A giddy inauguration into the Football League for Nicke Kabamba, yet his ascension was far from rapid.
As a highly promising youngster, an offer of a Fulham trial was rejected on the grounds of being unable to get a lift, with the powerful striker’s journey instead taking him to five non-league clubs.
Despite still harbouring ambition of reaching the professional game, Kabamba threw himself into career alternatives, graduating from university and finding four-year employment at Jafvans.
Then, in January 2017, he was recruited by Paul Cook from Hampton & Richmond, two weeks shy of his 24th birthday.
And three-and-a-half months later, he joined close friend and fellow non-league graduate Jamal Lowe on the stage at Southsea Common celebrating promotion to League One.
‘Fratton Park, I love that place, and I loved living in Southsea,’ Kabamba told The News.
‘Everybody's journey is different. As my dad has always told me: “Life’s a fight”.
‘As a kid, I had a bit of a tough upbringing, my dad was working all the time and for him to take me to football was difficult.
‘I was scouted a few times but wasn't able to go for trials, I had no-one to take me.
‘I grew up with Aaron Pierre, we’d played together since the age of eight or nine. I’m from Uxbridge, he’s from Brent, seven miles apart.
‘As a kid, there were always scouts coming to my games and, at the age of 14, we were both offered trials at Fulham. Even back then, Aaron was a big, powerful defender.
‘I had been spotted at Hayes & Yeading, but couldn’t go. Instead I’ve watched Aaron’s journey from Fulham to Brentford to Wycombe to Northampton and now Shrewsbury.
‘Dad worked long hours and you know what football academies are like, taking me everywhere would have been full-time. It’s no-one’s fault, it’s not a regret, it’s how life is.
‘There are always set-backs, you must make sure you get bigger comebacks – and missing out on Fulham made me stronger.
‘As soon as I turned 17, I got my driving licence within a month or two, that was me in a car. Now I was able to get around, drive myself to training, become independent as soon as I possibly could.
‘When the door is right in front of you, you can’t give up – and I never have.
‘But I’ve still got a few more things to accomplish.’
Early in the 2016-17 season, during scouting trips to monitor Jamal Lowe, Pompey’s focus was also drawn to a free-scoring team-mate.
Kabamba had netted 16 times for the National League South club – and soon both arrived at Fratton Park.
While the immensely promising Lowe swiftly became involved in first-team proceedings, Kabamba was handed regular reserve action, encouragingly netting seven times in nine outings.
He was rewarded with a substitute cameo at Stevenage in March 2017, one of four appearances during the memorable league run-in, including a start against Cambridge United.
Kabamba was an unused substitute when Pompey hammered Cheltenham 6-1 to capture the title ahead of Plymouth in dramatic circumstances, which still draws a chuckle while recollecting.
‘I even had a song at Pompey – and that has followed me everywhere. You guys started it, you have the copyright,’ Kabamba added
‘I knew the Tequila tune (by The Champs), but didn’t realise it was a football song and could be turned into a chant.
‘At Pompey the song was on, but a lot of the time I wasn’t on the pitch to get the full feeling of it. I was on the bench or warming up, and they’d be singing it!
‘Kilmarnock played the song every time I scored. I didn’t ask them to, it just followed me!
‘Before Pompey, I’d been playing in front of 150 people and a dog at Hampton & Richmond, but there were a few clubs beginning to watch as we were scoring a lot of goals.
‘Jamal had already signed a pre-contract agreement at Fratton Park, although stayed with us until January, and, during his final month, I scored in every game, each Saturday and Tuesday.
‘Pompey noticed that and asked my manager if I could train with them for a week – after two days Paul Cook wanted to sign me. It was a life changer.
‘I had been working at Jafvans Car and Van Rental for four years, while also completed a degree in sport management and coaching at the Buckinghamshire New University in High Wycombe.
‘My job was in the office, ordering parts such as brake pads, interior stuff, and general bits and bobs to keep the car running. I’d also look after the paperwork and check people’s driving licences when hiring vehicles.
‘They were great to me. Normally I’d work from 8-6pm, yet if I had a Tuesday night non-league game and it was far away then they’d let me leave at 4pm to miss the traffic.
‘It was lovely suddenly going in and saying “Boys, I’m off. I’ve just signed for Pompey!”.
‘The manager was buzzing for me, although did ask who he was going to get to work on Friday nights now! I’m still in touch with them all.
