BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Naby Sarr’s superb free-kick on Saturday afternoon attracted Premier League interest – but from an individual, rather than a club.
The Charlton centre-back curled home a precision left-footed free-kick to help earn a 2-1 win at AFC Wimbledon which boosted the club’s hopes of a League One play-off spot.
And Sarr’s trumpet-style celebration picture – taken by South London Press photographer Paul Edwards – drew a reply from Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette when it was posted on Twitter.
“We played together in Lyon’s first-team and even in the second team a bit – before he stepped up,” said Sarr, 25. “He is two years older than me, so when I started training with the first-team he was the one talking to me and giving me advice.
“That’s how we became close. I was very close at Lyon to Alexandre Lacazette and Samuel Umtiti, who is at Barcelona now, and that stayed the case even after I had moved to Portugal, he [Umtiti] went to Spain and he [Lacazette] came here [England].
“We often meet up. I go to his house to watch a game, or he comes to mine to watch a game – we’ll go and have a lunch or dinner.
“It’s his trumpet celebration. It came from a long time ago, I think one of our friends was doing this. I just copied and said that next time I’ll have a go at it. I saw he retweeted the picture.
“He was the one who was talking to me the day I made my debut for Lyon – he gave me confidence.”
Sarr’s early pedigree is impressive.
He played for Paris Saint-Germain from the age of eight to 14, before signing for Lyon.
His first appearance came in a Europa League win over Ironi Kiryat in December 2012. The following campaign he featured four more times, two of them in Ligue 1.
His father Boubacar, a striker, was a professional and played over 100 matches for Marseille as well as having spells with PSG, Cannes and Toulon.
So does footballing ability run in the genes?
“I think so, because when I grew up he was assistant manager at PSG – so I went to a lot of training.
That’s how I ended up in PSG’s academy.
“After I played a few games for Lyon the club changed manager and the one who came in brought another couple of defenders in. He told me I wasn’t really needed, that I was going to stay in the second team. The offer from Sporting just popped up.”
Again Sarr was to get European football with the Lisbon-based club – whose Estadio Jose Alvalade stadium holds 50,095. This time it was in the Champions League as he faced Chelsea, Schalke and NK Maribor. Next came the move to Charlton. No fee was disclosed for Marseille-born Sarr after he put pen to paper in July 2015, but the then chief executive Katrien Meire stated the former French U20 international was their most expensive outlay that season.
Sarr only featured 16 times in his first year in SE7, the last of those coming in a low-key FA Cup tie against Colchester United in January 2016. The following campaign he was loaned to Red Star Paris, in the second tier of French football.
“I thought the move to Charlton was interesting, because my wish was always to come and play in England,” said Sarr, who has played 72 times for the Addicks and scored five goals.
“It was the best opportunity for me. It’s a different game in Portugal – more about technique and tactic, a lot of small players. There weren’t a lot of heavyweights, like me.
“When I came here I needed a long time to adapt to this league and this football. I’m a guy who always wants to play football, but sometimes here you can’t. You need to know those moments that you can. I think now I’ve learned it and also how to play in this league.”
Sarr’s early displays drew criticism from supporters. He looked nervous and was bulldozed too easily by Championship strikers.
“It was a very difficult period,” he said. “I was coming from a club where I had played Champions League and then had the relegation [with Charlton]. I didn’t play that much and the games I did play in, I didn’t do really well.
Sarr made nine starts – frozen out by Karel Fraeye and Jose Riga as the Addicks lost their second tier status.
“I don’t know why I didn’t play so much [the first season]. We had three different managers, I was playing one game, then one on the bench, then I’d play in the cup and then be on the bench – it was not regular.
“The manager who brought me in was Guy Luzon. He left and another manager came with other ideas and loans.”
Sarr’s popularity has never been higher at Charlton. And that also applies to his stock within the squad – he kept club captain Jason Pearce out of the starting line-up at the Cherry Red Records Stadium at the weekend.
“It feels great now because I have come from a long, long way [in terms of adversity]. Now things are turning a little bit I’m enjoying it – football is very quick going both ways.
“I’m not a guy who gives up. After my year on loan I wanted to come back and prove I’m a good player – that I can play in this team. I started doing that under Karl Robinson, playing more regularly, and it followed more with Lee Bowyer.
“Every player plays to stay on the pitch, that’s what I’m trying to do. Pearcey is a very important player, on and off the pitch. But I’m not making that decision, it’s the manager’s job.”
Sarr had not practised his free-kicks in training but struck emphatically past Dons keeper Aaron Ramsdale.
“We have players who can take them so I’m not normally needed,” he said. “Usually it is Reevesy [Ben Reeves] who takes them on the right-hand side. But on Saturday he wasn’t on the pitch. That’s why Jacko [Johnnie Jackson assistant manager] came to me on Friday and said if it is on that side to try it, to have a go.
“I’m going to start practising more! It’s something I can add to my game and help the team.
“When I struck it, I knew I hit it right but it was on the keeper’s side – if he stayed there it was going to go in his hands. It’s 50-50, but he made the step to his left and it went in.”
There are 12 games to go, and Sarr is not writing off automatic promotion just yet.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “We still have to play the big teams at home and we’ll have our fans behind us. We have the quality to win every game. We have to believe it. One way or another, we have to go to the Championship.”
Sarr has one more year on his Charlton deal. He laughs about whether he can see his future in SE7 beyond 2020.
“I think it’s too far in the future,” he said. “I’m just focused on the end of this season and after we’ll see.”
Lacazette has not been to watch Sarr in action for Charlton, but the French international is maybe waiting for a truly huge game.
“I think if we go to the play-off semi or final he might come,” said Sarr. “He didn’t have the time because, in general, we play the same day. It’s difficult for him to get along.”
Please support your local paper by making a donation
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.