statistics.
“I scored 15 goals and had seven assists in the season,” he says, without need for recourse to any records charting Turkish football in 2013/14.
He is equally on point when he reflects on his second season with Lokomotiv Moscow, the Russian giants he joined from Akhisar in summer 2014.
“In 23 games I scored 13 goals and provided 10 assists,” says Niasse, accurately.
He is enthused as he remembers how he conquered an alien culture and unfamiliar league.
Memories of his first campaign, however, elicit an almighty sigh.
“It was hard,” says Niasse. “I was so confident in Turkey, scoring goals. But when I went to Russia, everything changed.
“I talked with my family and manager and knew if I went there it would give me a lot of experience, because it is not an easy league.
“I had opportunities to stay in Turkey, or to go to France, but if I could make it in Russia, I knew I could make it anywhere.
“The coach, the weather, how people were: everything was difficult at the beginning.
“The sporting director wanted me to go there, but I quickly realised the coach did not 100 per cent want me. They had good strikers: [Ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Russia forward] Roman Pavlyuchenko and Dame N’Doye [Niasse’s fellow Senegalese and formerly with Hull City]. They had a name. I didn’t. I was not playing. I was always on the bench.
“When I did not play in the first six months, I wanted to go. But they did not want that. The coach was sacked and when the new coach [Miodrag Bozovic] came he said, ‘I can make you a good player’.”
Leonid Kuchuk was the manager shown the door following a poor start to the 2014/15 season. He moved on to Kuban Krasnodar, the team who would lose that season’s Russian cup final to Lokomotiv, for whom Niasse scored the equalising goal in a 3-1 win.
“Then a new coach [Igor Cherevtchenko, who had replaced Bozovic shortly before the cup final] came for the start of the second season and said he would put his trust in me,” says Niasse.
“He gave me a run of games and I started scoring goals.”
Niasse’s prolific form, both domestically and in Lokomotiv’s Europa League campaign, alerted some high rollers.
Asked if he was in two minds about leaving Russia, just when he’d got the measure of the place, Niasse is incredulous.
“Russia was not my target. I went there to get more experience. To learn about a hard life.
“I was linked with a lot of clubs in Germany and England. Chelsea invited me to their stadium to see one game. But because my ex-partner used to live in Manchester, when I got linked with Everton, I went to the game at Manchester City in the cup [which City won 3-1 to progress to the final 4-3 on aggregate].
“My manager told me Everton wanted me, so I went to see how they looked. And I was so impressed. At that time, I was a Lokomotiv player. I went to the stadium on my own and sat and watched the game.
“It was so interesting and after that it was not hard to make a choice about where I wanted to go.”
Stymied by a wrist injury, Niasse endured his customary “difficult beginning” at his new club following his transfer to Goodison Park in February 2016.
The passage of time and a productive loan spell away at Hull City smoothed his transition and, in the course of two substitute outings against Sunderland and Bournemouth back in September, Niasse marked his return to the first-team fold – after a 16-month absence – by scoring three times.
“I never thought about giving up,” he says. “Everywhere I have been, from the start it was difficult. So I knew it would be hard at Everton. It is improving, but I still know I can do much better.”
Niasse is talking to Everton magazine 24 hours on from the Blues’ defeat at Burnley. He appeared as a second-half substitute in the match, after stringing together four consecutive starts, featuring a goal and assist in the victory over Crystal Palace – and earned off the back of his point-saving strike from the bench against West Bromwich Albion.
“If I am playing that is good, very good,” says Niasse. “If I am not, then I understand. I wait on the bench. If I have an opportunity to come on, I will give my best, even if it is for five minutes.
“If I don’t come on, I will be in training the next day, ready to fight for the next weekend.
“I have scored a few important goals and I will try to make it better. I will always try to fight.”
Niasse has two sons. His two-year-old lives in Manchester – “I see him all the time, I spend my time away from football at home with him,” he says.
Niasse’s other boy, aged six, is in Senegal. So, too, is Niasse’s mum, living in the same house where she laid down the law to young Oumar, and still keeping both daughters and three of her sons in check.
“I have never felt better away from my country than in England,” says Niasse. “But I love my country. If it was not for football, I would never leave my country.
“When I go on holiday I stay in the family house. My mum lives there with my sisters and three of my brothers. We always like being together.
“At the end of my career, I will go back to Senegal to live.”
The intervening years, you rather suspect, will not be dull.