‘I remember coming on at Fratton Park for my debut against Yeovil, the craziest thing was my hands were shaking as I attempted to tie up my shorts. I had to take a deep breath and say “What’s going on Nicke? What are you doing?”.
‘For some reason, when I later played at Celtic in February 2020 in front of 58,883 supporters, I didn’t have one nerve.
‘I looked around Celtic Park that day and thought “This is what you want to play in front of every week”.
‘That first six months at Pompey was amazing. I can recall arriving at the Victory Lounge after winning promotion at Notts County to be greeted by around 300 fans, it was jam packed in there and everyone was singing away. Our celebrations lasted 4-5 days, you still had that buzz!
‘Then I was part of a squad which won the League Two title. Admittedly, I had just been brought in, so my contribution wasn't really very high, but it was a privilege being in that changing room.
‘So many great characters, it was wonderful to be around it and good to be part of.’
Cook’s departure for Wigan weeks following promotion to League One brought Kenny Jackett into Fratton Park.
During the 2017 pre-season under new management, Kabamba netted twice at Poole, while rattled in five at Newport Isle of Wight, including a seven-minute hat-trick, during a 8-0 thumping.
However, once the campaign began, Kabamba was handed two appearances off the bench before sent on loan to Colchester in August 2017, following the arrival of striking rival Oli Hawkins.
Yet Colchester was not a success, failing to net in 10 appearances for the League Two side, before he ended the season back in non-league with Aldershot, scoring three times as they reached the National League play-offs.
In the summer of 2018, Kabamba’s 18 months at Fratton Park were over, the club opting against activating a contract option, thereby releasing him following six appearances.
He said: ‘At the start of that season, Kenny Jackett told me I’d be on the fringes of his squad and advised me to get game time elsewhere to stay fit.
‘I really put a lot of pressure on myself at Colchester and that’s probably why it didn’t work out. They wanted somebody to make an instant impact because they needed instant results, but it didn’t work out like that.
‘In my mind, if I didn’t do well in League Two with Colchester, then how could it work out for me at Pompey?
‘I was going through a tough time footballing-wise, I was too tense and in a bad place, thinking of negatives rather than positives. Colchester was a nice club, but at the time I didn’t appreciate where I was.
‘At Aldershot, I picked up a bit of form, then I was released by Pompey and it hurt.
‘That had been my dream, I had reached a place I wanted to be, I was a professional footballer. Now I didn’t have a club and was pretty low. It felt like I had to prove myself all over again.
‘I then signed for the Hawks because I wanted to stay in Southsea, but I wasn’t myself, I was thinking about things way too much – and it got to me.
‘It took a year to focus on myself and for things to slowly start falling into place. I was disheartened, but needed to get back onto my feet again and not give up. I had to push myself. I refused not to be a professional football player again.
‘It was quite a way to fall, but that’s football, a game of opinions, a game of timing, so I kept grafting and got back up there again with Kilmarnock.’
Kabamba reached the Scottish Premiership in January 2020, via the Hawks and Hartlepool.
He subsequently netted nine times in 47 appearances for Kilmarnock, including registering in a 3-1 defeat to Celtic in his second appearance.
Kabamba returned to England in June 2021, signing a two-year deal with League Two Northampton and challenged to spearhead a promotion push.
After scoring once in 27 appearances, having started just one league fixture since October 2, he was loaned to National League side Woking in January, reuniting him with ex-Hampton & Richmond manager Alan Dowson.
However, Dowson this week was dismissed by the Cards, while Kabamba is presently without a goal in eight outings.
‘In football, you can’t be too high, you can’t be too low,’ he added.
‘I was called up for DR Congo in September 2020, but then couldn’t play for them, which hurt me massively.
‘My parents are Congolese, they moved to England in 1990, three years before I was born. I have family in Congo I’ve never met before, it would have meant everything to us all.
‘But as I was sorting out my passport stuff, I caught Covid. It took me two weeks to recover properly and be able to get out running again – and by that time I had missed playing against Gabon and Morocco.
‘I haven’t had a call-up since, but hopefully I’ll get another opportunity. I’m a striker, so all it takes is for me to have one good season.
‘I haven’t heard anything back from them at the moment, so I’m just working hard and seeing where it takes us.
‘As I’ve learnt, you should never give up – and I’m pretty sure there will be a few more surprises for me in my career.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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