‘I fell in love with Manchester’: From Senegal to Wembley via West Didsbury

Take a look at Carlos Mendes Gomes’ Wikipedia page and you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take. While some footballers have a list of former clubs as long as a phone book, Gomes has only three clubs on his record, but you’d struggle to find a player with a more eclectic mix.

The 22-year-old’s career so far has taken him from Atletico Madrid to West Didsbury and Chorlton, to Morecambe. It’s a journey almost as varied as the one Mendes Gomes has tackled in his personal life, but one that will hit a career highlight on Monday when he walks out at Wembley with Morecambe for the League Two play-off final.

His career peak is coming at a time of personal happiness, a time when he feels settled and has a place to call home. He left Senegal as a two-year-old, moving to Lanzarote as his dad, Carlos Sr, sought work in Spain’s construction industry. At 12 Mendes Gomes moved to Madrid to chase his footballing dreams, leaving his parents and siblings back on the island while he lived with his cousin Felipe. He had a year with Getafe before being poached by Atletico.

But at the age of 16 the family relocated to Salford, with his dad landing more work in the construction industry. He felt the move would be beneficial for the entire family but the change was daunting for a teenager who spoke no English and Mendes Gomes wanted to stay in Madrid to advance his football career. But nearly six years on he now calls Salford and Manchester his home.

“I’d heard about Manchester, I was a Manchester United fan as a kid, but knowing that I was leaving Atletico Madrid’s academy to come over here and start from zero was daunting. I made my dad aware of that, but the decision was made and he ended up convincing me to come over,” Mendes Gomes tells the Manchester Evening News.

He had always admired English football and was fascinated by the country, but his early days in Salford were a struggle as he battled the language barrier.

Mendes Gomes also wanted to chase his footballing dreams, but his background in Atletico’s academy didn’t earn him any breakthroughs. He called and wrote to professional clubs in Greater Manchester, including United and City, but after a year without playing had to settle for a season at West Didsbury and Chorlton, in the 10th tier, while he studied at Manchester College.

But by then the youngster born in the Dakar Region of Senegal was finding a home in Salford, thanks to the generosity of the people.

“The first few months were quite difficult, I didn’t know anyone. But as soon as I went to Manchester College I met quite a lot of friends. Playing football with people from the community helped me to fall in love with the place,” he said.

“I’ve been living here for almost six years and to me Manchester is my home now, it feels like home. Back then it wasn’t, I didn’t know anyone and struggled with the language barrier.

Sign up to get even more from our Man United coverage

We want your views, Reds. You can become even more involved with our Man United coverage by signing up. This will unlock a whole host of things – including joining the comments and taking part in our special Q&As, where you can speak directly to our reporters about what’s happening at Old Trafford this week and beyond.

Click here to get started.

“I came from Spain and Madrid, where everyone does their own thing, but here what I realised is that as you walk down the street people will say hello.

“It’s little things that make you appreciate things a bit more. Since I came to Manchester and I met people it felt different from where I’ve been before.”

Swapping academy life at one of Europe’s biggest clubs for a slog in the North West Counties Premier Division is quite the change and for Mendes Gomes, his time at West Didsbury and Chorlton was certainly an eye-opener.

“It was difficult, it was my first experience of English football. It was very tough, physical, something that I wasn’t used to. The pitches weren’t the best and the weather didn’t help much either,” he said.

“But for me it was just about playing football and enjoying it, which I did. It helped me, I believe without that experience I wouldn’t be the player that I am today. Seeing that nasty side of football makes you appreciate more the ideal conditions in the game, it makes you not complain as much about pitches, weather, refereeing, or how tough the opposition is.”

As befitting someone who had moved four times in his first 16 years, Mendes Gomes never gave up the dream of professional football. Alongside his time at West Didsbury and Chorlton, he played for the team at Manchester College – where he was studying engineering – just for a bit of fun.

It was through one of the coaches at the development centre at the college that Morecambe were alerted to his talents. After two years of steady progress, he has shone on the coast this season, scoring 15 goals to help fire the Shrimps to League Two’s play-off final on Monday. Promotion would cap a remarkable season for a club tipped for relegation.

Whatever happens, Mendes Gomes’ future looks bright. He’s been linked with a move to Rangers this summer. But first comes a date at Wembley he still can’t believe is real.

“It’s unbelievable, I don’t think until I step on that pitch I will believe it,” he said. “I will try to be as cool and calm as possible but it’s quite tough to do that, especially when you come from where I’ve come and the struggles I’ve had, to now be able to play in the biggest stadium in the world is a dream come true.”

Back in Yeumbel in Senegal, his extended family of uncles and cousins will tune in, having made sure they have the right TV channel for the game. At Wembley, some of Mendes Gomes’ six siblings and his father will travel down from Salford to see the latest chapter in an incredible journey.