The Riviera Guinean

Mo was a hit at Pride Park

February 13th 2010 was notable in my life not only for being my 19th birthday, but also a landmark moment in the history of Torquay United...OK, perhaps I'm exaggerating slightly. We didn't get promoted or relegated. The result on that day wasn't that special - a 2-1 home defeat to Port Vale. But it did see the home debut of two players who it's fair to say didn't see their best footballing days at Plainmoor. One was Ashley Barnes, now a prolific striker in the Championship for Brighton, who had joined on loan from Plymouth. The other was a man who had caused quite a stir when he was signed on a free transfer - Mohamed "Mo" Camara.

Born in Conakry in June 1975, left-back Camara is probably best known in England for his stints at numerous second tier clubs. He first arrived in 2000, joining Wolverhampton Wanderers from French club Le Havre for £100,000 – his previous clubs included Beauvais, Troyes and loan stints at Lille. He appeared over 50 times for Wolves but injuries led to his departure in 2003, when they were promoted to the Premier League with veteran Denis Irwin in his place. He joined Burnley, where he would remain for two years, making over 100 appearances, before moving to Scotland to join Gordon Strachan’s Celtic. A year later, he returned to England, joining Derby on another free transfer. His stint at Pride Park was largely unsuccessful and saw him loaned out to Norwich and Blackpool. In February 2009, his contract was cancelled and he headed back to Scotland to St Mirren. A year later, he was released once again.

At the age of 34, one must have thought that Camara’s career, at least in the higher clubs of England and Scotland, was coming to an end – you only get so many chances as a journeyman. But there was to be a saving grace.

Torquay United were enduring a tough return to the Football League. The team that won promotion from the Conference in 2009 had not adapted well to League Two and were down in 21st place, 7 points above the relegation zone. Popular players like Chris Hargreaves and Tim Sills, who had played a key role in the promotion campaign, were ruthlessly cast aside by Paul Buckle. Experienced centre-back Guy Branston had been brought in on loan to secure the defence, but in the full-back positions, the team was relying on Tottenham youngsters Adam Smith and Sam Cox. This was where Mo Camara came in.

But, you say, why Torquay for Camara? Why Camara for Torquay? Wasn’t he just playing for a club on the outskirts of Glasgow and now moving to one of the most southerly clubs in Great Britain? The answer lies above Buckle – the club’s chief executive at the time was Colin Lee, who had managed Camara at Wolves. Paul Bristow, a member of the owning consortium, was investing his own money into the playing squad to try and retain Torquay’s Football League status, which made the signing financially viable – it is believed that Camara thus became the club’s highest-paid player, most likely earning over £1,000 a week.

Camara vs. Port Vale

And so to that first appearance against Port Vale. Given that he hadn’t played any competitive football since a solitary Scottish League Cup appearance against lowly East Stirlingshire in early August, it’s amazing that he lasted the full 90 minutes. But then he was struggling by the end. The quality that brought him 79 caps for his country and those years further up the pyramid was evident in flashes, but was blunted by a lack of fitness and the passage of time. Not brilliant, and yet not terrible either.

Perhaps the most surprising thing, then, is that despite all this – the high wages, the reputation, the decent performance and promise of further improvement – he made only one more appearance for the Gulls. It came 6 days later with a start at Rotherham. The Millers took the lead after 20 minutes, and went into the half-time break 1-0 up. Camara didn’t reappear for the second half, replaced by young Leicester loanee Lathaniel Rowe-Turner. An equaliser 5 minutes from the end earned Torquay a rare point. This would be the start of a great run of results, with only 2 defeats in the last 16 matches, which would take them away from the drop zone.

The explanation for Mo’s lack of appearances after this is probably this performance, which was reportedly dire, hence his removal at half-time. Already after that game, fans had coined the nickname ‘Slo-Mo’ – once the centre of hype, he was now the butt of jokes, and his reputation wouldn’t recover. Added to that, it is likely there were tensions in the camp – Colin Lee would leave the club at the end of the season with a sizeable pay-off after rumoured disharmony with other key members of staff. The left-back slot was initially retained by Rowe-Turner, but he would lose out first to Adam Smith, and then to a rejuvenated Kevin Nicholson, who fought his way back into the team after being dropped early in the season; he remains the club’s first choice left-back today.

As for Camara, this would be the end of his professional career. Officially released at the end of the season, he is chiefly remembered as one of the club’s biggest and most expensive mistakes. This is probably in part down to the fact that he arrived at a time of great change and tension, amidst a poor run of results which saw the club looking into the abyss while still fresh from climbing back out of it, along with a failure to live up to the billing, and a lack of appearances compared to how much he was being paid (especially as the signing was arranged by the largely discredited Lee). Thankfully, unlike some clubs, the expense has not hit the club financially long-term, although today we would think twice about signing an expensive unfit ageing former international…

Follow James Bennett on Twitter here.

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